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California Gubernatorial Candidates Court Minorities - 2003-10-03

With just days to go before California's recall election, the gubernatorial campaigns are now shifting into high gear. Unlike past elections, just a handful of votes could determine the state's next governor if Gray Davis is recalled. And that's why many of the leading candidates are actively courting a group of voters who don't usually turn out in large numbers on election day - minorities.

If it were just up to minority voters, Governor Gray Davis would stay in office for another two years - that's the result of a recent statewide survey.

"The minority voters' role may be more key in this election than in any other previous election in the past 20 years," said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, one of several organizations that sponsored the poll.

In this election, two of the five leading replacement candidates are Latino and two others are immigrants. And that may encourage more minorities to vote. Mr. Pachon says at least one group - Latinos - are inspired by the prospect of Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante becoming their next governor.

"When it's the first of your own to have a real legitimate chance of public office, you're more excited, you're more mobilized about it," said Mr. Pachon.

But the other candidates aren't quite ready to concede the Latino vote. Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign has run Spanish language ads. He's also met with newly sworn-in citizens at a Mexican restaurant, and he recently invited immigrants from Latin America, Asia and the Middle East to a town hall meeting. Many of the guests showed enthusiasm for the celebrity candidate.

One of the guest says, "My name is Emin Hissarji Kloula, I'm the general coordinator for the Turkish Student Associations of Southern California and I personally would like to see you [Arnold Schwarzenegger] as governor of our beautiful state because I love California."

But outside, a less friendly group of Latinos was waiting, shouting "Hey hey! Ho Ho! Arnold's got to go!"

Protestor Carlos Montes says the immigrants Mr. Schwarzenegger invited to the meeting didn't represent the large population of low-income Latinos who live in the neighborhood where the event was held. "He's already said that if he wins as governor he will do away with the law of giving undocumented immigrants from all over the world the right to have a license," says Mr. Montes.

Governor Gray Davis recently signed that driver's license bill into law, a move that many said was geared towards winning the Latino vote in the 'no on recall' campaign. According to the new survey, Latinos oppose the recall, but only by a slim margin.

The governor has been looking to another minority group, African-Americans, for his strongest margin of support. The Tomas Rivera Institute poll shows 67 percent of black voters want the governor to keep his job. So it came as no surprise that when Governor Davis appeared early last month with former president Clinton in Los Angeles, their first stop was the First AME Church, often considered the heart of the city's African- American community. Two church members introduced the governor as if he were a prizefighter, listing many reasons why he should not be recalled. Craig said, "By strengthening the public education system, he has assured that every child learns to read by age 9." Brenda added, "He led the fight to keep college education affordable."

Though they support the current governor, many African-Americans have been concerned this political season about all the attention both Governor Davis and Lt. Governor Bustamante have paid to the Latino community. Political consultant Kerman Maddox hears a groundswell of anger.

He points out, "You hear people in churches, in barbershops, in other places say 'Look, you know, I'm tired of Democratic Party taking us for granted and this year not only have they taken us for granted, but they've kind of kicked us to the curb in favor of actively and aggressively courting the Latino community.'"

Other minority groups, largely ignored in past elections, have also been receiving the attention of the candidates. According to political analyst Jack Pitney, winning the ethnic vote is crucial in a state where minorities make up the majority. "We're a majority minority state," he said. "You take African-Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and you actually have a majority of the total California population, but that does not mean a majority of the California electorate."

For Mr. Pitney, support from any ethnic community won't really matter in the end, unless they come out and vote - and historically, they don't. In California's last gubernatorial election, 76 percent of the voters were white. But maybe, with so much campaigning geared towards the minority vote, the population voting in this election may turn out to look a lot more like the population actually living in California.