I moved to California last year after living in Vermont, where I had attended college. Only a few months after I left, Vermont became the first state ever to elect a self-described socialist to the U.S. Senate – Bernard “Bernie” Sanders. Previously, Sanders had served three terms as mayor of Burlington (Vermont’s largest city) and eight terms as Vermont’s sole member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Before he had won any elections, he repeatedly ran for state office with the Liberty Union Party in the 1970s. In 1976, he ran for governor and received 6 percent of the vote. It was his best total to date, but soon after he retired from politics. Everything changed, however, when he realized that his support was much greater in his home city. His 1976 campaign had polled 12 percent in Burlington, and reached 16 percent in some of the city’s working-class areas. He decided to enter the 1980 mayoral race in Burlington – and won by a 10-vote margin, unseating a conservative Democratic incumbent.
The moral of this introductory story is that in electoral politics (particularly if you’re outside the mainstream parties), you need to focus on where your support is strongest. One victory in a relatively minor election is worth a hundred valiant defeats in major elections. I believe that the Peace and Freedom Party has the opportunity to stage a breakthrough, if it will focus on where its support is strongest.
Imperial County is located in the southeastern corner of the state. It has the dubious distinction of being the only California county named after a corporation – the Imperial Land Company, which developed the Imperial Valley (also named after the company) early in the 20th century. At that time, the valley was virtually uninhabited desert; the entire area that is Imperial County today had only 158 residents in 1902, despite being nearly twice the size of the state of Delaware. (There was no such entity as Imperial County then; it would not be separated from San Diego County until 1907.) Despite its inhospitable climate, the Imperial Valley had fertile soil, and the Imperial Land Company led the effort to develop the valley by bringing in water from the Colorado River. They succeeded, but at the cost of producing one of the worst ecological disasters in American history. In 1905, a diversion channel of the Imperial Canal suffered a catastrophic rupture, and water poured into the below-sea-level valley until the rupture was finally healed in 1907. The result was the Salton Sea, which is kept filled today primarily with agricultural runoff. It should be noted that the irrigation infrastructure had been built quickly and cheaply; the diversion channel that ruptured had been built over the border in Mexico to escape U.S. regulations.
Recently, I was studying the records of the 2006 elections on the California Secretary of State website. Specifically, I was looking at the number of votes received by the Green and Peace and Freedom parties, out of interest in the amount of electoral support for the left in California. As a national party with much greater public visibility, the Green Party consistently out-polled the Peace and Freedom Party. In most of the state, that is. I soon realized that there was one county where the situation was reversed, and the Peace and Freedom Party consistently out-polled the Green Party. In Imperial County, the Peace and Freedom candidate beat the Green candidate in the races for Secretary of State, Controller, Treasurer, Attorney General, and Insurance Commissioner, as well as the U.S. Senate. (Exact vote totals can be found at http://www.co.imperial.ca.us/Election/ElectionResults/ElectionNovember72006.pdf.) In the race for Controller, Peace and Freedom candidate Elizabeth Cervantes Barron received almost triple the votes of Green candidate Laura Wells – over 7 percent of the total. In the city of Calexico on the border, Barron received 12 percent of the total. Only in the Governor and Lieutenant Governor races did the Green candidate prevail in Imperial County.
Digging a little deeper, I began to understand why this particular county would be unusually receptive to Peace and Freedom’s message. Imperial County has by far the highest percentage of Hispanic residents of any county in California. Over 72 percent of the county’s residents identified as Hispanic in the 2000 census. By 2005, this figure was estimated at over 75 percent. Hispanics, of course, tend more toward the left in politics; 70 percent of them voted Democratic in 2006, according to a CNN exit poll. Furthermore, Imperial County is poor; the per capita income is only $13,239. (In contrast, the per capita income in Marin County, California’s richest county, is $44,962.) It is possible that at least a ripple of the resurgence of socialism that has swept Latin America in the last decade has reached America through its immigrant population.
What will the Peace and Freedom Party do with this opportunity? It seems to me that work should begin immediately on establishing a party chapter in Imperial County (unless there is already one there), and resources should be focused there. We should search for Hispanic candidates to run there, and produce more Spanish-language literature. And we should look beyond just county offices; Imperial County, along with the eastern end of Riverside County, comprises the 80th district of the California State Assembly. Its seat is currently held by a Hispanic woman, Bonnie Garcia. She is a Republican and a friend of Gov. Schwarzenegger, and will be unable to seek another term in 2008 due to term limits.
Having written all of this, I should note that I have never been to Imperial County. However, the issues I have tried to raise in this short article have much broader implications. As the only ballot-listed left party in California calling for open borders, the Peace and Freedom Party is well-positioned to become the electoral voice of the movement for undocumented immigrants. Over a million people took to the streets of Los Angeles last year, and the mainstream politicians have been unable to pass even cosmetic reforms. The situation is ripe for a third party with an uncompromising pro-immigrant message to fill the void. Even if it occasionally hurt us, this stance would ultimately help us to build a base in the immigrant community, which would greatly strengthen us in the long term. Immigrants may not be able to vote, but they have plenty of friends, relatives and allies who do. If we can win the hearts and minds of California’s burgeoning Hispanic population, we can become a electorally viable third party and have a real impact on California politics.