Recent election top vote getters included first-time Latino candidates
When Los Cien, the county’s largest Latino leadership group, held its very first luncheon in 2009 in a backroom of a Mary’s Pizza, less than a dozen people attended. Last week, 230 attendees turned out for the nonprofit’s 108th luncheon that focused on Latino participation in local elections and voter registration. A decade ago no Latino had ever been elected to the county’s Board of Supervisors. There had not been a Latino candidate to ever run for sheriff and only Santa Rosa had a Latino on its city council.
Sonoma County’s politics are changing. In the November local elections the top vote getters in Cloverdale and Windsor were Latina women. Several more Latinos were elected to local school boards across the county. Latino-influenced issues about affordable housing, early childhood education, community policing and protections for immigrants were popular campaign talking points.
Sonoma County’s population is 25 percent Latino and changing fast. Public school registration is 46 percent Hispanic and 44 percent white. Some local school districts have as much as 70 percent Latinx student registration in younger K-8 grades.
At the same time, Latino voter registration, election turnout and census of elected officials lag far behind the general population percentages. But the leadership of Los Cien, local educators, labor unions and neighborhood groups from Roseland to Cloverdale are looking to make a difference across the face of Sonoma County’s political leadership, sooner and not later.
“If we want to change things, we have to be part of that change,” Esther Lemus, top vote getter in November’s Town of Windsor council election told the luncheon crowd last week. Lemus, a deputy district attorney, ran in a crowded field of 10 candidates for three seats. “You have to stand out in a crowd and the best way is to stand for something, and not just for being Latinx,” she said.
When she moved to Cloverdale two and a half years ago Marta Cruz said she looked around her new town and found something missing.
“There was a voice that was missing, a voice I was looking for,” she said.
When she couldn’t find it, Cruz registered for the council race and started walking neighborhoods. Mostly as a committee of one, she won the election with the most votes and became Cloverdale’s first city councilmember of color.
Cruz and Lemus were part of a panel that also included Omar Medina, newly elected to Santa Rosa’s school board and Sonoma Valley student Jacquelyn Torres, who is a student appointee to several school commissions. The panel was moderated by Herman G. Hernandez, an elected trustee for the Sonoma County Office of Education, who just won his second term. The panelists took turns discussing the obstacles and successful tactics for winning local elections.
Money, and the ability to ask for money, was most mentioned by the panelists as obstacles to surpass.
“It’s expensive to run,” said Lemus, who augmented her campaign with a youthful Lemus Zoo Crew of street campaigners.
“You have to get out of your comfort zone,” said Medina, who had failed in two previous elections before winning in November by a narrow margin over 28-year incumbent Frank Pugh.
All of the panelists suggested doing what 15-year-old Torres is doing by starting early and volunteering in the local community.
“You need to get a name for yourself,” Torres said. “You need to get recognized.”
A question from the audience asked the panelists about getting involved in politics at a time when there is so much divisiveness and negativity on the national level and elsewhere. Cruz and the others dismissed the comparison.
“What we all want is to have healthy communities,” Cruz said. “That’s what America is, thousands of local healthy communities.”
Medina said local politics is not only about service.
“Politics is power,” he said. “We know we need to change things. We need to ask what kind of community do we want to be and then we have to take the power to make it happen.”
Later in the program Mike Madrid, a California political consultant and Latino population pollster, returned to the Los Cien podium for his third annual visit to share a much broader view of coming changes and trends in voter makeup and future elections.
He defined America’s politics today as “tribal,” where blocks of like-minded people vote against something instead of choosing something aspirational or affirmative.
“It’s being fueled by fear,” he said. “Politics is no longer about persuasion; it’s about manipulation. Donald Trump knows this. He’s a master. There’s a reason he got elected.”
Latinos are registering to vote in increasing numbers but they are not actually turning out to vote, Madrid pointed out.
“You are actually doing a great job in Sonoma County but many other places do not look like here,” he said.
He mentioned that Sonoma County and the Central Valley’s Fresno have similar demographic makeups but have polar opposite politics. While both places have emerging Latino majorities, the white population of Fresno remains politically conservative while Sonoma’s is left-liberal. He showed a map of the United State’s west coast where there is not a single Republican in national office along the entire coast from San Diego to Washington state. He showed other maps of the country that further depicted what he called “The Big Sort” where like-minded populations are segregating themselves from political opposites. He warned that a study of past nation’s histories shows that “this picture never ends up well.”