How Waves of Latino Immigration Turned a Purple State Blue

The political impact of our changing demographics

Demography may be destiny—at least in places that hold democratic elections—but it always needs a little push. Numbers alone don’t dictate outcomes. Last year, for instance, the percentage of Latinos in both California and Texas was an identical 38.6 percent. But given the immense gap between the two states’ politics, you have to wonder why the influx of Latino immigrants has changed California from a purple state to a blue one while, despite a similar influx, Texas remains the deepest shade of red.

All of the articles and photos from our special Immigration Issue are available in the October 2016 issue, on newsstands now.

The answer is that the assimilation of immigrant groups into a city’s, a state’s, or a nation’s politics is never an automatic process. Some powerful political force has to believe it is in its interest to mobilize such groups—as New York’s Tammany organization did when it registered Irish immigrants as they clambered out of steerage in New York’s harbor in the mid-19th century. The difference between California and Texas is that in California, and more particularly in Los Angeles, labor unions reached out to the great wave of Latino immigrants who began coming into the state in the 1980s. The Texas labor movement, by contrast, is far smaller and weaker than its California counterpart. Absent the resources that labor can provide, no equivalent effort has yet been waged in Texas—though progressive foundations and other liberal groups are finally realizing that turning Texas blue will require a massive commitment of their money and manpower.

Still, numbers matter. In 1970, 76 percent of Californians were non-Hispanic white. Today just
 38 percent are: The share of white Californians has been halved. The transformation of both Los Angeles and California is one of the most stunning developments in American political history and the single most consequential political effect of immigration from Latin America and Asia.

RELATED: A World Without Muslims

Though the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 opened the door to immigration from across the world, the numbers and their consequences didn’t add up right away. For two decades thereafter, Latino power in L.A. was confined to the Eastside. In the 1970s and ’80s, the only two consequential Latino elected officials in the L.A. area—City Councilman Richard Alatorre and State Senator Art Torres—represented districts that overlapped the Eastside city council district that Ed Roybal, the first Latino elected to an L.A. city office in the 20th century, first won in 1949.

Not until the passage of an anti-immigrant ballot measure in 1994, and the backlash it produced among California Latinos, did Latino power expand beyond East L.A. In that year nativist activists placed an initiative on the California ballot—Proposition 187—that sought to deny public services, including the right to free nonemergency medical care and the right to attend public K-12 schools, to the undocumented, who’d been coming to Southern California in droves since the Mexican economic crisis and the Central American civil wars of the ’80s.

In the weeks before voters went to the polls, Latino high school students marched in the streets, protesting the move to deny them an education. Latino union leaders—notably Gil Cedillo (now an L.A. city councilman) and Fabian Núñez (later a Speaker of the State Assembly)—corralled the students to walk precincts and staff phone banks, urging older Latinos to turn out to vote against the measure. (Proposition 187 passed, but almost all its provisions were quickly struck down by the courts.)

Two years later another Latino labor leader, Miguel Contreras, became the head of the Los Angeles County AFL-CIO, the political arm of the more than 300 local unions in the L.A. area, and did more to shift California from a purple to a blue state than any other individual. Contreras realized that the Republicans’ war on immigrants could mobilize millions of Latinos, immigrants and otherwise, who had yet to become voters. And he invested major resources in naturalization, voter registration, and get-out-the-vote campaigns. Los Angeles had long been considered too spread out for anyone to walk precincts, but union members—above all immigrants, from the janitors and hotel workers unions—walked precincts throughout Latino L.A.

Contreras was no Latino nationalist. The precinct walkers campaigned across the county for a diverse array of progressive candidates (in the mid-’90s, for instance, for City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, a Jewish lesbian, rather than a more conservative Latino). The results were quickly apparent: Before the mid-’90s, most of the core areas of the city were represented in the legislature and in Congress by Democrats, whereas the farther reaches of the county—the west and north San Fernando Valley, Long Beach, the San Gabriel Valley—were represented by Republicans. By the 2000 election, all those areas were represented by Democrats. Locally the labor-Latino alliance became the dominant political force in 9 of the city’s 15 council districts; in Sacramento the Latino caucus became the largest such minority caucus in the legislature, with a steady stream of its members ascending to the speakership.

The results were apparent in policy, too. By 1997, a once resolutely centrist L.A. City Council was passing such groundbreaking ordinances 
as the nation’s first substantial living-wage law, one in a string of progressive measures that continued straight through to the city’s enactment of a $15 minimum wage last year (with the state following close behind).

In 2005, Contreras, just 52, died of a heart attack—but by then the processes he had set in motion had already transformed state and local politics. In recent years, as immigration from Latin America has ebbed, most of California’s new immigrants have come from Asia and the Pacific (nearly 15 percent of Californians are now of Asian ancestry). As their ranks have swelled, so has their tilt toward the Democrats. Most Asian Americans voted for George H.W. Bush over Bill Clinton in 1992, but during the next 20 years, as UC Riverside public policy professor Karthick Ramakrishnan has documented, their vote shifted to the Democrats by a full 40 percentage points. In 2012, 79 percent of California’s Asian Americans voted to reelect President Barack Obama.

For years pundits had argued that both Latino and Asian immigrants would likely vote Republican, since they shared the party’s traditional stances on a host of cultural issues. By the late ’90s, however, it became apparent that Latinos were rejecting the right’s laissez-faire economics, voting repeatedly for greater public investment in schools and for the unions’ right to engage in politics. It also became clear that even though older immigrants might share the right’s opposition to, say, same-sex marriage or abortion, it was economic issues, not cultural ones, that determined their votes. In recent years the Republicans’ seemingly unending war on immigrants has pushed Latinos and Asian Americans even more decisively into the Democratic column.

What’s been particularly distinctive about the Latino ascendency in California politics is how closely it’s been aligned with labor—an alliance that, when combined with the liberal proclivities of most of the black, white, and Asian voters of coastal California, has turned the state into the nation’s foremost laboratory for progressive policy. In inland California, Latino Democrats represent many districts, too, but these elected officials are markedly more centrist than their coastal counterparts. Unions lack the numbers and heft in the San Joaquin Valley and the Inland Empire that they have in L.A. and the Bay Area, and the Latino Democrats who represent inland districts often come to power with the backing of corporate interests. This year a number of those Democrats in the legislature voted to water down Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed fuel efficiency standards, while two inland Latino Democrats resigned in midterm, one to take a job with Chevron, the other to take a job with PhRMA, the drug companies’ lobby.

Throughout most of American history, immigrants have made up a disproportionate share of the nation’s working class, so alliances between immigrants and organized labor aren’t unusual. Today in places where unions retain some strength—chiefly the cities of the Northeast and West Coast—immigrants have become a linchpin of progressive coalitions. In most of the country, however, immigrants confront a more conservative landscape, often almost devoid of unions. In such places their political trajectory may prove to be closer to that of California’s inland Latino legislators. Still, as the Republican party descends into the sewer of white nationalism, immigrants are likely to cement their position in Democratic ranks, most probably for years to come.

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Los Angeles magazine.