ON FEBRUARY 2, THREE DAYS before Super Tuesday, U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton held an afternoon rally inside the Eagle's Nest Gymnasium at Cal State L.A. The place was packed with several thousand young, middle-aged and elderly Latino voters, who sang along in Spanish with an all-woman mariachi band and listened to highly charged speeches by Latino politicians such as Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — who at one point seemed so worked up he appeared to be on the verge of hyperventilating.
Former Lakers basketball star Magic Johnson and African-American Congresswoman Maxine Waters were also a part of the lineup, but the rally, held in the heart of East Los Angeles, was really a Latino affair, and Hillary Clinton very much needed their vote.
"Super Tuesday is really Super Latino Tuesday!" Dolores Huerta, the legendary co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, told an adoring audience. "All of us are going to elect the next president of the United States!"
The folks in the Eagle's Nest went wild, waving blue "Hillary for President" placards and chanting "Si Se Puede!" Even though the polls were trending against Clinton, the intense spirit of the crowd made it obvious that Latinos, at least in that gym, intended to reverse the senator's slide. On February 5, they did, making up over 30 percent of the vote in the California Democratic primary, with six out of every 10 voting for Clinton, according to exit polls.
The Latino vote, in other words, delivered the Golden State to the former first lady, and it also played a role, though much smaller, in John McCain's once-unlikely ascent to the top of the Republican heap in California.
"WE WERE GOING AFTER EVERYBODY," Mitchell Schwartz, California political director of the Barack Obama campaign, had said from his Koreatown office just before Super Tuesday. He had been trying for months to nail down Latino endorsements, but "they've only come around until recently." Congressman Xavier Becerra and California State Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero were some of those who lined up behind the senator from Illinois, while Clinton had attracted the much bigger Latino names.
So when Obama flew into Los Angeles for the Democratic debate in Hollywood, the campaign made a point of putting the senator in front of a Latino audience at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, a few miles south of downtown. Spanish rock music blared from the PA system, students held red "Si Se Puede!" placards, and Romero and Becerra, among other Latino pols, took the podium. Rather than emphasize ethnic power like Dolores Huerta, the warm-up acts focused on "unity."
Said Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, "Barack Obama has given us a political Ellis Island."
A half-hour later, Obama said talk of a "black/brown divide" concerned him, and he then spoke about his work with Latinos as a community organizer in Chicago. The crowd, which was more racially mixed than at Cal State L.A., cheered now and then. But the spark and high energy so often buzzing through an Obama event was not nearly as frenzied as the Clinton rally in East L.A. And it wasn't until the day before that Obama's campaign announced a "California Latino Steering Committee" and the opening of a volunteer center in East Los Angeles. (Clinton, reading the tea leaves, formed a National Hispanic Leadership Council in mid-2007.)
When Obama left the next day, not to return before Super Tuesday, Senator Ted Kennedy was then assigned to help capture the Latino vote. Kennedy, who had endorsed Obama only a few days earlier, was driven from a private Lear jet straight to the campus of East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park on a Friday morning.
The 75-year-old liberal titan, and brother of President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, spoke to a crowd of largely Latino students and offered his opening lines in Spanish. "I have a Castillo accent," he jokingly said.
The young audience ate up every word, especially when Kennedy reminded them, "The eyes of the country and the eyes of the world are going to be on East L.A.!" Then dozens of students rushed the senator as if he were a rock star, begging him to sign their red "Si Se Puede!" placards, which he did for several minutes with a black marker.
In the end, though, Ted Kennedy, Spanish rock music and Obama's community-organizing days weren't enough to win over Latino voters — who are solidly in Hillary Clinton's camp. (But then, Kennedy failed even to deliver his state of Massachusetts to Obama.) Latinos stayed loyal to Clinton, who trounced Obama in California by 10 percentage points.
LATINOS ALSO PLAYED A ROLE on the Republican side. There, a mix of moderates, conservatives, women and Latinos handed a major win to McCain and put the kibosh on the long-ago hatched plans of GOP leaders who designed the California primary specifically to keep moderates McCain and Rudy Giuliani from winning.
To a great deal of bad press, the Republican leadership in California "closed" the Super Tuesday primary on their side of the ballot to anyone not registered Republican. GOP state honchos hoped that by shutting out more-moderate "decline to state" voters, they could ensure that a conservative — Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee — won California.
But the conservative Republicans who control the GOP apparatus in California are known for their tin-ear approach in a state where Republican voters are much more moderate. That mismatch has left California's GOP leaders branded as a "circular firing squad" for continually propping up candidates who can't win statewide office — and ignoring moderates.
Tuesday was no different. At a McCain victory party in Hollywood, walking distance from the Obama event, McCain was not in town, but a reveler noted that the closed primary didn't stop their guy — "even a little." Nobody at the low-key Cat & Fiddle on Sunset Boulevard, a sticky-floored hangout that boasts English-pub food, was the least bit surprised by McCain's win.
But at the Avalon nightclub, a few blocks away on Vine, across from the Capitol Records Building, the Obama campaign was in the odd position of acting as if his big loss in California — with polls wrongly showing a near tie — didn't matter.
At 9:15 p.m. on Tuesday, Fox News called the California Democratic primary for Hillary Clinton. At that moment, a handsome and hip Obama crowd was watching MSNBC, sipping cocktails and listening to old Motown music spun by one of Los Angeles' best DJs, Peanut Butter Wolf. The nightclub exuded a feel of high cool. Mitchell Schwartz, asked what effect the loss in California would be to the Obama campaign, downplayed it, saying, "In the big picture, it doesn't mean a lot. We'll pick up a decent amount of delegates."
Since the California Democratic Party awards delegates — and the delegate count ultimately decides the nominee — through a complex system based on who wins in each congressional district in California, rather than "winner take all," Obama probably will get a decent number of California delegates. Clinton will be awarded far more, however, and she now has the bragging rights of a California victory.
About an hour later, a Clinton event held in Burbank illustrated the difference between these two camps, separated less by ideology than by dramatic differences in tone and style. Held at the local union headquarters of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees on a no-frills sound stage the size of a small gymnasium, the event drew Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who as usual posed for pictures, and then speed-talked his way through three TV interviews in less than 10 minutes.
The crowd had diminished, with Clinton declared the winner much earlier, but there were still a few Latino supporters standing around. A pull-down screen flashed images of talking heads discussing Super Tuesday results, and Bruce Springsteen sang "The Rising" through a speaker system that was not manned by a famous DJ.
The scene had a decidedly blue-collar, lunch-bucket vibe, with no glamour and no bartenders. Nobody was serving fancy cocktails or talking about hope. Young people talked about school, and older people talked about going to work the next day. By 11 p.m., the place was nearly empty, and the evening news was announcing a decisive nationwide showing for John McCain — and possibly a very long slog for Clinton and Obama.