Given the awful state of the economy, it’s no surprise that Democrats are losing some support among Latinos. But they can still consider the ethnic group to be in their pocket. Though Latinos have not displayed the lock-step party loyalty of African-Americans, they still favor President Barack Obama by 57 percent, according to one Gallup Poll — down just 10 percentage points from his high number early in the administration.
This support is particularly unusual, given that probably no large ethnic group in America has suffered more than Latinos from the Great Recession. This is true, in large part, because Latino employment is heavily concentrated in manufacturing, and even more so in construction.
A half-million Latino workers in the construction sector — in which their share of the work force is double what it is in the broader economy — have lost their jobs since the start of the recession.
Unfortunately, the Obama stimulus plan was light on physical infrastructure. It favored Wall Street, public-sector unions and large research universities. Big winners included education and health services — in which Latinos are under-represented.
Not surprisingly, Latino communities across the country are in trouble. Today, of the 10 most economically “stressed” counties, seven are majority or heavily Latino, according to The Associated Press.
Theoretically, Republicans should be able to take advantage of this situation. But not with the party’s increasing embrace of its noisy nativist right — evident not only in support of the controversial Arizona immigration law but also in the strong move against “birthright citizenship.” This makes the prospect of earning back President George W. Bush’s 40-plus-percentage-point support difficult at best.
Thus, Latinos remain allied with Democrats whose policies inhibit the growth of construction and manufacturing jobs. This dichotomy puzzles many in the business community.
“You have all these job losses in Latino districts represented by Latino legislators who don’t realize what they are doing to their own people,” said Larry Kosmont, a California business consultant. “They have forgotten there’s an economy to think about.”
Despite that economic logic, Latino Democrats mindlessly follow liberal Democrats such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Henry Waxman of California and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who represent largely white, affluent white-collar constituencies on issues such as cap and trade and federal regulation of greenhouse gases. Whatever the intent, these policies are likely to further decimate blue-collar employment in Latino districts.
If they had independent thoughts, Latino Democratic politicians would be advocating positions that create new opportunities for their districts — particularly among young people. They could push, for example, a Works Progress Administration-like public works program that could provide new opportunities and skills training.
One possible reason for not doing so is the opposition of public employee unions, which dominate Democratic politics, particularly in urban districts, and would see such a program as competing against their special interests.
In contrast, Obama administration policies favor Ivy League schools, high-speed rail and light-rail service — issues with predominantly well-to-do, Anglo constituencies.
This disjunction between interests and politics is particularly evident in California, the state with the largest Latino population. Latino Democrats have generally embraced the state’s draconian environmental and planning policies.
The state’s fertile Central Valley offers one example. A green-inspired diversion of water from farms to save an obscure species of fish has forced more than 450,000 acres to lie fallow. Thousands of agricultural jobs — held mostly by Latinos — have been lost, perhaps permanently. Unemployment, which stands at 17 percent across the valley, reaches upward of 40 percent in towns like Mendota.
These policy positions speak to the limits of the current Latino leadership. Latino political power has waxed in Sacramento since 1999 — the state Assembly has had three Latino speakers. But on the ground, things have waned for the state’s Latino working class. During the past decade, according to research from California Lutheran University, the state has experienced one of the nation’s most dramatic drops in household earnings — between $35,000 and $75,000 in lost income.
The pain at the bottom of the economic ladder is even greater. Indeed, according to Deborah Reed of the left-leaning Public Policy Institute of California, when housing and other costs are factored in, three heavily Latino counties — Los Angeles, Fresno and Monterey — rank among the 10 poorest metropolitan areas in the United States. Increasing numbers of working- and middle-class Latinos have been migrating to more job-friendly areas such as Texas and the Plains states.
Latino Democratic politics are equally dysfunctional at the local level. In the largely Hispanic industrial belt south of downtown Los Angeles, for example, a sprawling Latino machine, marked by near Chicago-scale corruption, now controls most elective posts. Many of its leaders — most outrageously in the city of Bell — have proved far more adept at feathering their own nests than at reviving local economies.
A similar disconnect can be seen in the City of Los Angeles, where corruption and inefficiency have led some local entrepreneurs to invest in other regions. “It’s extremely difficult to do business in Los Angeles,” said retail developer Jose de Jesus Legaspi. “The regulations are difficult to manage. ... Everyone has to kiss the rings of the [City Hall politicians].”
L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa epitomizes this self-defeating ethnic politics. Last year, for example, Cecilia Estolano, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, supported shifting resources from building high-end housing and amenities downtown to rejuvenating the large industrial district, a major employer of blue-collar Latinos.
Her efforts quickly ran afoul of Villaraigosa, whose staff favors pouring more money into downtown amenities — even if doing so drives out industrial jobs. Estolano, who now works for a local nonprofit, says the lack of interest in manufacturing and the blue-collar economy is easy to explain: campaign contributions.
“The problem is manufacturers in L.A. are mostly small and don’t contribute to campaigns,” Estolano said. “L.A.’s politics are controlled by real estate interests, their lawyers and consultants.”
As Latinos become a critical part of our emerging economy, they need to develop a policy agenda that focuses less on old-style, machine ethnic politics and more on the critical issue of upward mobility.
Latino voters might also consider avoiding the African-American one-party model by embracing both growth-oriented Democrats and enlightened Republicans. This is most likely to increase their political leverage, while creating a politics that supports their most fundamental interests.
This article originally appeared at Politico.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.