Sunday, March 1, 2015


The 20th Congressional District, which includes Kern, Kings and Fresno counties, was identified by last year’s “Measure of America” survey as the poorest in the nation. Represented by Democrat Congressman Jim Costa of Fresno, the district came in “dead last” for poverty, poor health and school dropouts.

Few who have worked with the poor in the southern San Joaquin Valley were surprised by the findings, which also explain why minority communities, where new immigrants often struggle just to survive, see little participation in the political process.

“It’s the hierarchy of needs,” said Kern County Supervisor Michael Rubio, whose 5th District includes some of the poorest neighborhoods of Bakersfield, Lamont and Arvin.

“The first thing many people think about is, ‘Do I have a job today? Am I making a living wage? Do I have health care?’ They don’t have time to read campaign material. The hierarchy of needs means they have to fend for themselves first,” he said.

“Many are too busy trying to survive and pay next month’s rent,” said Magda Menendez, administrator of the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation in Bakersfield.

Sen. Dean Florez, whose 16th state Senate district overlaps the 20th Congressional District, agreed. He also blamed confusing ballots, which are cluttered with complex and sometimes contradictory propositions, for discouraging widespread voter participation.

“People have to have a reason to vote, to come out and take the time to express their choices,” said Florez, who is running for California lieutenant governor. “I’ve spoken to people who simply feel that the ballot is too complicated and it feels like it’s somewhat of a test that you would get in school.”

“There are too many important issues affecting minority communities for people not to participate,” said Nicole Parra, who represented Kern County’s 30th Assembly District until she was termed out of office in 2008.

Now a Fresno-based government consultant, Parra noted that the Central Valley struggles with persistent poverty issues. The valley’s average per capita income is 32.2 percent lower than the rest of the state; college attendance is 50 percent below state average; and the unemployment rate is among the highest.

To mobilize “voters, people need to feel like they make a difference, they are part of a team,” said Parra. “Most importantly, voters want to know that the elected official cares about their needs and their concerns.”

The Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association (APAPA) has been meeting with Kern County activists in hopes of encouraging minority voters to participate in this year’s critical elections.

“It’s a matter of empowering people to get involved with their government at the national, state and local levels,” explained Danny Lee, president of APAPA’s Central Valley Chapter.

Les Fong, vice president of APAPA’s Central Valley Chapter, said his organization is planning to hold a May 2010 town hall meeting in Bakersfield to bring local and state candidates before Kern County voters. A voter education program also is being developed. Fong, a Stockton advertising executive, can be reached by e-mail at

According to estimated U.S. Census data, Latinos in 2008 comprised 47.1 percent of Kern County’s population, with non-Latino whites comprising 41.1 percent. Blacks were 6.4 percent, with the remainder of Kern County’s population of 800,458 being comprised of various other minority ethnic groups.

Yet, non-Latino white voters have the political clout in California. The Public Policy Institute of California reported last fall that while Latinos make up about 32 percent of the state’s adult population, they are only 17 percent of the registered voters most likely to turn out in elections. By contrast, whites constitute 47 percent of California’s adult population, but 68 percent of the state’s likely voters.

Many Latinos and other ethnic minorities are not citizens and therefore not eligible to vote. U.S. Census estimates for 2008 indicate about 68 percent of Kern County’s 155,938 foreign-born residents – and that population figure includes children and immigrants who are legally in this country -- are not U.S. citizens.

But even removing the citizenship factor, Latinos and most ethnic minority groups in California and Kern County have a low voter turnout rate, according to researchers and political observers.

Lee explained that many new citizens come from countries that have repressive governments. Voter participation is not understood or considered relevant. “They are not involved. They stay within their families. They keep to themselves.”

Recent gains by Latino politicians, who have been elected to local and state offices, should not be overestimated, warned Florez.

“Yes, you have Latinos who are taking on greater and more significant roles in government, but that was not always the case, even 10 years ago,” he said. “There is a nascent rise in political power among Latinos … [but the Latino community] is growing astronomically in California.

“We are entering a period where California will become the most integrated, multi-cultural population ever in the history of the world and it’s all been accomplished relatively peacefully,” he said. Minority participation in the political system is “a big deal because this integration is important to our survival as a society.”

Citing the findings of Bakersfield researcher Jesus Garcia, Menendez noted Kern County has 113,000 “high propensity voters” – people who have voted in three of the last five elections. Of these, 35,000, or about 32 percent, are Latino.

Of the 10,000 new voters in Kern County, 4,000 were Latinos – 43 percent registered Democrats, 20 percent Republican and “a whopping 30 percent were declined to state. [That sends] a big message to the Democratic and Republican parties, don’t you think,” she said.

Rubio suggests the political clout of minority communities could be awakened in 2010.

While people are focused on survival, “in times of great stress, as we currently are in, pressure builds for change,” said Rubio, who is running for the 16th state Senate seat and hopes to replace the termed-out incumbent. The 2010 elections could be about change.

This article written by Dianne Hardisty appeared first in Mas Magazine on Feb. 7, 2010.

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