ESCONDIDO, Calif. (AP) — Aging apartment buildings and small, closely spaced houses crowd the downtown streets where Escondido's Hispanic population is concentrated. Whites have long since moved to the outskirts, where upscale subdivisions and wide, well-paved streets have replaced avocado and orange groves.
The downtown area might be the city's showpiece in other places, but not here. It's called the "doughnut hole," defined by the absence of something. For the Hispanics who live there and comprise nearly half of the city's 148,000 residents, what's missing is political clout.
As Latinos surpass whites as California's largest racial or ethnic group early next year, more are getting elected to public office, including the mayors of Los Angeles and Sacramento, members of Congress, lieutenant governors and leaders of the state Legislature.
Not so in Escondido — Spanish for "Hidden." It is among a smattering of cities with large Latino populations that have eluded their grasp.
The north San Diego suburb elected its first Hispanic to its City Council in its 125-year history in 2008, not counting a one-term member in the 1990s, Elmer Cameron, who played down his Mexican ancestry. Councilwoman Olga Diaz, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who learned English as a second language, is running for mayor next year in the first elections with district, instead of at-large, voting to the council.
Escondido adopted district voting after getting sued under the California Voting Rights Act for its poor record of electing Latinos. Other cities — Modesto, Anaheim, Compton, Palmdale, Whittier — have faced similar challenges. Escondido's doughnut hole, also called "the urban core," makes up District 1, whose citizen voting-age population is slightly more than 50 percent Latino and is seen as more likely to elect one of its own.
Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, rattled off the names of California cities that have elected Latinos to local office and noted that Hispanics occupy 27 of 120 seats in the state Legislature, up from seven in 1984.
Yet Latinos are disproportionately ineligible to vote because they are either too young or are not U.S. citizens, Vargas said. Cities with large and growing Latino populations often have another majority group that is uncomfortable with changing demographics, he said.
Latinos make up 33 percent of the state's adult population but only 17 percent of likely voters, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. They tend to be young, less educated, less affluent and lean Democratic. Whites comprise 44 percent of the adult population but 62 percent of likely voters.
Jose Fragozo, who moved to the San Diego area from the Mexican border city of Mexicali when he was 12, credited the Escondido Union School District's change to district voting for winning a seat on the school board in 2012 after two losses. He raised only $3,000 and knocked on every door in his downtown district, where signs at strip malls and churches mix English and Spanish and some quiet residential streets lack sidewalks and street lights.
"I could finally afford to send a mailer and go door to door," said Fragozo, 48, echoing a common argument for supporters of district elections.
Councilwoman Diaz, 37, first ran for her seat in 2006, outraged by an ordinance that required landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants. She stepped to the microphone during a heated council meeting to tell leaders they were "nuts" and "either incompetent or malicious."
A federal judge later blocked the ordinance before it took effect.
Diaz, a Democrat in a solidly Republican city, lost but won two years later, aided by higher name recognition, enthusiasm for Barack Obama's presidential run and a visible presence as owner of two coffee shops.
"They knew me well enough to know that I'm not a scary person," said Diaz, who is married to a white Escondido police lieutenant but kept her maiden name.
Diaz, who was easily re-elected last year, is often on the losing end of 4-1 votes and has failed to get any support for proposals such as sprucing up a barren flood control basin that crosses Latino neighborhoods and waiving home-remodeling permit fees for veterans.
Latinos made up 48.9 percent of Escondido's population in 2012 but relations remain strained with city leaders. The city has impounded thousands of vehicles at checkpoints, many of them from people who don't qualify for a driver license because they are in the country illegally.
In 2010, the city forged an unusually close alliance with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has agents at police headquarters to check the immigration status of people questioned at checkpoints or elsewhere. In 2011, it began requiring city contractors to use an online federal database to verify that employees are eligible to work in the U.S.
Mayor Sam Abed, a Lebanese immigrant who is seeking a second term against Diaz, embraces the city's efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. A 2010 campaign mailer showed a photo of people running across a freeway — apparently after entering the country illegally — and proclaimed he was the only candidate who could uphold the rule of law.
"It's about quality of life. It's about prosperity. It's about public safety for everybody," said Abed, 62, a retired manager at IBM.
Abed said Escondido hasn't elected more Latinos because those that have run are too liberal for the city, where Republicans hold a 14-point edge over Democrats in voter registration.
Julio Diaz, who works at an Escondido nursery and is not related to the councilwoman, can't vote because he is in the country illegally. He settled in Escondido 10 years ago to join his parents, who were deported after being stopped at a city checkpoint in 2010.
Diaz, 33, has tried to convince three friends who can vote to elect a City Council that would end checkpoints and other policies he considers harmful to immigrants. Their response disappoints him.
"What good will it to do?" they tell him. "Nothing."
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