By Janell Ross
June 6, 2016
All politicians do it. Over the course of navigating the United States's uniquely long presidential campaign cycle, they settle on some themes and lines that they repeat at one campaign stop after another. Those that generate laughter, applause or other forms of group praise are most likely to be repeated.
So there's really nothing unusual about Bernie Sanders's repeated mentions of Cesar Chavez, the late California-based agricultural workers rights activist and civil rights leader. There's nothing unusual about the fact that Sanders held a rally in Cesar Chavez Park in San Jose on Friday. And given the way that lots of candidates compete for minority votes, there's not even anything all that unusual about this: Chavez's son and son-in-law have publicly disagreed about which of the two remaining Democratic candidates Chavez would have supported.
But what is notable here is that Sanders so regularly invokes the name of Chavez. And the crowds that Sanders is attracting in California are, it seems, into it. When Sanders says Chavez's name, the cheers are big, as The Fix's Callum Borchers observed at his California rallies last weekend.
During his swing through California, Sanders has spent some time gathering information about the conditions under which a lot of agricultural workers labor and visited a historic site where Chavez once did some of his organizing work. Sanders has also said some things about pesticide exposure, clean drinking water and low pay in the agricultural industry that those who agree or cope with these conditions firsthand like to hear.
But not everyone is impressed. The L.A. Times described Sanders's tour of California's agriculture-dominated Central Valley as "heavy with imagery of the past" and light on specifics about what he might do to elevate wages or address industrial pollution in an area of the country where agriculture provides a large volume of jobs and serves as a major economic engine.
Others are giving Sanders the benefit of the doubt.
"I'd say this is pragmatic and smart, rather than anything approaching pandering," said Efrén Pérez, a Vanderbilt University political scientist, California native and expert in Latino political behavior.
Sanders is turning to a kind of respectful symbolism, Perez said, in an attempt to cover a whole slate of policy positions that may not be as attractive to California Democrats, many of whom are Latino.
"It's a very basic sort of psychology," Perez said. "I think he sees the handwriting on the wall in terms of what the California electorate looks like; it's not only Latino — heavily Latino — but largely Mexican American. Chavez is like Martin Luther King — an icon — so he is trafficking in symbolism that has meaning. He is trying to say, by referring to Cesar Chavez, 'I understand and respect voters like you. I understand your history, and can you take a second look at me?'"
Chavez, born to a farming family in Arizona in the late 1920s, saw his family's fortunes fall dramatically during the Great Depression. After losing its farm, the family joined many others migrating from state to state following crop development cycles and doing the hard labor of removing fruits and vegetables from plant stalks. Chavez left school in eighth grade because his family needed the wages Chavez could earn with full-time work. He later joined the U.S. Navy, became an organizer for a civil rights group and then, while only in his mid-30s, founded the National Farm Workers Association. That union later merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee and subsequently became a part of the United Farm Workers.
Chavez leaned on some of the tactics employed by civil rights activists, including marches, boycotts and nonviolent resistance, and often drew connections between the movements. Chavez even managed to persuade some middle- and upper-class Americans who had never picked a fruit or vegetable in their lives to stop buying certain products in protest. He also voiced opposition to foreign guest-worker programs and reported illegal workers to federal immigration authorities.
That combination, Chavez believed, bolstered the ability of legal workers to demand better work conditions. And he was involved in successful efforts to boost agricultural worker wages and demand safer and more sanitary working and living conditions. Chavez died in 1993 and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom the following year.
And, for Sanders, maybe it's just that simple.
Chavez is a giant figure in the labor movement and well known to lots of people in California. While only exit polls and voting returns after the Tuesday primary will reveal how racially and ethnically diverse Sanders's support is in California, the state's population — the people likely to show up at those California rallies — is fundamentally different than that of other states where Sanders has done well. More than 60 percent of the state population and a significant share of the state's electorate are Latino, Asian, black or Native American.
However, despite Sanders's many mentions of Chavez, the United Farm Workers of America has officially endorsed Hillary Clinton. And the board's explanation seems to include some references to those consistency and racial-justice matters that have dogged Sanders throughout the primary season.
...Hillary Clinton has consistently stood with farm workers and immigrants, fought on behalf of and voted for comprehensive immigration reform, repeatedly sponsored the UFW-negotiated AgJobs legislation as a senator, supported farm workers in their fights for union contracts and worked to end discrimination against them.
The consistent respect Hillary Clinton has shown farm workers over her career, her willingness to answer tough questions, her commitment and work to end prejudice and her determination in the pursuit of progressive change have earned our support.
Now, some agriculture workers and labor activists have objected publicly to the Clinton endorsement, insisting that Sanders's focus on economic inequality is of greater import. But in February, the United Farm Workers president wrote in a piece published by the Huffington Post that the organization had some outstanding questions for Sanders that explain the union's ultimate choice.
Sen. Sanders voted against the Kennedy-McCain bill and led the push for amendments that killed the measure because he opposed the conditions pushed by business interests for guest workers, he said during the Feb. 11 debate.
But Sen. Sanders’ opposition to abusive guest worker programs didn’t extend to a bill he cosponsored in 2011, to allow agricultural guest workers into his home state’s largest farm sector — Vermont’s dairy industry.
Sanders probably hasn't offended anybody with his copious mentions of Chavez. But Clinton has had longtime and high-level Latino political operatives on her staff with years of expertise courting and winning Latino voters. Clinton has long-standing relationships with lots of Latino elected officials and policy positions that have earned her the support of a lot of Latino voters over the course of the past few months.
In addition to that, the Republican race has put matters of race and ethnicity, the basic ability to feel safe and equal, at the center of the 2016 campaign. So, Sanders's economic-inequality-first message may have just had a harder time breaking through.
Sanders has tried different tactics before to expand his appeal among blacks and Latinos, with little to show for it. If he can do better with Latinos in California on Tuesday, Chavez might have had something to do with it.
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