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As a political science instructor at Fresno City College, Esmeralda Soria recently asked her students if they knew that Californians will soon vote whether to throw Gov. Gavin Newsom out of office.
"The majority of my students weren't even aware that they were about to receive ballots in the mail," she said. "Some folks don't even know what a recall is."
Most of Soria's students, like most of the constituents she represents on the Fresno City Council, are Latino — a group that could help decide the outcome of the recall election.
Latinos are the largest ethnic group in California at 39% of the population, and a growing share of the electorate at about 28% of registered voters. The group has been disproportionately sickened and hurt financially by the coronavirus pandemic that upended California's political landscape and fueled the drive to recall Newsom. Democrats who want to keep Newsom in office and Republicans trying to oust him are all vying for Latinos' votes in the Sept. 14 election.
The bigger question, however, could be how many Latinos vote at all.
So far, Soria hasn't seen either side make much of an impact in her community.
"If I'm thinking of folks in the neighborhoods that I represent, for Latinos, there's not a lot of talk about (the recall)," Soria said. "People are kind of disconnected from it."
Newsom's supporters are trying to turn around that lack of awareness and enthusiasm. The reason the recall is now polling as a close race — with 47% of the most likely voters saying they want to oust him, and 50% saying they want to keep him — boils down to the difference between who is registered to vote in California and who is likely to vote in the recall.
If Democrats turn out as they do in regular elections, Newsom will probably survive. But 2 million voters signed the petition to remove him, and they're the foundation of an energized anti-Newsom movement. Even though California is overwhelmingly a blue state with a multiracial electorate, researchers at UC Berkeley and UCLA found that conservatives and white voters are likely to dominate in the recall, while voters of color are less likely to cast ballots in the off-season election.
"California Latinos are still reliably a predictable Democratic constituency," said Mike Madrid, a GOP political consultant with expertise in Latino voting patterns. "The challenge is: What is turnout going to be? That is really the question for Gavin Newsom at this point."
Sofia Limon of Los Angeles illustrates Newsom's challenge. The 25-year-old shoe store manager is a Democrat who says she voted for Newsom in 2018. She hasn't been crazy about his job performance — he hasn't done enough on climate change or homelessness, in her opinion — but she thinks the recall is pointless.
So Limon may just sit out this election.
"Considering how the candidates are shaping up, I'm not quite sure how I'm going to vote, or if I vote at all," she said.
"The candidates that are currently on the table, none of them are people that I personally would want to vote for. I don't want any of them to win — not that I like Gavin Newsom either. So I'm still not quite sure what I'm going to do."
Nearly two-thirds of Latinos voted for Newsom when he was elected governor in 2018, and surveys this spring showed that most Latinos want to keep Newsom in office. But a recent poll by Emerson College found Hispanics are the only ethnic group with a majority in favor of removing him — giving hope to Republicans trying to expand their voting base for the recall.
The first ad that GOP candidate Kevin Faulconer launched in his bid to replace Newsom featured the former San Diego mayor introducing himself in Spanish and telling voters that the recall is "la mejor oportunidad" to fix what's wrong in California. A new radio ad by a committee backing the recall reminds voters in Spanish that "Newsom closed our local schools while sending his own children to an exclusive private school that stayed open."
Recall supporter and GOP activist Carl DeMaio launched a Latinos for the Recall" campaign that he's been promoting on his radio show. An episode earlier this summer featured El Cajon City Council member Phil Ortiz saying why he thinks Latinos should vote for the recall.
"The question I ask my Latino neighbors is, ‘Has your life gotten better in the past two to four years?'" Ortiz said. "And the answer is no. Black and brown people are being pushed into poverty, permanently."
The lopsided impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic could also determine how many Latino voters abandon Newsom. Latinos have suffered disproportionately high rates of infection and death, compared with other ethnic groups in California. While Latinos make up 39% of the state's population, they comprise 55% of COVID cases and 46% of deaths from the virus, according to the California Department of Public Health. And yet Latinos have received just 29% of California's vaccine doses so far.
Many Latinos also took a financial hit from business shutdowns during the pandemic. Nearly two-thirds of California Latinos lost employment income last year, according to a report by the California Latino Economic Institute. It says that last fall, 43% of Latinos reported difficulty paying their household expenses.
"It's a community that's been the hardest hit," said Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles who ran against Newsom in the 2018 primary.
He said he disagreed with some of Newsom's decisions during the pandemic, including school closures that dragged on for more than a year in most parts of the state, and restrictions on church services that were eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. But Villaraigosa said he opposes the recall and wants Newsom to stay in office.
"People are struggling with the pandemic and its aftermath, and the campaign is going to have to share with them what they've done," Villaraigosa told CalMatters.
Still, Latinos who are more politically engaged are more likely to vote Democratic and see the recall as a partisan attack that could lead to a Republican winning the governor's office and advancing policies that are harmful to immigrant communities, said Manuel Pastor, a sociology professor and director of the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California.
These voters also take pride in Newsom's appointment of Alex Padilla as California's first Latino U.S. senator, Pastor said, which helps bolster their support for the governor.
"For those who are less politically engaged, it's been a difficult year," he said. And that could lead to apathy or anger during the recall.
"This is Newsom's race: Whether or not frustration with the last year is outpaced by some political education."
The governor has been trying to prove what he's done for constituents with frequent public events around the state. At a health clinic in Fresno last month, he signed a bill expanding Medi-Cal health insurance to cover undocumented immigrants age 50 and older — a top priority of the Legislature's Latino Caucus.
Two weeks earlier, at a Latino community center in Los Angeles, Newsom staged a rally highlighting the billions of dollars for small business grants, rent relief and $600 Golden State Stimulus checks that he signed in the new state budget.
Ron Herrera, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, drew cheers from the crowd as he vowed to fight the recall and introduced Newsom using the Spanish word for warrior.
"It takes a special person, a special leader… a guerrero, a fighter, in order to achieve this," Herrera said. "I want to personally thank Governor Newsom for all he does for working families, for workers, both documented and undocumented."
Newsom's campaign is portraying the recall as an attack by Trump Republicans, highlighting the former president's push for a border wall in a Spanish-language ad. A new ad features Sen. Padilla speaking to the camera in Spanish about the need to stop "los Republicanos de Trump" who are behind the recall.
"Voté no," Padilla says, adding, in Spanish: By mail or in person.
In a Zoom meeting last week with campaign volunteers, Newsom made a point of mentioning that the original leader of the recall petition drive once suggested on Facebook that immigrants should be microchipped.
"We believe in pluralism," the governor said, as he warned volunteers that a Republican could win the race if Democrats don't turn out and vote.
"We celebrate diversity. And we reject people that want to microchip immigrants. How dare they talk about people like that?"
Jessica Patterson, the Latina chairperson of the California Republican Party, dismissed the microchipping comment. Newsom's failures leading the state through the pandemic, she said, "are way more important than what someone said years ago."
"Californians have been hurt by this governor, whether it's the 20,000 business owners in the last year that have had to close their doors permanently, the parents who had to watch their kids finish a second year with remote learning, the individuals who had to call on their government, some for the first time in their lives, to get unemployment and couldn't get a return phone call from the EDD while watching at least $11 billion worth of fraud going out," she said.
"These are all very serious issues and he's absolutely earned this recall. He does himself a real disservice by not acknowledging that."
Christian Arana, a vice president of the Latino Community Foundation, said both sides in the recall fight should engage Latino Californians as a bloc of voters that is both large and diverse. Older Latinos might respond to conservative messages or Spanish-language television ads, while younger Latinos are likely native English speakers, many of whom voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont for president.
California's 8 million Latino voters, he points out, amount to more people than there are in the state of Arizona. "That's a huge demonstration of the immense power the Latino vote has in any election in the state of California," Arana said.
"We have been a community that has been living in a society that has been celebrating us as essential but treating us like dirt. If you're going to ask me to vote in this recall election, well what's in it for me? Both sides of these campaigns need to hammer that point and really mobilize this community."
Arana was surprised that Newsom's campaign chose to launch an anti-recall ad featuring Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who came in a distant third in California's presidential primary last year. It was Sanders — dubbed "Tio Bernie" in some Latino communities — who won here, in large part by exciting voters including Limon, the shoe store manager in Los Angeles.
"Latinos really love him here. He really speaks to the younger generation," Limon said, recalling the energy she felt at a Sanders rally last year.
Would a California campaign stop by Sanders to back Newsom persuade her to vote against the recall?
Limon couldn't say for certain, but acknowledged that "it might have some sway on how I see things."