The Santa Clara County Democratic Party is attempting to make the political battlefield a bit more familiar this weekend with probably the largest day of action it has held since the 2008 election cycle. In particular, the event, which is taking place Saturday at the Labor Temple between 10am and noon, is going to focus on voter registration in “historically disengaged communities.” In other words, the county party is teaming up with local, community-based Democratic chapters to focus on Hispanic outreach in East San Jose.
The desperate need for outreach to this community cannot be disputed. Hispanic Americans leave over 10 million votes on the table nationally every election cycle, a fact that contributes to a loss of real political power from Washington, D.C. to Sacramento, to right here in San Jose. I earnestly support and have worked on robust programs like those being launched by Voto Latino, where the model is sustained, continued registration and mobilization—where the goal of moving the entire community forward is at heart.
However, when diving deeper into the local political calculus, there’s a clear winner from this effort in East San Jose: former Assemblyman and current candidate for State Senate District 15 Joe Coto. This might explain why the local party was convinced to take up the effort now, even though Hispanic representation has always lagged and there has always been the opportunity to reach out to this community. (As a disclaimer, this author has publicly endorsed Assemblyman Jim Beall.)
This past January, when the California Democratic Party held regional endorsement caucuses in Los Altos and then again in February at the State Democratic Party Convention in San Diego, you could practically predict who would vote for the party to endorse Beall and who wanted the party to endorse Coto—based on surname. I was one of the handful of Latinos to not vote for Coto, and I definitely felt pressured to vote for Coto in the process because of my ethnicity.
It was really something to behold, just how much of a factor race became in that endorsement process, which ultimately left neither Coto nor Beall with an official party endorsement. While I still believe the effort to register Hispanics is of critical importance, the main proponents of this program in local Democratic politics are overwhelmingly Coto supporters, who have engineered a true coup for that campaign: using local party resources and volunteers to register voters who will more likely than not vote for Coto over Beall.
A community can gain power with votes, but I sincerely hope that my analysis here is wrong, because organizing Hispanics for the purpose of getting a Hispanic elected is short-sided and small thinking. Real and lasting power is when a community can organize itself to the point where it joins a broader conversation, not dominated by race—where coalitions based on ideas and shared values matter more than the color of one’s skin.
The local Democratic Party should have a sustained effort that goes beyond organizing Latinos for November. The thinly veiled purpose of helping elect Joe Coto is a disservice to that community, which is frequently targeted only when needed. It’s time that Latinos in San Jose organize for the sake of having a full seat at the decision-making table.
Jonathan M. Padilla is a recent Harvard graduate, who has worked at the White House, in local, state, and national political campaigns, and in organizing the greater Hispanic community. He is currently working as a Teach for America corps member in the Bay Area.