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Hispanics Could Be Key in California Recall Election - 2003-08-13

Hispanics may be key to the recall election of California governor Gray Davis. The governor's Democratic supporters are portraying Arnold Schwarzenegger, the top Republican contender, as insensitive to the needs of immigrants. The Austrian-born actor is stressing his own immigrant roots.

Voters will decide October 7 whether to remove Democrat Gray Davis as governor and, if they do, who should replace him. Among those wrestling with the decision are the state's Hispanic voters.

Hispanics make up 30 percent of California's population and overwhelmingly back Democrats. Governor Davis had hoped for their support. But with the entry into the race of a Hispanic Democrat, California Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, Latino support for Mr. Davis is less certain. Mr. Bustamante has urged a "no" vote on the recall and calls himself a Davis supporter, but he's asking voters to select him as the alternative candidate, in case the recall passes.

Hispanics, like many Californians, are not enthusiastic about the governor's performance. The state is grappling with a massive budget deficit, which has brought cuts in public services such as subsidized health care for the poor and elderly, and cuts in higher education. Josefina Mendoza, a 21-year-old student at Los Angeles City College, says her fellow students are frustrated with the reductions. "They're angry with Gray Davis. They blame him."

Antonio Gonzales of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project says at least half of Hispanics want Mr. Davis removed from office. "Part of it is that the governor and his supporters have not started campaigning for themselves, so that the only information out there is information by the supporters of the recall by the Republican party," says Mr. Gonzales. "Part of it is that Latinos, like other voters, are frustrated by the state of the state, with a terrible budget situation, a bad economy, and so on. And the governor is the top elected official, and he gets blamed for that."

Mr. Davis's strategy is to go about his business, signing bills and making public appearances. "So my focus is to do my job," says Mr. Davis.

He argues that the recall is a waste of the $66 million which the election will cost and says a successful recall will increase the state's instability and financial problems.

California Democrats had hoped to present a united front. But for politicians such as Deborah Ortiz, the defection of Cruz Bustamante offers a welcome alternative. Ms. Ortiz, a Democrat, represents part of Sacramento in the California senate. She doesn't try to hide her dislike for Mr. Davis. She was especially irritated when he refused to sign a bill allowing illegal immigrants, most of them Latino, to get drivers licenses. Latino voters, who are U.S. citizens, were not affected, but she says they were angry.

Despite her problems with Governor Davis, she calls the recall a bad precedent.

"We know why it's occurred. We know it's touched a nerve that have been there on a lot of issues. But you stand up for the office, if not the individual," says Ms. Ortiz. "You stand up for the process, and in that sense, we know that this is the beginning of what could be a series, a cycle and recycle of this recall being used in the same way that the initiative process [which] has really created an inability for us to operate in the legislature."

She says California's "initiative" system of direct democracy, which allows voters to write laws through the petition and voting process, has reduced state revenues while mandating new spending. She says that has hamstrung the legislature.

If the recall effort succeeds and a plurality of voters backs Cruz Bustamante, he would become the first Hispanic governor of California since 1875, when a Hispanic held the office for nine months. But Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger is also popular with Hispanics. He led the candidates in a recent poll of Latino voters, out-polling Mr. Bustamante two to one.

Mr. Schwarzenegger also leads in statewide surveys, but could be hurt by an admission that he supported a controversial 1994 measure to bar public services to illegal immigrants. California voters passed the ballot initiative, called Proposition 187, by a wide margin, but the courts overruled it as unconstitutional.

Cruz Bustamante is raising the issue on behalf of Democrats, like Governor Davis. "Gray Davis didn't vote for [Proposition] 187, and Arnold Schwarzenegger apparently has. And I think it's wrong because these are families who pay taxes. In fact, they pay lots of taxes," says Mr. Bustamante. "I come from the Central Valley and our food wouldn't be picked, wouldn't be harvested, without those folks." The top issues among Hispanics are the economy, jobs, education and health care, says Latino political activist Antonio Gonzales. He says they also look for a candidate who stresses tolerance and inclusion, and that any candidate who emphasizes these themes could get their vote.

Despite their large numbers, only 2.5 million of the state's Hispanics are registered to vote because many are too young and others are not citizens. They make up just 15 percent of registered voters. But they are an important and growing part of the California electorate, and most candidates will be courting them in the recall election.