For the past two decades California has been tough political terrain for Republicans, in part because the state’s growing Latino population overwhelmingly supports Democrats.
On the Central Coast, Republican Congressional candidate Abel Maldonado is hoping his Mexican heritage will help bridge that divide by appealing to Latinos and independent voters. Maldonado, a former lieutenant governor, is the kind of candidate the Republican Party covets these days.
“My father and mother came to this country with nothing,” Maldonado says.
He’s the oldest son of migrant workers — Maldonado’s father came from Mexico in 1965 as a guest worker, eventually starting his own farm and growing it into a family business.
“So just imagine me sitting next to my mother picking strawberries in the fields and becoming California’s 47th lieutentant governor,” the boyish 45-year-old says.
Maldonado lost his bid to remain Lieutenant Governor in an election against Gavin Newsom. But now he’s running in the 24th Congressional District against incumbent Democrat Lois Capps. The newly drawn seat is much more competitive than it was before redistricting. It would seem tailor-made for a moderate Republican businessman like Maldonado.
But the “R” next to his name on the ballot could be a big liability, especially with Latinos, who make up nearly one in five voters in the district. “The Republican Party has not done a good job of communicating with the fastest growing population in America, which happens to be Hispanics,” Maldonado says. “You’re just committing political suicide. It’s just what it is.”
Maldonado’s home town of Santa Maria is 70 percent Latino. At the Center for Employment Training (CET) there, Jessie Chavarria teaches computer skills to a full classroom. Most of the students are immigrants or children of immigrants. And Chavarria says many are simply disengaged from politics.
“Because they don’t see the election and the issues being about them,” Chavarria says. “They think it’s about something else, something that doesn’t really affect them.” But, Chavarria says, the election is all about them — and their future.
“You know they need jobs,” Chavarria notes. “They need jobs to take care of themselves, take care of their families. To Improve their lot in life. Without that, what do they have?”
Chavarria sees it as a vicious cycle — young Latinos think politicians don’t speak to or care about them. So many of them don’t vote — and are consequently ignored.
Down the hall, Jennifer Moran is training her students for jobs in medical fields. Moran keeps voter registration applications in her classroom — and encourages students to use them.
“We complain a lot throughout the terms that we didn’t get this, we didn’t get that,” Moran says. “Did ya vote? ‘No.’ How can you expect to get change if you’re not putting your change into it? You put one grain of salt and that’s all you have, just a grain. Put a bunch of them and you have enough to start cooking, to start getting the pot stirred.”
The director of CET is Gabriel Morales. As a young man, Morales was a Democrat, but now he’s a registered Republican. He traces his conversion back to his faith — and a time when he and others helped build some new churches in Santa Maria.
“It seemed that the people that reached out to us building those churches happened to be Republicans,” Morales remembers. “And then what happened is a lot of the churches I was involved in were Latino churches – and someway, somehow all of us became Republicans.”
Morales will vote for Mitt Romney and probably Abel Maldonado. But he seems conflicted – uncomfortable with a GOP that doesn’t always welcome minorities like him.
That hostility toward immigrants was evidenced by one shopper at the Thursday night Farmer’s Market in downtown San Luis Obispo. Evelyn Roth, a retired haircutter from Santa Maria, was quick to express her view about immigrants who she thinks ignores the melting pot.
“I think we should have only one language,” Roth says. “They should speak English. I’m tired of ‘press two and speak English’ anymore. It’s almost that bad.” But Roth is quick to point out that her criticism does not apply to congressional candidate Abel Maldonado. “He’s fine,” Roth notes, adding “he’s an American — he’s not a Latino. You’re either an illegal or an American. That’s all there is.”
Latinos might cringe at that characterization. But not all Hispanic voters here supporting Maldonado care so much about his Mexican heritage, either.
Standing behind a table at the market, Pablo Sanchez is describing the award-winning olive oils made on his Paso Robles farm. This fifth generation Mexican American says he’s leaning toward Abel Maldonado — mostly because he seems bipartisan.
“I think the government should stop their infighting,” Sanchez says. “Get rid of the Republican and Democratic and all that. And become Americans for America.”
Asked if it matters to him that Maldonado is Latino, Sanchez insists it does not. “He is of our race,” Sanchez says. “If he wins, great. I hope he does a good job for us. You know? As long as they look out for America.
But standing right next to Sanchez, his cousin Lucas Hay has a very different take on politics — and Maldonado. “More Latinos that aren’t informed about what’s going on in the debates are more likely to vote for Maldonado because of his last name,” Hay says. “And so they don’t really know exactly the issues going on.”
Hay says he favors Democrats because they seem to care more about helping those with less. He’ll be voting for the incumbent in this congressional race, Democrat Lois Capps.
Polls show the race is tight. If Maldonado ekes out a win, his candidacy could provide a roadmap back to relevance for the Republican Party in California.
Read More: Scott Shafer’s blog post — Central Coasters Hungry for Substance, Sick of Campaign Negativity