In Latino neighborhood, Clinton’s experience counts

by Steve Lopez
February 10, 2008 
Nick Frousakis went to his grave in December, and one of his most loyal customers, Raul Sousa, followed him into the ground the very next day, old age doing both of them in.

“Nobody wants to sit there now,” said Diego Romero, pointing to where Sousa used to hold forth at Jim’s Burgers, State and 1st in Boyle Heights.

But the gang still shows up most weekdays to carry on the tradition despite the absence of Frousakis, a Greek-born businessman who had the good sense to put tacos up on the board next to hamburgers.

They drink coffee from Styrofoam cups. They soak up the sun. And they talk.

Life, death, sports, women, politics.

It was the last of those subjects I wanted to hear about last week. Latinos turned out as never before in the California presidential primary, accounting for 30% of the Democratic vote. As a group, Latinos sent an early valentine to Hillary Clinton, voting for her by a 2-1 ratio.

I wanted to know why, but first I had to find some Clinton voters. So which candidate did these guys like?

“Clinton,” three men said in unison when I sat down Thursday.

“Clinton,” said three different men when I took a seat at the same table Friday.

Altogether, four of the six said they had actually voted. One is a legal resident but not a citizen, and the other just didn’t make it to the polls.

The state’s Latinos are overwhelmingly Democratic, and none of the Jim’s crowd even considered voting for a Republican, even though Sen. John McCain supported a path to legal status for many illegal immigrants.

“They’re for the greedy corporations,” said retired landscaper Feliz Botello. “They don’t care about us and our people.”

He might get some disagreement from the estimated 10% of the state’s Republican voters who happen to be Latino.

So why Clinton instead of Obama?

“El sabe menos [He knows less],” Roberto Luz, a mariachi, said in Spanish of Barack Obama.

“¿Que ha hecho, él? [What has he done?],” echoed Joaquin Vega, who used to run the auto repair shop across the street.

Most of the comments were similarly straightforward. It didn’t hurt that L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa supported Clinton, said the men.

But if I had to list the top reasons the men liked Clinton over Obama or a Republican candidate, the order would go something like this:

She has more experience than Obama. The Clinton name is trusted. Times were good under Bill Clinton, and Hillary is cut from the same cloth. Too much money and too many lives are being wasted in Iraq while things fall apart at home.

Jaime Regalado of Cal State L.A.’s Pat Brown Institute told me by phone that some of Clinton’s enemies on the right are seen as enemies of the Latino community, particularly on the subject of immigration. She was smart, Regalado said, to use Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in TV ads and link herself to the slain Kennedy’s support for Cesar Chavez and farmworkers.

Regalado was surprised by just how strong the Latino turnout was. But in retrospect, he said, the gloomy economic news, the war and the possibility of ending Republican rule were something of a perfect storm, and Latinos were eager to make their voices heard.

“The last factor is that in the Latino community, as in all communities, there is a certain amount of prejudice,” Regalado said, and some Latinos were probably more comfortable with a white woman than a black man.

Even a black man who said illegal immigrants should have driver’s licenses and that immigrants can’t be blamed for problems in some black communities?

Yes, and yes again.

“He’s a very good speaker, and maybe he would be better than Clinton,” said Vega, who agreed that younger Latinos seemed a little more inclined to connect with Obama. “But I like Clinton.”

I pointed out to Vega, Bill Escarsega and Botello that they don’t exactly come from a matriarchal culture. So how did these old-school caballeros suddenly get so comfortable with the idea of a woman in the White House?

“It’s not black or white, male or female, it’s experience,” said Vega.

“My grandfather? Macho, macho, macho,” said Botello. “My father? Macho, macho, macho.

“I don’t believe in that B.S. anymore. You know why? I’m civilized. I went to school.”

When the men talked about all the lives lost in Iraq, and Botello said his cousin was killed in combat, I reminded the kaffeeklatschers that Clinton had voted to support the war.

“And she should be held responsible,” said Vega, but that doesn’t mean she’s not the best candidate.

“Bush lied,” Botello charged. “Bush and Cheney lied to everybody, including Congress.”

As we spoke, a Latin beat warped and wobbled out of a music shop across 1st Street, and a man came along pushing a battered old bicycle someone had just given him. It needed some love, he said, but it would be fine.

So who did he vote for?

“Clinton,” he said immediately, and with that, the former first lady had swept the corner of 1st and State streets in Boyle Heights.


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