When Antonio Villaraigosa became the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in modern times, he did it with record-breaking turnout from the Latino community. And since then, Latino voter registration has surged from 22% to about 29% of the city electorate.
But without a major Latino candidate on the ballot this year, getting Latinos to the polls will be a challenge. That challenge is particularly urgent for Councilman Eric Garcetti, who polls better among Latinos and who this week became the first candidate to hit the Spanish-language airwaves.
Speaking to a largely Latino audience at a debate in Highland Park last night, Garcetti stressed the importance of turnout in his opening remarks. "We need to make sure we get people out there to vote," he told the overflow crowd.
The Garcetti campaign is spending about $120,000 this week to run this ad on Telemundo and Univision. For the moment, he is the only candidate with an ad on Spanish-language TV.
His campaign is also spending about $450,000 this week on the English version of the ad, according to a source familiar with campaign spending, for a total of about $570,000 this week.
The only other mayoral candidate on the air at the moment is Wendy Greuel, who is spending about $400,000 this week -- all on English-language stations. (Working Californians, the IBEW-funded independent group, is throwing in another $200,000 for Greuel -- making the two candidates roughly equivalent in their total TV spending for the week.)
Garcetti's fluent Spanish gives him an edge with Latino voters, says Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.
"Garcetti is certainly making a play," Gonzalez says. "He's culturally competent. The challenge for him is that the Latino elected official class is all with Wendy Greuel."
Greuel has endorsements from Supervisor Gloria Molina, Rep. Tony Cardenas, state Sen. Alex Padilla and Assembly Speaker John Perez.
Latinos made up about 21% of the electorate in the 2005 mayoral primary, and about 26% in the runoff, according to data compiled by Political Data, Inc. Since then, about 240,000 additional Latinos have registered to vote in Los Angeles -- the result of shifting demographics and President Obama's campaigns. Part of the increased registration may also be a backlash against restrictive immigration measures in Arizona and other states.
Despite those developments, Political Data, Inc., projects that the March 5 electorate will be 26% Latino -- exactly what it was in the runoff eight years ago. The Garcetti campaign is trying to increase that number, through its TV campaign and also by walking precincts and phone-banking.
"Every year since I can remember, the Latino turnout percentage has grown," says Bill Carrick, Garcetti's strategist. "I expect it'll grow this time. My hope is it gets close to 30%."
John Shallman, Greuel's strategist, has projected Latino turnout much lower, at 21%.
Nilza Serrano, a Garcetti volunteer, said she recently walked Latino neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley, and found that voters there were receptive to the argument that Greuel has been "cutting deals" to win support from unions and elected officials.
"The Latino vote is extremely energized after showing up for Obama," Serrano said. "After that, we don't want to disappoint. Everyone is going to be pleasantly surprised that the Latino vote is going to turn out and it's going to turn out for Eric."
One factor that could work in Garcetti's favor is the large number of contested council races in predominantly Latino districts, which could augment Garcetti's get-out-the-vote efforts.
The Greuel campaign boasts that it has hired Stacy Cohen, Obama's California field director, to get out the vote.
But neither mayoral campaign will have the resources to match the Obama campaign's full-court ground effort. And in the Latino community, one-to-one contact is critical, says Alida Garcia, who handled Latino outreach for Obama.
"It takes more than a direct translation of an advertisement," Garcia says. "And it takes more than Latino elected officials being behind your campaign. It requires getting in the field, talking to voters and organizing... Our community is the hardest hit in this economy, so there's plenty to talk about."
Jan Perry has targeted a Spanish-language mailer to the Latino community, touting her endorsement from former Councilman Mike Hernandez, who works in her office. But so far, the candidate who is doing the most in-person Latino outreach is Emanuel Pleitez, who has made get-out-the-vote efforts the focus of his campaign.