July 20, 2017

One Hundred Latino Republicans, and Counting

Observers of California politics often preface their analyses by reminding us that “demographics are destiny.”  The original source of this quote is disputed, but few doubt its logic. In the last few years, Latinos moved past non-Hispanic whites to capture the largest share of the state’s population, and the trend appears to be increasing such that Latinos will soon constitute the majority. This demographic fact leads some Republicans to despair for the future of their already-reduced position in the Legislature and in other elected offices.

But maybe we should be a little more skeptical of the certainty implied by the assertion that demographics are destiny. Why, for example, should we assume and accept the premise that Latino voters in California will forever monolithically refuse to support Republicans?

Recent history paints a very dark picture for California Republicans, of course. Latino voters have, in fact, been largely antagonistic, if not monolithic, toward Republican candidates. Republican leaders and core constituencies of the party have been testing any number of strategies to make a new appeal to Latinos. Most fall in the category of “messaging,” that is, communicating to Latino voters in a different way that presumably establishes connection on issues like education, crime and jobs. There is value in these efforts, but experience so far suggests much more needs to be done.

That’s where Ruben Barrales comes in. He is the son of Mexican immigrants (his father was a bracero) who became the first Latino county supervisor to be elected in San Mateo County. During his two terms (1992-2000), Barrales focused on founding one of the state’s first charter schools in a predominately Latino neighborhood in Redwood City, implementing aggressive strategies to attack rampant gang crime in East Palo Alto, and imposing a debt cap on the county. President George W. Bush later appointed Barrales as Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Intergovernmental Affairs in the White House. He later went on to lead the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

What came next is even more interesting. About five years ago, Barrales launched GROW Elect, a political action committee focused on recruiting and training Latino Republicans to run for local offices, providing campaign expertise, and funding campaigns to help them win. Today, more than 100 Latino Republicans hold local elected office (and one state Assembly seat) thanks to Barrales’s vision and hard work.

A self-described “center-right” Republican, Barrales imposes no ideological or issue-specific litmus tests on the Latino Republican candidates his organization supports. As a former Democrat, he seems to keenly understand the value in welcoming a diversity of opinion into the Republican tent. As he explained to one reporter, “Naturally as a young adult, I was a Democrat until I realized, looking around my community, that the lack of competition didn’t provide the kind of attention my barrio needed. Latinos should not allow their vote to be monopolized by one party.”

I recently met one of GROW Elect’s successful alumni. Ceci Iglesias won election to the Santa Ana Unified School District Board in 2012 and was reelected last year in spite of an aggressive union-backed campaign that tried to link her to President Trump in a district that is overwhelmingly Hispanic. It didn’t work, she says, because she worked hard to talk to voters directly, as a Latina, about the education issues they care about. Consequently, Latino parents dissatisfied with the quality of the public schools in Santa Ana now have a charter school champion on the school board. Whatever Ms. Iglesias’s future holds, she has already made a difference by challenging the status quo in public education.

In most cases, Latino Republican candidates supported by GROW Elect are heavily out-gunned in terms of campaign funding; unions are quite aware of this program and have immense war chests. But what Barrales and his team have proven is that Latino Republicans can win in places where Republicans haven’t succeeded in a very long time by being issue-focused and authentic, and by working exceptionally hard at retail politics—the demanding work of knocking on doors, showing up at community events, and calling voters.

In what amounts to a one-party state, could this effort to create a farm team of Latino Republicans make a difference? House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a supporter of GROW Elect, says, “We are all better served when there is a vigorous and real two-party system, with candidates vying for the votes of, and seeking to represent, all Californians.”

Demographics may indeed be destiny. More than 100 Republican Latinos serving on city councils, boards of education and other elected offices across California are doing their best to shape their own destiny.

Go to www.growelect.com for more information.