When she saw Gov. Gray Davis ride by waving graciously to Latinos
in the Labor Day parade here, Felicia Hernandez felt conflicting
"To be honest I wanted to throw him out of office until that
moment," says Ms. Hernandez, a mother of four who lives in East Los
After twice vetoing two similar measures, Mr. Davis just signed a
bill allowing an estimated 2 million illegal immigrants to obtain a
California driver's license. Opponents accuse Davis of pandering to
the Latino community to gain their antirecall votes, but Hernandez
says it softened her criticism of the governor. "I see him trying to
change and do better," she says. "So I am torn about what to do."
As California's historic election nears, the final choices of
such voters as Hernandez will provide the nation with its clearest
test yet of the depth and direction of Latino political power.
What California Hispanics do in the voting booth on Oct. 7 will
go a long way toward choosing whether Davis joins the unemployment
lines and who might replace him. But it will also provide a window
into whether Latino political clout - always portrayed as coming,
some day - is finally here and whether there are any shifts in party
allegiance among the rank-and-file.
To a certain extent, the California vote will be an unusual case.
With a Latino in the race, Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, it
will likely bring a lot of Hispanics to the polls and over to his
side of the ballot.
But Latinos will also be important in determining Davis's fate,
and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican front-runner, could draw
at least some Hispanics of his own. At the moment, polls show the
race tightening between Mr. Schwarzenegger and Mr. Bustamante (25
points vs. 30 points), even as growing numbers of voters oppose the
recall (40 percent compared with 37 percent a month ago).
Consequently, every demographic group has taken on added
importance. As the fastest growing ethnic group - now fully,30
percent of the state's population - Latinos suddenly find themselves
the object of more attention than usual.
"The big story in California politics of the past few years is
the growing number and volatility of moderate and swing voters who
align themselves formally with neither major party," says Alan
Heslop, a demographer at the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna
The dynamic is playing into the current recall election in two
important ways. One, the number of Hispanics who vote could become
the decisive factor either way, especially if they are more
galvanized than other voting blocs. Two, because of their
importance, their policy concerns are seeing a more than
proportionate slice of the campaign agendas of competing candidates.
"All the candidates are pandering to Latinos because they
anticipate that they will have to get their votes in order to win,"
says Karen Kaufman, a Latino election specialist at the University
of Maryland, College Park. "The long-term ramifications of this is
we are likely to see legislation on more of the things Hispanics
care about, and more influence in the process."
Nearly a third of California is now Hispanic and a large majority
of them back Democrats. …