News & Politics

Will Arnold And Arianna Rally the Immigrant Vote?

'Schwarzenegger' and 'Huffington' may not sound like typical immigrant names in California, but the state's many foreign-born just may identify with them anyway.
In California, where one out of four residents is foreign-born, the entry of an Austrian Hollywood superstar and a Greek anti-corporate pundit has electrified the messy recall contest. But will their gubernatorial bids make immigrants the swing vote at the ballot box in October?

Both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Arianna Huffington touted their immigrant roots when they launched their candidacies. Though fewer immigrants know about Huffington, or even that she is an immigrant, Schwarzenegger's success story does resonate among California's foreign-born.

Raymond Virata, a Filipino-American graphic designer in Daly City, at first found it hard to think of Schwarzenegger as other than a pumped-up superstar with grandiose ambitions.

"You laugh at first because you think of an actor like (former) Filipino president Joseph Estrada who was a joke," Virata says. But on second thought he is struck by the fact that Schwarzenegger is "a self-made man," a bodybuilder who came from Austria and really made it.

"Perhaps immigrants buy into the American dream much more than Americans who have been here two or three generations," concurs Firoozeh Dumas, the Iranian-born author of the memoir "Funny in Farsi."

Dumas likes the idea that the California's next governor just might have a foreign accent, remembering how her parents struggled with their thick Iranian accents in blonde, blue-eyed towns like Whittier, Calif.

But, "there is a hierarchy of accents," Dumas warns. "When someone with a pronounced Middle Eastern accent runs for governor, I'll know change has really come."

This "hierarchy" may be hindering Hispanic and Asian immigrants' instant identification with European immigrants Schwarzenegger and Huffington.

"It's interesting -- they both have these strong accents like most immigrants do," says Pilar Marrero, political editor of the influential Spanish-language daily La Opinion in Los Angeles. But, she adds, "Most immigrants in California don't sound like Arnold or Arianna."

For Marrero, the true immigrant story is Cruz Bustamante's. "That the son of a working class immigrant family from a small town in the Central Valley can have a shot at being the state's first Latino governor -- now that's exciting, that's a real immigrant dream."

Schwarzenegger's big hurdle with Latino voters is his admission that in 1994 he voted for the divisive Proposition 187, which cut off social services to undocumented immigrants and angered Hispanic voters.

His campaign manager, former California governor Pete Wilson, was the main sponsor of Prop. 187. "The Republicans are utterly clueless about Latinos and other immigrants," says Roberto Lovato, a Los Angeles-based political consultant. "They hope that star power can erase the effects of repressive power like Prop. 187."

But Schwarzenegger has powerful name recognition -- celebrity estimated by some experts as worth hundreds of millions of dollars if paid for in advertising. In San Francisco's Chinatown, for example, everyone knows the Terminator.

"Arnold is a household name not just because of his movies, but also because an ad he did for an instant cup of noodles company was broadcast all over mainland China, " says Leon Chow, a community organizer with the Chinese Progressive Association. "In Chinatown, perhaps only 20 percent may know the name of the governor," Chow adds.

For some, it's not Schwarzeneger's celebrity but his politics that appeals. "Russian immigrants like Arnold not because he's an immigrant or famous, but because he's conservative, and we have conservative values like freedom and family," says Janna Sundeyeva, publisher of the Russian newspaper Kstati in San Francisco. "And as an Austrian he understands the value of good public education."

Hispanics and Asians traditionally have low turnouts. Only 32 percent of Asians and 26 percent of Hispanics voted in 1996, compared with 68 percent of whites. But can the candidacies of two non-politicians galvanize Hispanic and Asian voters, who are 14 percent and 4 percent of the state's voters, respectively?

They can, says David Lee, who heads the Chinese American Voter Education Committee, but not because they're immigrants.

"You will see a different kind of voter turnout -- maybe those who normally don't vote and are maybe less concerned about issues, but are drawn by star power," Lee says. "With 'Da Terminator' in the race, turnout will likely increase as the media go bonkers over his candidacy."

But in a system where immigrants often feel left out of the electoral process it is no coincidence that the two high-profile immigrant candidates are both not career politicians. "Their candidacies are an indictment of bureaucratic politicians," says Arvind Kumar, editor of the San Jose monthly India Currents.

Though he thinks the recall is "a costly waste," Kumar hopes Huffington and Schwarzenegger can energize the debate. "What's interesting is that they come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, proving you cannot put immigrants in a box."

Sandip Roy (sandip@pacificnews.org) and Rene P. Ciria-Cruz (reneccruz@pacificnews.org) are both editors at Pacific News Service. Additional reporting for this story came from Pueng Vongs and Elena Shore.