Cesar Chavez at the Root of Obama's Campaign: Grassroots Latino Voter Outreach

In the 2008 February primary elections, Latinos made up 30% of all total voters in California. Now, for the first time in U.S. history, Latino voters could play a decisive role in the presidential election.

If they do, we can thank Cesar Chavez and UFW alumni... and the city of Los Angeles.

Forty years ago, Cesar Chavez and the UFW went to Los Angeles to increase Latino voting for Robert Kennedy's California 1968 presidential primary campaign. Their strategy included voter registration drives, intensive door-to-door and street outreach, public visibility events and Election Day GOTV efforts. This strategy bolstered the political voice of Latinos and Democrats in Los Angeles, throughout California and across the nation. Today, these tactics are an integral part of the Obama campaign and could well decide the 2008 election.

Many UFW alums are working to elect Obama. Former UFW Organizing Director Marshall Ganz helped develop the "Camp Obamas" that have recruited and trained Obama campaign organizers, while former UFW Executive Board member Eliseo Medina serves on the Obama National Latino Advisory Council. And UFW alum Sharon Delugach, who left school at age 15 to work as an organizer for the UFW is now organizing for the Obama campaign in Southern Missouri.

The UFW grassroots voter organizing launched in 1968, an era when door knocking and "on the ground" outreach was considered outdated. But, the UFW treated political campaigns like community organizing drives and relied on people going door-to-door. The UFW was right. Talking neighbor to neighbor was successful in the barrios of East Los Angeles where large voting margins for Robert Kennedy helped provide his margin of victory.

After the end of the UFW's heyday, UFW alums implemented and enhanced the union's voter outreach strategies. In Los Angeles, in 1996, after UFW alum Miguel Contreras became head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, he used the UFW-inspired electoral model to greatly increase Latino and union member voting. UFW alums Eliseo Medina and Chava Bustamonte then took the Los Angeles model statewide, dramatically increasing the number of Latino Democrats, doubling the Latino share of the electorate and adding over one million Latino voters to the rolls.

Increased Latino voting, much of it rooted in Los Angeles, brought Democrats commanding majorities in the State Legislature, California's first Latino Assembly Speaker, and, in 2005, helped elect Antonio Villaraigosa as Los Angeles' first Latino mayor of the modern era.

Reaching beyond California in 2006, Medina helped bring the UFW's Los Angeles grassroots electoral model to Colorado and Arizona, leading Democrats to key victories in both states. Presently, the UFW outreach model is operating in eleven states, and helps explain why Obama is well ahead in New Mexico and is positioned to win such "red" states as Nevada, Colorado and Florida.

In light of Los Angeles' landmark role in boosting voting among such historically low-voting communities as immigrants and Latinos, it is fitting that the city is in the midst of launching the nation's largest fast. The "Fast for our future," will begin in La Placita Olvera in the heart of the city on October 15th and continue through the November 4th elections. Like so many of the tactics used in political organizing today, the fast, designed to get one million people to "vote for immigrant rights" harkens back to Cesar Chavez's legendary 25-day fast for nonviolence in 1968 and to Los Angeles, the birthplace and current hub of so much Latino and immigrant grassroots organizing.

The "Fast for our future" is yet another example of how the UFW's "Si se puede" (Yes we can) spirit still drives the struggle for social justice today. Just as the UFW voter outreach model began in Los Angeles and then spread nationally, the upcoming fast is expected to inspire thousands across the country. And, it shows that Los Angeles still remains the epicenter of progressive Latino and immigrant activism.

Los Angeles has been known for its beaches, music, and movie stars, but if Barack Obama's campaign wins on November 4th, the city should also be identified as the birthplace of the grassroots voter outreach strategy that dramatically changed the political course of the United States.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (October 2008, University of California Press).