Ken McLaughlin
Posted: 09/27/2010 10:19:29 PM PDT
Updated: 09/27/2010 10:19:43 PM PDT

Battlegrounds: Part 1

As the elections approach, we examine the political mood in three areas of our state. First up: the Inland Empire, loosely defined as Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

MORENO VALLEY — Just four years ago, real estate agent Oscar Rodriguez was pulling in $225,000 a year as the local housing market roared.

Then it all went bust. “I lost one house, two condos, six cars and a wife,” said Rodriguez, 36, who knew three fellow agents who committed suicide. “Everyone was losing their homes — even the rich people.”

Here in Moreno Valley, an ethnically diverse city of 188,000 an hour’s drive from Los Angeles in the heart of the sprawling Inland Empire, voters like Rodriguez are suffering in ways even many recession-battered Californians cannot imagine. This is the epicenter of the home foreclosure crisis, a symbol of everything gone wrong with the nation’s financial system.

It’s a place where politics isn’t so much about protecting the environment or solving the state’s water crisis. To win votes here, Democrats and Republicans must appeal to the dispossessed and disenchanted.

In a year in which the margin of victory in the governor’s race is expected to be razor-thin, both sides are making extraordinary efforts outside vote-heavy regions such as the Bay Area and Los Angeles County. So in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 2 election, the Mercury News will focus on three of these battlegrounds, places that have their own unique dilemmas — and their own political characters.

These days, politicians can appeal to the Inland Empire and other regions of the state in carefully tailored ways, relying on so-called microtargeting technology that gives them more information than ever before about what moves individual voters.

Democrats are looking for voters in Riverside and San Bernardino counties whose anger can be directed at Wall Street excesses. Republicans are making a pro-business, anti-career-politician pitch.

“Our message to Latinos, working-class people and stay-at-home moms is the same: ‘If you like what you see, vote for Jerry Brown,’ ” said Hector Barajas, a spokesman for GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay.

Dreams vanish

A land of freeway mazes, warehouses, towering gas station signs, lonely palm trees and desertscapes, the Inland Empire is a place where time just sort of stopped three years ago. When the housing market and, later, the credit market collapsed, joblessness skyrocketed. Many of the warehouses became ghosthouses, storefronts were shuttered and the homeownership dreams vanished for tens of thousands of people — many of them Latino — who had moved from Los Angeles to find affordable homes.

Rodriguez, the real estate agent, is a former Angeleno, raised in South Central. Despite his brief run as a wealthy person, he says he’ll never forget his working-class roots or Brown’s past support of Latinos and average citizens.

A Democrat, Rodriguez said he became disgusted when the main issue in Whitman’s GOP primary battle against Steve Poizner became illegal immigration. “It was like, ‘Who hates Mexicans the most?’ ” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez’s former boss, real estate broker Amado Hernandez, said he’s willing to overlook Whitman’s immigration stance because he’d like to see a solid business person in the governor’s suite.

“The government is killing us with all the taxes they’re proposing,” said Hernandez, a 54-year-old Republican who owns a Century 21 office in Moreno Valley. “It’s a miracle we’re still in business.”

Microtargeting voters

Just before the economy crashed, the California Labor Federation had quietly launched its “Million More Voters” project, a cutting-edge microtargeting effort. The federation has now garnered the names and contact information of about 2 million registered voters statewide “who are not union members but share their values,” said Art Pulaski, chief officer of the federation. Those voters include mostly working-class Democrats and independents, but also some Republicans.

About 300,000 of them live in the Inland Empire, said Connie Leyva, a San Bernardino County resident who heads Local 1428 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

The labor federation sees opportunities in parts of the Central Valley and the Inland Empire — particularly in San Bernardino County, where the population has become more Latino and more Democratic in recent decades.

“The demographics are shifting,” Pulaski said. “So we want to be sure we’re talking to these folks.”

Microtargeting had been mostly a Republican tool. But Pulaski became intrigued after seeing how well Karl Rove made it work for George W. Bush in Ohio, the state that swung the 2004 election.

The technology involves merging political databases containing information on individual voters — including their party, how often they vote, how much money they donate to political causes — with information from commercial marketing vendors who hawk data on consumer spending habits. The result: tech-driven, tailored political messages that end up in voters’ mailboxes.

In addition to sending mailers, the unions are dispatching troops to speak at workplaces and walk precincts.

Whitman’s largely self-funded campaign, in turn, is using its own sophisticated brand of microtargeting to battle the union foot soldiers. And her campaign and the California Republican Party have put together a network of “victory offices” — four in the Inland Empire alone — that coordinate volunteers to staff phone banks and engage in a bit of Democratic-style shoe leather pounding.

Riverside County is a bigger challenge for the Democrats. In 1932, it was one of only two counties on the Pacific Coast to vote for Herbert Hoover over Franklin D. Roosevelt. And movie producers once tested movies (including “Gone With the Wind”) there because “Hollywood felt that the demographic was Republican Middle America,” said Ron Wall, a local Democratic activist.

But in the past decade, the Republicans’ edge over Democrats in the county has fallen from 10 percentage points to 5.

Cows and closures

A common sight in once fast-growing cities such as Chino, in San Bernardino County, are cows grazing on land near new housing tracts and strip malls.

“A few years ago, it looked like this valley here was going to be wiped out” as developers gobbled up agricultural land, said second-generation dairy farmer Rudolph Haringa, 35. “Then it just stopped.”

One recent morning at Flo’s cafe at the Chino Airport, Haringa joined a mix of farmers, truckers and mechanics — most of them independent-minded people who expressed disappointment about the choice they face in this year’s governor’s race. Their comments indicated the volatility of this year’s independent vote.

Over the years, Chino businessman Maurice Ayala, 61, has been a Democrat, a Republican and an independent. Not liking the top choices for president two years ago, he voted for Ralph Nader.

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