Mark Takano, a 51-year-old gay Japanese-American, is counting on a new Hispanic-majority district to make him the first Democratic congressman from Southern California’s Riverside County in two decades.
His opponent, who’s also non-Hispanic, is likewise wooing the Latino vote and independents. John Tavaglione, 64, is a pro-choice Republican who plays in a rock band and refuses to promise not to raise taxes.
The district 50 miles east of Los Angeles, redrawn last year by an independent commission, is about 56 percent Hispanic, according to data compiled by Meridian Pacific Inc., a political consulting firm in Sacramento. The race offers one of the few opportunities for California Democrats to pick up a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“This is emerging as an urban area,” Takano said. “It’s no longer the Republican stronghold it has been seen as.”
Hispanics have played a large role in the area’s transformation from a citrus-growing region into suburbs ringed by brown, boulder-strewn hills. While Riverside County’s population grew 42 percent to 2.2 million in the decade that ended in 2010, its Hispanic population surged 78 percent to 1 million, according to U.S. Census data.
Hispanic growth in population and political clout in California mirrors a national trend. In 2010, Latinos represented 8 percent of eligible voters and 7 percent of actual voters, according to the William C. Velasquez Institute in San Antonio, Texas, which tracks Latino voting patterns. Latinos now make up 11 percent of eligible voters, the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center said in a report.
In 2008, Latino voters backed Barack Obama over Republican John McCain, 69 percent to 29 percent, according to polling data cited by the Velasquez Institute. With Hispanics alienated by Republican policies on border issues, Republican Mitt Romney is struggling to match or beat McCain’s share of the 2008 Hispanic vote.
Arizona’s “show me your papers” law, which requires local police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect is in the country illegally, helped fuel a 51 percent jump in Hispanic voter registration since 2008, according to the state Democratic Party.
In the 2010 midterm elections, 60 percent of the Hispanic vote went to Democratic House candidates, with 38 percent voting Republican, the Pew center said in a report.
The 41st Congressional District is centered on the city of Riverside, whose estimated population of 311,651 last year made it bigger than Pittsburgh.
The lack of a Hispanic candidate in the race may reflect a shortage of qualified contenders. Just one of the seven Riverside City Council members and none of the five county supervisors is Latino.
Gilberto Esquivel, the local chapter president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a civil-rights advocacy group based in Washington, said he’s not especially distressed about the absence of a Latino on the ballot.
The league backed the new boundaries because it was more interested in the partisan makeup, said Esquivel, a 72-year-old Democrat. Latino votes are key to capturing the district for Democrats, and demographics suggest a Hispanic could be on the ballot in the future, he said.
“One thing about the Latino community is that we keep growing and growing,” Esquivel said.
Latinos make up 37 percent of eligible voters in the 41st district, less than their share of the population because many aren’t old enough to vote or aren’t citizens.
The boundaries should have been extended into Hispanic-majority areas of neighboring San Bernardino County to boost Latino voters to 50 percent, said Thomas Saenz, president of the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“We still feel this is a district where the Hispanic community will not elect its candidate of choice,” Saenz said in a telephone interview.
Takano, who was elected to the Riverside Community College District board in 1990, lost campaigns for Congress in 1992 and 1994. After 18 years, he’s running again because the new boundaries put the district in play, Takano said.
If elected, Takano would be the first openly gay Asian American elected to Congress. He said his ethnicity and sexual orientation aren’t issues in the race.
“I’m a longtime elected official here,” he said. “People know me and they’ve watched me govern at RCC. I personally feel it’s a different time. Riverside County and the country have moved to a different place.”
Takano said his work as a teacher and his support of the Dream Act, which would provide a path to legal residency for some people who are in the U.S. illegally, enhance his appeal to Latinos.
“I have been a teacher for 23 years, serving a largely Latino student population,” he said. “At the community college board, we’re a Hispanic-serving institution.”
Takano’s opponent is a veteran county supervisor who moonlights as a vocalist and guitarist in a 1960s classic-rock band, the Legendary Mustangs. While Tavaglione’s campaign website twice mentions working across party lines, it doesn’t contain the word “Republican.”
Tavaglione said his appeal to Latinos mirrors his pitch to all voters in the district: He’s a pragmatist who understands the needs of the area after serving as a member of the county Board of Supervisors and Riverside City Council, both officially nonpartisan posts.
“In 18 years in a nonpartisan office, I’ve never looked at people’s party, I’ve never looked at their color or their race,” Tavaglione said. “You just do your best to represent everybody. My record speaks for itself.”
Tavaglione said he disagrees with the Republican Party platform on several counts. He is pro-choice on abortion and refused to sign Grover Norquist’s pledge not to raise taxes, he said. Tavaglione said his pledge is to his constituents.
A fourth-generation county resident, Tavaglione was endorsed by Riverside Mayor Ron Loveridge, a Democrat who has led California’s 12th-largest city since 1994.
“It was only when people started moving here from Orange County that it became Republican,” said Mary Violasse, 61, at an outdoor performance by Tavaglione, who wore jeans and flip-flops as he played on stage with his sextet.
As Tavaglione sang, Takano worked the crowd in a pinstriped suit.
“Republicans are under attack just demographically here,” said Violasse, who described herself as a lifelong Democrat. “Mark Takano enjoys a broad base of support from a lot of populations, but John Tavaglione is practically a native son.”