SAN FRANCISCO — The Democrats running for president will be forced to prioritize immigration and other issues affecting Latino communities if they want to have a chance at winning California’s suddenly pivotal 2020 primary, Democrats in the state said, after those issues have been largely absent from the early phase of the race.
White House hopefuls have traditionally passed through California mostly for fundraisers, the state’s June primary typically a nonfactor in the nominating contest. But thanks to state party leaders who pushed the primary up to March, the state is now set to play a much bigger role for candidates than in the past.
California primary voters will go to the polls on a Super Tuesday with the highest number of delegates of any state voting that day. The state’s mail voting will begin even sooner, on the same day as February’s Iowa caucuses.
Alex Padilla, California’s Democratic secretary of state, told BuzzFeed News the move, “by design,” increases the state’s influence in the process — and that means more emphasis on Latino issues.
“Across the state of California, most individuals that have won statewide office including our governor have made it a point to really engage directly with the issue of immigration, but most importantly immigrant families and their US citizen children,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Los Angeles–based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Action Fund, who ran an immigration-focused candidate forum in Pasadena on Friday.
California remains an expensive place to campaign and buy advertising, so candidates are getting in early. Fourteen of the 23 Democrats running for president converged on the state last weekend for the California Democratic Party convention and other big organizing events.
“Historically many presidential candidates have not cared to invest deeply in Californians other than to use us as an ATM machine,” Kevin de León, a former state senator who lost a race against US Sen. Dianne Feinstein last year, told BuzzFeed News. “That’s no longer the case. Moving the primary up early to March is forcing candidates, as it should be, to not just engage the very elite and wealthy of California but everyday working families.”
After immigration taking a back seat to other issues over the past few months of touring states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan, several candidates talked more about immigration over the weekend and, at a forum hosted by progressive group MoveOn, framed their other positions on housing, income inequality, criminal justice, and gun control as racial justice issues.
Two candidates released immigration plans just before heading to California, and four made the trip to Pasadena on Friday for the immigration-specific forum filled with Latino voters and their families.
Candidates need “to recognize that to have a political chance in California, you can’t just talk about the issue, you have to engage the voters directly impacted by that. And if they do, they win,” said Salas.
Beto O’Rourke, the former member of Congress from Texas, did not attend Friday’s immigration forum, but made immigration reform the theme of his speech at the MoveOn event Saturday — “What if we said that we really wanted to ensure that every immigrant who’s come to this country of immigrants and asylum-seekers and refugees was truly treated with the dignity and the respect that they deserved?” he said, the day after addressing the Chicano Latino Caucus partly in Spanish.
Most candidates were generally vague, if showy, about their plans over the weekend. Latino activists said getting immigration and Latino voters on the agenda in California is a step forward, but they’re still waiting on more substantial policy proposals from most candidates to back up some of that talk. Only three Democrats — former housing secretary Julián Castro, O’Rourke, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee — have released immigration plans so far.
“I think it’s really important that they talk about immigrant rights in their platforms, and right now I don’t see a lot of candidates doing that. For me it kind of makes or breaks whether they make my short list,” said Jamie Tijerina, a conference delegate and LA City Council candidate. “For example, Julián Castro, he has a really comprehensive immigration platform and prioritizes that and I wish more candidates would not be afraid to advocate for immigrant rights directly in their platforms.”
At the immigration forum Friday, Sens. Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders laid out some more specifics about their vision for immigration reform — including a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people and putting an end to for-profit immigration detention centers. But Harris and Sanders, like most Democrats in the field, have yet to release a detailed plan.
At the California Democratic Party convention and caucuses in San Francisco, several candidates continued to frame their allegiance to Latinos with callbacks to the Trump policy that separated children from their families at the border.
“We know ripping children from their mothers’ arms is not border security,” Harris said in her convention speech Saturday. “It is a human rights abuse.”
The Chicano Latino Caucus heard from three 2020 candidates: Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, O’Rourke, and Sanders, who scored the group’s endorsement in 2016 when he eventually lost the California primary to Hillary Clinton.
“I don’t have to explain to anyone in this room that the future of our country depends upon defeating a racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic president,” Sanders told the caucus, drawing huge cheers.
Klobuchar, during her appearance before the caucus, called for comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship “because immigrants don’t diminish America, they are America.” She added, a moment later, “California is now a super, super, super Tuesday state, right?”
“I think we need to secure the border, but that doesn’t include building a wall,” former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is running for president and spoke at the convention Saturday, told BuzzFeed News. “I think the people that are here illegally, we should give them visas — 10-year visas with a 10-year option to renew. If they create crimes, if they are guilty of a crime, they get deported. There’s got to be some punishment [if] they came here illegally, but they should be able to, just like anyone else, have a pathway to citizenship.”
Some operatives and activists said California’s Latino voters were instrumental in flipping seven House seats for Democrats in the midterms last year, and that immigration and immigrant communities have played important roles in getting politicians elected statewide.
“Putting [California] earlier in the primary schedule will ensure that there’s a more diverse electorate that’s weighing in in the early part of the primary calendar,” said Stephanie Valencia, cofounder of Latino political engagement group Equis Labs and one of the moderators of the MoveOn forum over the weekend.
“There’s no question that Latino voters in California are going to play a really important role in the primaries, but even in the general, keeping Democratic control of the House and making sure Latino voters are not overlooked in the general election,” she said.
The California Democratic Party will also host a forum for presidential candidates at its next gathering in November. The event, to be broadcast from Long Beach by Univision, will focus on issues important to the Latino community.
“So many people have said so many times that we’re this sleeping giant,” Alexandra Gallardo-Rooker, a Latina who served as the state party’s acting chair until a vote for new leadership this weekend, said in announcing the Chicano Latino Caucus forum. “But I think we woke up a long time ago. Trump is our number one enemy, and they know that, and that’s what we’re going to concentrate on.”