They are up for grabs. Once taken for granted by Democrats, California Latinos are expected to be the swing voters in the governor‘s race next month.

Several Latino groups that rallied for Gray Davis in 1998 now oppose him. They say Davis failed them on several key issues, and they want to send a clear message to Democrats: Latinos are not a done deal.

A poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California in September shows that 58 percent of Latinos would vote for Davis; in 1998, Davis got 71 percent of the Latino vote.

Bill Simon would receive 19 percent, and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo about 3 percent. Fourteen percent of California’s registered voters are Latino.

”Democrats used to say that Latinos were given birth as Democrats,“ says Miguel Araujo, the head of San Francisco–based Centro Azteca, which lobbied for Davis in 1998 and now has withdrawn its support. ”But that‘s not true anymore. Davis has shown that he is in fact one of our worst enemies.“

Immigrant Latino grassroots groups are angry that Davis vetoed a bill that would have permitted some undocumented residents to obtain driver’s licenses. The Latino Caucus harshly criticized the governor and refused to endorse him. Davis rejected the bill even though it had been watered down at his request by L.A.-area Assembly members Marco Firebaugh and Gil Cedillo.

In a letter written on behalf of the Latino Caucus, state Senator Richard Polanco (D–Los Angeles) told Davis that the bill contained provisions drafted with the help of L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, which should have made it stringent enough to satisfy federal law-enforcement agencies. He added that the bill‘s authors went out of their way to quell post-911 immigration fears.

”Unfortunately, your rejection of these important measures contradicts our democratic core values of inclusion, safety, and fairness,“ Polanco wrote. ”For these reasons, we are unable to endorse your candidacy for governor.“

A barrage of Davis’ Spanish-language ads ran around the time of the bill‘s veto. One showed Latino Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) touting the governor as ”El mejor amigo de los latinos“ (A Latino’s best friend).

Until now, Democrats have benefited from a Latino backlash against Republicans, provoked by passage of Proposition 187 in 1994. The anti-immigrant measure was almost entirely invalidated by the courts. Four years later, Davis trounced rival Dan Lungren with the help of Latinos eager to take revenge on Republicans.

Simon is gunning for Latino votes perhaps more than any other California Republican politician in years. He has lobbied hard to ingratiate himself with both large and small Latino organizations such as the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. He‘s even recruited aides linked to immigrant groups like Comite Civico y Patriotico Mexicano (Civic and Patriotic Mexican Committee). Few expect his efforts to be successful. Latino organizations are wary of endorsing a Republican, and when one does endorse Simon, there’s trouble.

Take, for instance, the Mexican-American Political Association debacle. Better known as MAPA, the venerable organization might have endorsed Simon in August, which could have been a big victory for Simon; instead, the event at the Biltmore Hotel ended early with insults and fisticuffs among MAPA rivals. Simon was supposed to have been honored in the hotel; instead, he had to walk across the street to Pershing Square to receive his endorsement from a number of individual MAPA chapters.

”There were chingadazos [fights] everywhere,“ recalls Armando Moreno, a Simon supporter and a Los Angeles–based immigrant activist who was invited to the endorsement party. ”It was crazy.“

Simon has also found an unlikely ally in Camejo, who has received little media attention but is focused on trying to raise his party‘s profile and to get more Latinos to vote Green. Sure, he has only 5 percent of all voters, according to the polls, but as many as 17 percent of voters are undecided, and 11 percent have opted for candidates outside the major parties.

As with the rest of his campaign, Simon’s Latino venture seems to be bogged down by rookie mistakes, says Moreno, the activist who volunteered to work with the campaign briefly. No serious Republican evangelization has occurred in the barrios, and when 8,000 new citizens were sworn in last August in Los Angeles, no Simon people were there to recruit them, he says.

”They should be holding a concert with big-name Latino stars or holding good fund-raisers with Latino business people, but I don‘t see any of that happening,“ Moreno says. ”I don’t see any Simon ads on Whittier Boulevard or any other Latino areas. They have a lot to learn, and time has run out for them.“

LA Weekly