Do Upwardly Mobile Latino Plumbers Have Anyone to Vote For?
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I spent the morning with a young plumber who owns a growing company known for excellent work. He came with his cool camera-snake—a technology plumbers under 40 take for granted—to see why our condo complex’s pipes are backing up. We talked tree roots and hydrojetting, not politics. But my experience with this competent and upwardly mobile entrepreneur, whose fluent English still has a Latin American lilt, gave some recent political discussions additional resonance.
Last week Ruy Teixeira, co-author of the famous 2004 book The Emerging Democratic Majority,1 posted an essay on his Substack with the self-explanatory title “Working Class and Hispanic Voters Are Losing Interest in the Party of Abortion, Gun Control and the January 6th Hearings.” It hit some themes he’s long been trumpeting, including the growing defection of Latino voters from the Democratic party.
In current polls, he wrote, “Democrats lose among all working class voters by 11 points, but carry the college-educated by 23 points. This is less a class gap than a yawning chasm.” Citing specific issue differences, he concluded, “Strong progressives clearly live in a different world than Hispanic and working class voters.”
Both activist Democrats and Trumpist Republicans tend to equate “working class voters” with older white Rust Belt men, not upwardly mobile, often self-employed Latinos. But in my neck of the woods at least, the latter predominate. And I don’t see them represented in our political options. Trumpists portray them as criminals, welfare leeches, and job stealers, while progressives depict them as victims of racist capitalism. Both reflect zero-sum thinking. Neither rings true.
But, given a choice, increasing numbers of upwardly mobile working-class Latinos, especially men, are opting for the party that respects work, if not workers. That’s bad news for Democrats. It’s also bad for those of us who worry about Trumpism’s threat to American institutions but would rather not see the “racist capitalism” view of the world triumph. Although Teixeira and I have different policy preferences, like him, I’d like to see Democrats wise up.
They don’t even need to leave their progressive bubbles to get insights into the exotically ordinary world of working-class Latinos. They could just read the Los Angeles Times. It’s a liberal paper with a rare commitment to telling their stories as not as symbols but as normal people who speak for themselves. It’s old-fashioned local reporting. Here are samples from today’s edition:
There’s the heart-wrenching story of how Gustavo Flores Álvarez, a Mexican immigrant who owns a cabinet-making business, lost his family’s house to a fire from a homeless encampment on a long-vacant piece of city land nearby.
Álvarez said he thinks the man who built the encampment behind his house sparked the fire while trying to steal power. He had notified the police about the man, who would often get high and play loud music. But nothing happened.
The man has now set up a new camp a short distance down the same pathway, and more fires have occurred, terrifying others on the block.
“Do you know how scary it is to get a call that says there is another fire behind your home?” asked Álvarez’s next-door neighbor, Yvonnette Brown. “I constantly live in fear of something happening at the back of my house.” [Emphasis added.]
It’s a sidebar to a long feature on the city’s failed promises to use the land to bring jobs to Watts. Prospective developers couldn’t navigate the barriers. One example:
Seeing 10 acres of vacant land, Craig Furniss’ first thought was, “This is unbelievable. There must be something wrong.”
Finding nothing demonstrably wrong, Furniss and his partner, fresh from success in building the Alameda Trade Center produce market in downtown, took a chance. Partnering with the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, a jobs and social services nonprofit born out of the 1965 Watts riots, they made a winning bid in 2004 to build food-processing facilities.
Five years later, worn down by a plethora of bureaucratic setbacks, they gave up, Furniss said.
The neighborhood never got behind the plan, he said, and the city kept adding demands.
“They just kept layering these things,” he added.
Among those, he recalled, were building setbacks, job-creation targets with penalties for falling short and pre-approval of property transfers.
Then a change in mayoral administrations brought a new planning director and a new requirement: The city wanted a percentage of any profits.
The most productive approach would be to sell the land at market rates and let somebody build whatever seems to make sense for the area—likely some combination of housing and light industry or retail. But why cede control when you can “layer on demands?” So the land stays unused and, thanks to conflicting jurisdictions, unmaintained. If it gets used at all, the property will likely go to provide “interim housing, tiny homes, safe camping or trailers” to replace the encampment. You can see why hard-pressed strivers like Álvarez might find that disillusioning.
Meanwhile, in Boyle Heights, a rich businessman and philanthropist wants to turn a massive now-unoccupied Art Deco Sears distribution center into the “Los Angeles Life Rebuilding Center.” The center would offer housing, medical and mental health services, job training, immigration help, and drug treatment to as many as 10,000 currently homeless people.
Boyle Heights is a traditionally working-class neighborhood, the first stop for immigrants going back to Jews in the early 20th century. In recent years, it has gentrified as even households with six-figure incomes have trouble finding places they can afford to buy. That has caused tensions with long-term residents, who are also none-too-fond of the plans for the Sears building. They showed up at a recent meeting to protest the idea. From Andrew J. Campa’s LAT report:
Now, an outsider was telling them that the landmark Sears building, once the pride of the community, would house not hundreds, but thousands, of homeless people.
“It was like a whole bunch of things were said, but nothing made sense,” lifelong Boyle Heights resident Jasmine Flores, 21, said after the meeting. “It seemed very much an unrealistic dream that we were being sold, while real solutions, things that could help people from Boyle Heights, weren’t considered.”
Some felt aggrieved that their community, already reeling from COVID-19 deaths and environmental pollution, was now supposed to “fix” Los Angeles’ massive homelessness crisis.
Others lamented that basic services they’ve demanded from city and county officials — street cleaning, affordable housing and better security — continued to be neglected, while homelessness has taken center stage.
Flores was one of more than 30 people who spoke against the project. She said her family nearly wound up homeless on a few occasions during her childhood, and many in Boyle Heights are still barely making ends meet.
Like several other speakers, she considered it unfair that so many resources would be devoted to a transient community, rather than to residents who have been struggling for years. [Emphasis added.]
The scheme raises all sorts of practical questions, but neighborhood residents are less concerned with financing or architectural plans than with why someone wants to help vagrants rather than financially pressed people who are managing to keep their lives together.2 Why couldn’t someone turn the building into inexpensive housing for working families? Or expensive housing that gives affluent people a place to live without squeezing out existing neighbors? Because it’s too damned hard to develop housing in Los Angeles. Too many people get a veto and there are too many rules and too many delays. As Nolan Gray says in his new book on zoning Arbitrary Lines, “Housing delayed is housing denied.” (Coming soon: my interview with Nolan.)
Finally, columnist Gustavo Arellano, who represents an uneasy combination of fierce progressivism and what he calls “rancho libertarianism,” excoriates supposedly liberal local pols for cracking down on Latino street food vendors.
In my hometown of Anaheim, councilmember Jose Moreno — who fought a lonely fight for years against corruption at City Hall and is the chair of the longtime civil rights group Los Amigos of Orange County — shocked supporters when he asked city staff last week to look into cracking down even further on street vendors, even though Anaheim already has some of the most stringent regulations in Orange County.
After mumbling about supporting those micro-entrepreneurs as “a matter of philosophy and the need for people to make a living,” Moreno — who’s a professor of Chicano and Latino studies at Cal State Long Beach — nevertheless said “when they start setting up right in front of restaurants … that’s an affront to our small-business folks, the neighborhood, the community.” [Emphasis added.]
Profe, you’re sounding like a Trumpster.
Street vendors are, of course, themselves small-business folks. And if you think eating from a street vendor is an equivalent experience to sitting down in a restaurant, you don’t understand market segmentation (or chairs).
The theme running through all these stories is simple: Government doesn’t work and it particularly doesn’t work for ordinary people trying to make better lives for themselves. You have to either have money and connections—to have made it already—or you have to be seen as a victim, despite ignoring your responsibilities for yourself and those around you.
Along similar lines (but not from the LAT), Josh Barro puts his finger on an issue much more likely to cost Democrats votes than transgender athletes:
The ambivalence of liberals about whether they even want lower gasoline prices — and the steps the Biden administration has taken to discourage domestic oil production, for example by placing holds on oil and gas lease auctions — reflects the values of the highly educated, disproportionately affluent and educated demographic that dominates the Democratic Party’s staffers and donor base. Many of these people care a lot about carbon emissions and don’t care very much about whether gasoline is cheap, and that’s a real disconnect from lower- and middle-income voters across the ideological spectrum for whom cost of living is of paramount concern.
Unfortunately, this is a harder problem to solve than not saying “Latinx.” The policy concessions progressives would need to make on energy to stop weighing down the party are substantive and important.
A lot of progressives arrive at environmentalism not through cost-benefit analysis but through an essentially moral view that abundance — population growth, more energy, new homes — is itself harmful to the earth. There is an unbridgeable disconnect between that view — the philosophy that underlies the urge for “de-growth” — and the desire of most normal people to have a continually rising standard of living, with large cars and better appliances and air conditioning. And as shortages persist as a major theme in the world economy, this disconnect will become a larger and larger problem.
Upwardly mobile people have a stake in dynamism and abundance. If Democrats offer only stagnation, rationing, and neglect, those voters will turn to the alternative.
DIY plumbing snake/camera for less than $60
If you ignore the political train wrecks, the 21st-century is amazing.