The Fishhook: How Grassroots Politics Is Changing California’s Republican Heartland
Democracy begins at home, not in Washington or Sacramento: action before voting.
On a cold and cloudy day in October 1993, they tried to kick Maria Brenes out of school. The story of her exclusion from school nearly three decades ago, her refusal to leave, and the arc of her political life since explain a lot about California politics.
Since Maria was in high school, California politics flipped from Red to Blue and the state is known for its resistance to Trumpism. Yet, the underlying story of the state’s political change is wrongly understood as simply a Blue Wave or a Brown Tide. It’s more accurately a “politics is hard” story, that reflects the work of Maria and thousands of others who became politically active. Now, grassroots organizing illustrates how an emerging population gains political power, how it can update the California Dream, and how its techniques may turn an entire country.
Ponder Orange County, California, for a moment, the birthplace of modern Republicanism. The John Birch Society flourished here. Ronald Reagan’s political ambitions grew here, and Richard Nixon was born and politically baptized in the county’s fervent anti-communism. After the 2018 midterm election, the OC is without a single GOP member of Congress.
After the 2018 midterm election, the OC is without a single GOP member of Congress.
The flip in Orange County becomes politically breathtaking when it’s connected to the whole Republican heartland known as the “Fishhook.” The pointy end of the Fishhook starts in Orange County. Then it bows through San Diego, before turning upward into the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles connecting to a long shank up through the Central Valley from Bakersfield to Stockton. For much of the past 25 years, Republicans controlled the state because they could muster enough votes in these counties to counteract Democratic majorities in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area counties.
The Fishhook is changing. In addition to Orange County, Democrats flipped two House seats in the Central Valley and one in a district that covers northern Los Angeles and eastern Ventura counties.
Today, Maria Brenes’ political coming-of-age story helps us understand the how and why of the 2018 election results and their implications for the future of politics in the United States. Here, we follow Brenes’ story. In four future installments, I describe the “politics is hard” strategy of integrated voter engagement, illustrate it with stories of grassroots organizations throughout the Fishhook, summarize some lessons learned, and draw the implications for other states for the 2020 election and beyond.
Maria and Proposition 187
Other than the gray skies, that October day didn’t look much different than any of the school-going mornings Maria had experienced for many years. She jumped into her father’s car in Tecate, Mexico, and together they crossed the border: she and her brothers to school, her dad to work as a gardener. Sidonio Brenes was a U.S. citizen, and so were his children. He had lived in Los Angeles, owned a house in the San Fernando Valley, and sent his children to public schools. An injury and financial reverses sent the family south in search of a cheaper place to live, but Sidonio and Olga held onto their original immigrant dream that their children would get a real education, which to them meant a U.S. education. And so, starting in the fourth grade, Maria crossed the border every day to attend classes in the Mountain Empire School District in east San Diego County.
The border crossers were bending the rules, and school officials knew it, but each of the 250 or so border crossing kids represented student attendance revenue to the struggling rural school district, which was happy to have them until they became a political liability. In 1993, attitudes toward immigrants were hardening in California, and a citizen’s group associated with the Republican Party claimed that large numbers of students were going to school in California illegally.
Their accusation was a run-up to Proposition 187, a ballot initiative approved by California’s voters in 1994 to deny public services, including schooling, to persons in the country illegally. Teenage Maria, however, was simply terrified. She was an honor student and the editor of the student newspaper who would achieve admission to the University of California flagship Berkeley campus, but on that day she had been told that she was no longer welcome at school.
She and her family refused to stay excluded. Maria used her student newspaper experience to create flyers and her journalism passcode on the school photocopier to print them. More than 50 families rallied in her parents’ living room, and eventually MALDEF and CRLA provided legal support to the border crossing students. Her father rented a mobile home on the U.S. side of the border so that they would have a legal address in the school district. Gray Davis, the Democratic Secretary of State in California (later governor) headed an audit of students suspected of not living in the district. Maria remembers investigators poking into her underwear drawer. The school principal visited the Brenes mobile home on the weekend, found it vacant, and concluded that it was not their real home. Maria and her brothers landed on the exclusion list.
For a while, Maria went to school in Borrego Springs, about 50 miles from the border, but she quietly made her way back to her home school, the controversy apparently having calmed. She had never actually been taken off the class rolls, none of her teachers thought to tell the principal she had returned, and at the end of the year she got a diploma and headed to Berkeley.
White Anxiety, Proposition 187, and Rising Latino Political Activism
During Maria’s freshman year at Berkeley, California voters passed Proposition 187. Dubbed the Save Our State (SOS) initiative, it became the leading edge of ballot measures that capitalized on white fear and resentment. Nearly 59 percent of voters backed the measure to deny undocumented persons access to public education, health care, and other state services. Even voters in Los Angeles County, which had a large Latino population, voted yes.
Republican Gov. Pete Wilson became a prominent supporter. He was an unpopular governor and faced a tough reelection campaign with Kathleen Brown, sister of the state’s last governor, who was favored in early electoral polls by 20 percent.
Pandering to racial fears, Prop 187 proved a political lifesaver for Wilson. It also became a millstone that would diminish his reputation for decades. As an adult, Maria Brenes explained in an interview, “It blew up in his face because then he created this angry generation of people who made a commitment to take back California, to reclaim California.”
Op-ed writer Gustavo Arellano would say graciasto Wilson “for inspiring Latinos to enter politics like never before. And graciasfor making the defense of immigrants their rallying cry. From State Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra’s zeal, to bringing back driver’s licenses for the undocumented (which you took away) to declaring us a sanctuary state, it’s all a direct response to your cynicism.”
Proposition 187 declared that the people of California, “are suffering personal injury and damage caused by the conduct of illegal aliens in this state.”
But in 1994, a tough on immigration stance was not politically distasteful. In the U.S. Senate race that year, both the incumbent Democrat Diane Feinstein and her Republican challenger Michael Huffington sounded tough on immigration stances.
In language similar to that later used by Donald Trump, Proposition 187 declared that the people of California, “are suffering personal injury and damage caused by the conduct of illegal aliens in this state.”
Under 187’s provisions, all state and local law enforcement agents were required to investigate the immigration status of anyone they arrested whose immigration status they suspected. School districts would be required to verify the legal status of each child enrolled and the legal status of the child’s parents or guardians, something that had happened in Maria’s school a year before.
Two years later, in 1996, voters approved a ballot proposition to amend the California constitution to bar the use of affirmative action at all state institutions, including the University of California. The measure passed by a 55% to 45% margin. Gov. Wilson also supported this measure. The constitutional amendment remains on the books and has survived legal and legislative challenges.
Then, in 1998, voters passed the English Language in Public Schools initiative that nearly completely eliminated the use of bilingual education. Proposition 227, as the measure was known, was sponsored by Ron Unz, who had been the runner-up in the Republican gubernatorial primary against Wilson. (In 2016 the voters passed Proposition 58 that repealed most of Proposition 227.)
All these laws and ballot propositions fed an insecurity that white people were losing control of the state, that their culture and values were being undermined by immigrants. “White extinction anxiety,” New York Times columnist Charles Blow would later call it. In 2018, Pat Buchanan, who has made racial fears his political identity, wrote, “we are truly dealing with an ideology of Western suicide.”
But in 1996 in the midst of California’s anti-immigrant politics, Buchanan, the political commentator and advisor to Presidents from Nixon to Bush, linked his abortive presidential campaign to Proposition 187. “What we have is a lawless situation on the southern border of the United States where this country is literally being overrun by people who are violating our immigration laws and defying the American Constitution,” he said in a campaign press conference.
Later, at an evening rally in Rancho Cucamonga, where 300 chanting supporters crowded around him as he spoke under the glare of sodium lights, Buchanan continued hammering away at the immigration issue. “If we can send troops to protect the borders in Bosnia and South Korea, why can’t we send troops to defend our borders in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and here in California?”
Buchanan was never able to use racial fears to catapult himself to the White House, but Donald Trump has. Politico Magazine, has called Trump, “Pat Buchanan with better timing.”
Over the last quarter-century, California has countered the white fear lie, becoming diverse both in everyday life and in politics. California is home to a quarter of the nation’s immigrants, about 10 million. Half of the children in the state have at least one immigrant parent. It became a minority-majority state some years back and the national trend is unmistakable. In 2016 white deaths exceeded births in a majority of U.S. states.
Social and political chaos has not followed. The state has the world’s fifth largest economy and a functioning, ethnically diverse, legislature. And, as Peter Schrag writes: “One study in 2016 showed that half of U.S. startups worth one billion or more, a large percentage of them high-tech companies clustered in the metaphorical Silicon Valley, were launched by immigrant entrepreneurs. Silicon Valley — and much of California, indeed the whole nation — has an enormous economic stake in keeping the doors open. It’s hard to imagine what ‘America First’ means in that context.”
By the time she was studying at Berkeley, Maria Brenes was a committed organizer. She marched, she campaigned, and somewhat hesitantly mentions that she was among those who sat in, occupying Jerry Brown’s office when he was mayor of Oakland — this between Brown’s first terms as governor in the 1970s and his recently concluded administration.
After college, she found an outlet for her talent in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, just east of downtown, where Luis Sanchez had started organizing high school students into a movement called InnerCity Struggle. It has become a model of effective youth organizing and has scored significant victories over the last 25 years. Early on, students carried video cameras into school bathrooms to document their grossness, scenes that played well on television and embarrassed the Los Angeles Unified School District. Its impact broadened as it and others succeeded in gaining access to a college-prep curriculum for students from poor communities and bringing school construction money to the neighborhood’s immigrant-impacted schools.
Brenes now runs InnerCity Struggle, which is thriving and has just move into a new headquarters. She and Sanchez married — “we met at 17 and 19 but it took us a decade to get together” — and have two children.
“We have a big focus on the Fishhook part of the state where there are hotspots where young people make up a majority of the electorate, yet where they hadn’t participated…”
Both Brenes and Sanchez would become important elements in the “politics is hard” effort to build political power among people who have little. InnerCity Struggle is one of the anchor organizations in a statewide network to register and activate new voters. (More about that in my next story.) Sanchez became a political campaign organizer and served as chief of staff for Los Angeles Unified School District board chair Monica Garcia. Most recently, he founded Power California, an organization that has played a large part in the Million Voter Project, organizing young voters, including the pre-registration of more than 200,000.
“We have a big focus on the Fishhook part of the state where there are hotspots where young people make up a majority of the electorate, yet where they hadn’t participated, where they were punching below their weight politically” he told me. “We focused on the children of immigrants. The children of immigrants are a critical mass of youth; 95 percent are citizens and can vote.”
The Dimming of the Post World War II California Dream
Maria Brenes didn’t know it when she was growing up, but she was living in a very perilous California, and not just for Latinos. During high school, she had been politically awakened at a youth leadership conference. “By the time that conference ended, I was all Chicano power,” she recalled. And when she got to Berkeley just as the Proposition 187 campaign was underway, she immediately registered to vote: “my peers in Berkeley were very motivated in defeating 187, and I could intimately relate to the experience of being scapegoated and targeted.”
But by the time she graduated, the Golden State was looking less glittery. California was no more immune to deindustrialization than Ohio. Aerospace, auto manufacturing, banking, and newspaper publishing all suffered massive declines. Immigrant families had dreams of a better life, just as those who came before had, but the economic escalator that assured a middle class living had stalled.
Between 1950 and 1963 the state created nearly 20 percent of the country’s new jobs. One-quarter of the country’s defense contracts landed in California, the net beneficiary of the Cold War. The post-World War II expansion begat the need for infrastructure, and the state responded, building roads, schools, and university campuses. Manuel Pastor’s State of Resistance traces this arc, “California in the 1950s and 1960s was precisely the sort of demonstration project for an active government that many conservatives seem to fear at a national level. It was a golden era for the Golden State, driven by a bipartisan commitment to good governance, public investment, and expansion.” (p. 24)
California’s commitment to an expansive view of itself began to change as the Post-War II economy ran its course and the state’s politics made a sharp conservative turn. In 1966, a celebrity politician, Ronald Reagan, beat two-term Democratic governor, Pat Brown, father of Jerry Brown, the states’ recent iconic governor. Reagan governed to the middle. He raised the income tax, making it more progressive, signed a law protecting the state’s coastline, and approved hefty increases in university budgets. But Reagan’s small-government rhetoric — “government is not the solution; it’s the problem” — became a turning point in American politics.
A more radical version of conservatism ascended in 1978 with the passage of Proposition 13, a property tax limitation ballot initiative that ushered in what Peter Schrag has called “the semi-permanent revolt against government” (1998: p.11). Proposition 13 rolled back property taxes for all but delivered the most long-lasting benefits to corporations and the very wealthy. It also shackled both local and state governments, requiring a two-thirds vote in the legislature for any tax measure and a similar majority for virtually all local taxes, including those for education.
It also signaled the end of the belief that California had a boundless future. While Reagan campaigned for the presidency in 1980 under the theme that “it’s morning in America,” it was becoming clear that autumn was coming to California’s land of endless summer.
By the time Maria graduated from Berkeley, the state had entered a long period of decline. The tech sector crash and the repercussions of deregulating the market for electricity had left the state a fiscal mess. By the early 2000’s, California government had become both polarized and paralyzed. Democratic governor Gray Davis — the same Gray Davis who had ordered the investigation into Maria’s residency status — was recalled from office and voters elected a tough-guy talking but governmentally naïve Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor. Schwarzenegger hit a wall in 2005 when a fistful of conservative ballot initiatives were defeated. “Republican ideologues kept the state government hostage and thus paralyzed until they eventually got squeezed off the political map and California could function again,” Peter Leyden and Ruy Teixeira recalled.
By 2009, as Narda Zacchino would write, “California had run aground on the shoals of history, critics were bellowing — the once enviable state was drowning in deficit, and the sooner that Sacramento started emulating Austin, the better. Conventional wisdom that year held that Texas was now a ‘miracle,’ while California was a ‘failed state’” (2016: p. 11).
The California Comeback
What Zacchino calls the “California comeback,” is an epic story, but like all epics it deserves close examination for what it is and what it portends. By 2010 the state had turned all Blue at the state level. The GOP failed to elect a single statewide office holder. Jerry Brown returned as governor. The enfant terrible of the 1970s became the undisputed master of Sacramentoin the new century using a mixture of somewhat progressive-leaning politics, his father’s willingness to invest in large infrastructure projects, and his own tightfisted fiscal discipline. Brown held the reins tightly, signing only a small fraction of the bills that a Democratically controlled legislature passed.
It had been thought that the lack of a potent Republican opposition would stifle policy debate and innovation. The opposite happened. The legislature tackled issues from the environment to health care that had been previously gridlocked. The question became not whether the state should help people get health care, but how. The debate was not to be about whether climate change was happening, but how to respond to it. Previously, the gulf between the parties had left no center to move to. After 2010, the center, including many “business Democrats,” moved to the left and produced a flowering of ideas and legislation. (It’s also produced a quandary for progressives. Because Republicans are inconsequential in the legislature, corporations are putting their money behind business-friendly Democrats creating intra-party battles for elements of the progressive agenda.)
It had been thought that the lack of a potent Republican opposition would stifle policy debate and innovation. The opposite happened.
Voters, with the encouragement of Gov. Brown, broke the fiscal gridlock to allow the legislature to pass a budget with a simple majority rather than the two-thirds majority. Voters approved raising income taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year and approved a sales tax increase for all. The legislature aggressively responded to global warming, including a goal of getting all the state’s electricity from climate-friendly sources by 2045. Other states are following its lead.
While President Trump derailed his campaign infrastructure building promise in favor of a tax cut for the wealthy, California embarked on a $52-billion building program for roads, bridges, and public transit. Mostly paid for by a contentious increase in the gasoline tax, the program survived a ballot initiative challenge in 2018.
The state has passed a phased-in $15 an hour minimum wage law, and increased funding for public education is likely to advance in the legislature in 2019.
Optimism about the state’s future has not abated since Gavin Newsom became governor in 2019. “In every way, we are America’s coming attraction,” he said.
The California Dream Updated
There has always been a California Dream. It’s been a different dream over time, but there has always been something special about the state: a saga, a story we tell ourselves and others that is ultimately connected to how we govern ourselves.
The Gold Rush Dream was more about rising from poverty — getting a grub stake — than it was about getting rich. The Mediterranean Dream filled with orange groves and sunshine built the cities like Anaheim, Redlands, and Claremont. The Post World War II Dream, built on the benefits of the New Deal legacy — Social Security, low cost housing loans, and access to higher education — combined with the state’s boosterism and instinct toward construction. Lately, the Silicon Valley dream of getting enormously rich very fast by inventing something that is both cool and disruptive.
“California was not discovered; it was invented.”
As James Fallows wrote in reviewing Manuel Pastor’s State of Resistance, “In its promise of fresh starts and new opportunities, California was to the rest of the country what America, in its best version, was to the world.”
Each of these dreams has been fueled by migrants and immigrants, who were variously welcomed or shunned.
There was an African-American dream riding Liberty Trains from the South in the 1940s to escape from Jim Crow. There were caravans of Okies that made their way from the dustbowl drought to hard labor in irrigated fields. There was and still is a Latino dream of el norte as an escape from poverty, war, corruption, and violence.
Maria Brenes’ parents followed the dream that their children would obtain a better education, a real education, an American education.
These personal dreams aggregate into an idea of the state itself. Historian Victor Silverman notes that, “California was not discovered; it was invented.”
If we drill down, we will find that the current political struggles with the Trump administration are just regressive fights, and the interesting edge of politics is the struggle within the state about how to move forward. It is not whether people should have a guarantee of health care, for example, but whether the state should embrace a single payer plan, and if so how. It is not about whether Dreamers should stay, but how to best create a comprehensive approach to immigration reform and what a state can do when the national government has so dramatically failed to create workable immigration policy.
What starts as a struggle to make things better for one’s self and one’s family expands into a legacy for future generations. Obtaining a better school, refurbished park, safe street, or clean glass of water, rapidly connect to a new narrative about government — that governments have power to make their lives better and that they can gain power to make government work.
Whether they are so-called Business Democrats or the newly ascendant progressives, there’s general agreement that California is headed in the right direction and, as is often the case, is out in front of the country by 15 years. Minimum wage, health care, an unimpeded right to vote, revitalizing education, clean energy, pushing back against gun violence, all these have moved forward in the last decade.
As the stories from Brenes and other organizers illustrate, government doesn’t start with Washington or Sacramento but in city councils, water boards, and school administrations. People who become engaged locally set out on a long patient road of building power for people who are not wealthy or well connected, who have been told that their race or ethnic heritage consigns them to the back of the political bus.
Long, patient work has created an arc in Maria Brenes’ life: “I’ve been working for twenty-five years to take power back into the hands of people who feel like they can’t do anything about their situation when they can, and we can change the narrative.”
At the end, Maria’s dream is our dream.
(Next: How ‘Politics is Hard,’ slow patient power building is impacting traditionally Republican terriory.)
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