BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer email@example.com
The Democratic Party at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley is at a turning point.
Blue candidates have been battered by two years of losses in Latino-heavy districts they should have won handily.
Now, with a thin bench of candidates, the party is looking hard at how to access the raw political power of the diverse Latino community.
Latino voters, the story goes, don't show up at the polls and they don't follow or care about politics.
A recent survey, small in scope but long on hope, gives a glimpse into how to turn that around.
The key line, the survey indicates, is to understand that the Latino community is large, diverse and complicated.
The Kern Community Leadership Coalition, a new progressive group committed to developing grassroots political power for Latinos, commissioned a survey of voters in Kern County's 5th Supervisorial District who cast ballots in the 2012 presidential primary election.
That election produced an upset win for now-Supervisor Leticia Perez, a Latina candidate who unseated incumbent Karen Goh in a three-candidate primary election.
Perez's campaign manager in that race, Linda Fiddler, is a part of the Coalition.
She worked with Gerald Cantu, who has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California at Irvine, to pick the race and conduct the survey.
The goal was to understand Latinos and connect them with the political power they have, Fiddler said.
Cantu's volunteers called 3,807 phone numbers for voters who cast a ballot in the 2012 race. Of the 2,259 phone numbers that were still valid, 386 voters identified themselves as Latino and agreed to take the 10-minute survey.
Thirty-seven percent of those voters chose to complete the survey in Spanish.
Compared to the larger pool of voters, that sample of 386 voters had similar gender, age, party registration, absentee ballot and geographic distribution characteristics -- making it a representative sample, Cantu said.
Looking at the data, Cantu drew some interesting conclusions.
Mark Martinez, political science professor at Cal State University Bakersfield, said the survey takes "the first steps into trying to understand the variations in the Latino voting population."
Latinos from different generations, income levels and eduction levels get their information in different ways. Different messages resonate with them, Martinez said. Eighty percent of Latinos who speak Spanish, for instance, are far more interested in races with a Latino candidate. But of the 242 survey respondents who preferred to speak English, only 46 percent found a race with a Latino candidate more interesting.
Martinez said candidates will have to reach out to those to groups of voters in different ways.
"The survey showed that different messages need to go to different parts of the Latino community," he said.
Voters, he said, need to feel like their choice can make a difference and see a candidate that they can connect with and recognize.
Kern County Democratic Party Chair Candi Easter said that the party's activists are still middle class progressives.
A bridge must be built between the existing political organization and the voting community.
Statewide political activist Tony Quinn, an editor of the California Target Book, said the Democratic Party in Kern County is still bound to the remnants of the party that ruled the county two decades ago.
"In 1986 Kern County was 52 percent Democrat," Quinn said.
And Democrats there, he said, were white.
"These districts have lost their old, white Democratic base. Your Democratic Party (members) there -- like so much of the state -- are mostly not white," Quinn said.
Easter said the party needs Latinos to embrace the power they have.
Fiddler said the Kern Community Leadership Coalition is committed to bringing up Latino candidates and Latino activists from the grassroots level.
They want to help people who have been active in the community but haven't been politically active get involved in campaign work and ultimately in running for political office, she said.
Cantu is already planning his next step: He said he will duplicate this survey work in larger districts, on larger samples, to build a clearer idea of how that goal can be achieved.