Racial Voting in the Controller’s Race

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

The Controller’s race recount brings up a topic rarely discussed in California, racially polarized voting, especially racially motivated voting in Democratic primaries.  John Perez, the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nod in the controller’s race, lost the Controller’s primary because not enough Latino Democrats turned out to vote for him and too few white Democrats voted for him.

A careful look at the Democratic primary for Controller shows that Perez’s 21.7 percent share of the overall vote was made up almost exclusively of Latino Democrats.  His recount strategy concentrates on the most Latino portions of California’s heaviest Latino counties, starting with his best county and the most Latino county in the state, Imperial County, where Perez received 41 percent of the vote.

Perez should have easily prevailed in the Controller’s primary.  He was the former Speaker of the Assembly with broad Democratic establishment support and he was by far the best funded Candidate.  His main Democratic opponent, Betty Yee, a member of the obscure State Board of Equalization, was far less well funded.

But Yee won with white Democratic votes that refused to vote for the favored Perez.  Take for instance the two very liberal Bay Area counties, Marin and Santa Cruz.  Both are far whiter than the state average, heavily Democratic and very liberal.  Yee beat Perez 38 percent to 24 percent in Marin and 36 percent to 19 percent in Marin.  It is true that Yee had an advantage coming from the Bay Area but she also beat Perez in non-Bay Area white Democratic counties like Sacramento County (26 percent to 21 percent), Mendocino (29 percent to 20 percent), and Humboldt (26 percent to 16 percent).

The reasons why many white liberals will not vote for Latino candidates are mostly cultural, and very sotto voce – never discussed because they are very politically incorrect.  Latinos voted for Proposition 8 in 2008 and many belong to evangelical churches that oppose gay marriage.  In gay friendly San Francisco County, Yee beat Perez 44 percent to 26 percent even though Perez is openly gay.

Latino Democrats are also far less supportive of abortion rights than white Democrats, and they refuse to play the climate change game by reducing their human carbon footprint by having smaller families.  Liberal Democrats make all the right noises on issues of importance to Latinos like immigration reform because they need Latino votes in the general election, but in the quiet of the voting booth they show their prejudices.

To a lesser degree this is apparent in the Secretary of State’s race.  Here Los Angeles State Senator Alex Padilla was the only serious Democrat after San Francisco State Senator Leland Yee dropped out following his federal indictment for political corruption.  But even so, Senator Yee managed to snag nine percent of the vote, and two obscure Democrats received another 12 percent.  Padilla, the virtually unopposed Democrat and the only one with money, received only 30 percent.

The second reason for Perez’s failure to make the runoff, and Padilla’s relatively weak showing, was the unusually poor turnout among Latino Democrats.  While 25 percent of all California voters cast a ballot in June, in Los Angeles County, with the largest concentration of Latino voters in the state, only 17 percent turned out.  Turnout was only 19 percent in San Bernardino, another county with a large Latino vote, and only 22 percent in Riverside County.

This was not Democrats staying home – Democratic turnout in the heavily Democratic Bay Area counties exceeded the state wide average – it was Latinos staying home.  Why would this be? Certainly if turnout in Los Angeles had come anywhere close to the statewide average, Perez would have easily made the runoff.

But Latinos may well be more turned off to the current political system than strategists for either party realize.  Latino voters, as opposed to the general Latino population, are more middle class and live in many middle class neighborhoods, especially in the Central Valley and Southern California.  They occupy what is left of the good blue collar middle class jobs in California, and they see little interest in either party in helping the blue collar worker.

Latino turnout was especially poor in the heavily Latino neighborhoods in the Central Valley.  In the midst of this drought they have taken the jobs hit.  With thousands of acres of farmland going fallow, the Latino small business owners who repair the tractors and supply the irrigation piping are out of work.  But the Democratic controlled legislature shows little interest in sending more water to the farms.

In past elections, right wing Republicans howling about illegal aliens has driven Latino voters in droves into the Democratic column, but now they face hard times and see little interest among Democrats in their economic peril.  They are not going to turn out and vote for Republicans; that is bridge to far.  But they have shown not only in this primary but in the 2014 San Diego mayor’s race and 2013 legislative special elections that they are not going to come out and continue voting for Democrats.

There is no way John Perez is going to win this recount.  Even if he passes Betty Yee among his cherry picked precincts, it would take a full statewide recount for him to make the ballot, and there is not enough time for that.  He lost because too many white liberal Democrats won’t vote for a Latino, and too few Latinos came to the polls to counterbalance that reality.

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