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LOS ANGELES — Tim Robbins of Shawshank Redemption fame was milling around taking iPhone videos. Comedian Jeff Ross was in the crowd too.
But commanding the stage at Sen. Bernie Sanders’ packed rally on a concrete schoolyard in East LA — just like another stage at Fresno City College a day earlier — was a rotating cast of a different kind of local celebrity: young Latina community leaders.
Elizabeth Alcantar Loza, the vice mayor of Cudahy, Calif., explained how Sanders inspired her to run for office for the first time. In Fresno the day before, student organizer Rosalie Baptista, invited the crowd to a student organizing meeting. Kingsburg, Calif., City Councilwoman Jewel Hurtado took the stage there too, explaining that Sanders was the influence for her upstart run for office just last year at age 20.
Hurtado, who joked that she’s the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Central Valley, told VICE News in an interview after the rally that when it comes to the Latino vote, she and her fellow Berniecrats are ready to turn it out.
“I stand with Bernie because he's always been with us,” Hurtado said. “Now that [President Donald] Trump has been elected, we see what can happen when we don't show up. This time around, we're ready. We're ready for him and we're ready to work for him and we're ready to vote for him.”
Sanders is relying heavily on Hispanic women to win what may likely be the single most important state for his campaign. Sanders sees his power in the numbers of Latino voters who support him at higher rates than any of his competitors. He has great expectations that by turning out young Hispanics, he’ll be able to finish first in the delegate-rich Golden State.
In a year that looks to end in a crowded, if not contested, convention, the campaign that wins a large share of the California delegates will, without a doubt, be red hot heading into the final stretch of the race. The state is even more important this year, because leaders moved its primary up to Super Tuesday and early voting laws mean voters can start casting ballots the same day as the Iowa Caucuses.
That is exactly the case Sanders made to the crowd in Fresno.
“Brothers and sisters, it is no great secret that California has more delegates to the Democratic National Convention than any other state,” he said to cheers. “That candidate who wins California has an excellent chance to win the nomination. And with your help, we are going to win California.”
Sanders is outpacing the rest of the competition among Latinos. He has received contribution after contribution from the demographic group — in fact, he has taken in almost 35% of the overall Latino fundraising across all campaigns, according to an independent analysis of fundraising totals. At the rallies, spectators flocked to the merch table to donate cash, a handful of dollars at a time, and walk away with a t-shirt or lawn sign.
In California, polls have consistently found that upwards of 30% of registered Latino voters prefer Sanders as their candidate, far higher than any other candidate.
Part of that, of course, owes to his relationship with the community from his last presidential campaign. Sure, scores of Latinos remember his name from the 2016 ballot, but Sanders needs to contact a whole new generation of voters if he wants to set a new mark of high Latino turnout.
So it is no surprise that Sanders has invested heavily in majority Hispanic communities, opening offices in Fresno, East Los Angeles and Riverside. Those are also the areas where he will have to improve over last election in order to win the state. Sanders won the largely white and progessive Northern California counties over Hillary Clinton in 2016, but fell short in the Central Valley and Southern California.
'Unidos con Bernie'
And this is exactly what these rallies are all about. It’s not just about him appearing in the flesh. It’s also about the countless images shared on social media of Sanders hyping up overwhelmingly Latino crowds holding “Unidos con Bernie” signs in predominantly Latino neighborhoods. Scores of kids reposted those images with pride, writing something to the effect of, “Hey, that’s my school!” In short, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has her selfies; Sanders has his rallies.
Grammy winning Latin funk rock band Ozomatli opened up the Los Angeles gathering with a set, punctuated by multi-instrumentalist Ulises Bella hyping Sanders to the crowd.
“Bernie’s one of those down from day one type vatos,” he yelled. “That’s why we’re down for Bernie … and then look what happened [in 2016]. Orale! We’ve got to make it this time!”
After the rally, Bella told VICE News he thinks the Trump Administration’s hardline immigration stance could motivate Latinos to vote for a Democrat.
“The environment and the climate of the times hopefully might motivate people who've never voted before,” he said. “There's been things that have happened in the last couple years that, even if you're conservative Latino, it might rub you the wrong way.”
There are signs pointing in that direction. Hispanics turned out in a record wave in 2018, contributing to Democratic victories in traditional Republican House districts across California. A recent poll found that nearly three-quarters of registered California Latino voters plan to vote in the primary next year, which would be an unprecedented number.
Christian Arana, the policy director of the Latino Community Foundation, which conducted that poll, said Sanders has been doing the best job of any campaign reaching out to young Latinos, a population he said has been shocked into civic action by the Trump presidency.
“There's been a civic awakening among young Latinos,” he said. “This is a huge opportunity to incorporate a young Latino population that has often been ignored. For Bernie to go to Fresno City College, you know, like the heart of young Latinos in the Central Valley, it's a big deal.”
Cover: Democratic presidential hopeful, Vermont Senator, Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters during a campaign rally in Los Angeles, California on November 16, 2019. (Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)