By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
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.
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