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Brewer tells the truth on Hispanics and voting

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Rogue Columnist

Brewer tells the truth on Hispanics and voting

  • Brewer in 2013.
    Christina Silvestri/Cronkite NewsBrewer in 2013.

The national progressive echo chamber had quite a fit last week when former Gov. Jan Brewer brushed off the suggestion that Hispanics would cause Hillary Clinton to win Arizona. "Nah," she told the Boston Globe, "They don't get out and vote. They don't vote." The thought police pounced, condemnations flooded Facebook, and a Twitter lynch mob gathered at such a racist statement.

But she told the truth. Rare for her, perhaps unprecedented, but accurate for once.

Hispanics made up 30 percent of the population of Maricopa County in 2014, compared with only 16 percent in 1990. Yet in that critical election, their voter participation rate was in the single digits. And it can't be explained away by saying that low-income people vote less. The low-income Anglos vote religiously and conservatively.

Brewer, an accidental governor when St. Janet read the future and decamped for D.C. and then California, did much to help ensure this. As Secretary of State, charged with overseeing elections, she was also chair of the state Bush re-election committee in 2004. I'm sure polling locations were abundant and well handled in majority Latino precincts. Then, running on her own, she defeated the eminently better-qualified Terry Goddard on the strength of her backing the anti-immigrant SB 1070.

As I have written before, SB 1070 had little to do with illegal immigration and everything to do with ginning up the old Midwestern-immigrant Anglo GOP base and intimidating Mexican-American citizens. And one of the dirty secrets was that not a few older Mexican-Americans, who had seen their neighborhoods, schools, and culture most destabilized by the wave of illegals in the 2000s, quietly supported the bill, too.

But the problem of low Hispanic turnout predates the embarrassing, finger-in-the-face-of-the-president Jan Brewer, a woman who would drive down the class level of the trashiest trailer park.

Mexican-Americans faced a long history of discrimination in Phoenix and Arizona. They were over-represented among the victims of the shameful 1917 Bisbee Deportation. Many citizens were caught up in another mass deportation during the Great Depression. In the Civil Rights Era, Republicans such as future Chief Justice of the United States William Rehnquist ran Operation Eagle Eye in south Phoenix to intimidate minority voters.

This is not a simple narrative. In the 1870s, Phoenix's first town marshal was Enrique "Henry" Garfias, the son of a Mexican army general and a lawman out of the classic Old West. Adam Diaz was the first Hispanic elected to the Phoenix City Council, in 1953. Nevertheless, in such an environment, one learned to keep one's head down. Structural issues may disproportionately lower Hispanic turnout, although the data are lacking. Arizona doesn't have automatic or exclusive vote-by-mail (such as Washington, Oregon and Colorado) and Hispanics may be more likely to hold down two or even three jobs, without the ability to take time off to stand in long lines. Cultural issues that also come into play, things outside my areas of expertise (but feel free to weigh in on the comments thread). Mexico has a long history of wide class separations and deference to the patron.

Nor is the problem of low Hispanic turnout restricted to Arizona. Texas has a much larger Hispanic population, but it is deeply underrepresented in state and local politics. The Lone Star State does have a history of pockets of Hispanic strength on the west side of San Antonio and in the Rio Grande Valley — masterfully courted by Lyndon Johnson and epitomized by long-serving U.S. Rep. Henry Gonzalez. But this bloc was often "voted," bribed, and manipulated by powerful Anglo patrons, whether LBJ or the "Duke of Duval," George Parr. Even now, being a Hispanic politician in Texas — home of the charismatic Castro brothers — is fraught for a Democrat.

California is a different story. Everyone knows that Proposition 187, which sought to deny state benefits to illegal immigrants, was a catalyst for Hispanic political involvement and destroyed the Republican Party which backed the measure. It was the folly of Pete Wilson, a good San Diego mayor and terrible governor. But reality is more nuanced. When passed by voters in 1994, Prop. 187 garnered nearly 59 percent of the vote including from some conservative Hispanics. But it left a bad aftertaste and died from lawsuits and neglect.

The Golden State's Hispanic political clout has deep roots in Los Angeles, to the Chicano movement of the 1940s. Cesar Chavez, although from Arizona, did his most effective organizing in California. So an infrastructure was already in place. Increased immigration in recent decades has added to it immeasurably. Thus, Antonio Villaraigosa was able to build a base of Hispanic and union support to become LA mayor in 2005. Loretta Sanchez was elected to Congress in 1996 representing a fast-changing Orange County district and defeating conservative firebrand "B-1 Bob" Dornan. The state that sent Reagan to Sacramento and then Washington is no more. But this was built on a robust Hispanic political machine decades in the building, as well as an overall population that has grown ever more liberal.

This hasn't happened in Arizona, yet — despite the activism of people such as Joe Eddie Lopez and Alfredo Gutierrez in the 1960s and 1970s. Chicanos Por La Causa, a noble organization, is too dependent on city money and relationships to be in firebrand opposition. Decades of GOP attacks — from scandalously low school funding to SB 1070 — have been met by "they don't vote," at least not in enough numbers. And all the years of liberals hoping they would turn the state purple or blue hasn't changed this. Instead, it has emboldened the GOP, which controls both houses of the Legislature and all statewide offices, to become ever more extreme and white supremacist.

I don't want this to be the case. I hope it changes. But I also remember the 2006 march against draconian rules changes proposed in Congress against illegal immigration. In Phoenix, approximately 100,000 people marched down Grand Avenue to the state capitol, an astonishing turnout for a city not known for big protests. And the Anglos were afraid. The next morning, I went to the gym where Alfredo Gutierrez was on the Stairmaster. Despite my upbeat assessment, he only shrugged: "But will they vote?"

If Hillary Clinton does win Arizona, which I doubt, the big factor will be the Latter-day Saints. The church doesn't like Trump, just as it didn't care for SB 1070 and Russell Pearce. Mormons won't vote for Hillary, but they may well withhold their vote on the presidential ballot or vote for the Libertarian.

This column first appeared on Rogue Columnist.

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic, and retired as the economics columnist of the Seattle Times in 2019. Talton is also the author of 12 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries, which are set in Arizona.

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