Last summer, Raúl Ureña signed up to run for City Council in Calexico — a border town in California's Imperial County — just days before the filing deadline. His opponent, the incumbent candidate, looked likely to keep the seat, but Ureña, who had just graduated from college in Santa Cruz, Calif., wanted to give voters a more progressive choice.
Ureña knew that a winning campaign would have to speak to Latino voters whom the pandemic had hit worse than any other group in California.
"Just the content of the message: that people are suffering," Ureña says, "it really spoke to the fact that they did want a change in leadership." Months later, Ureña beat the incumbent, winning 70% of the vote.
That desire for change pulsed through the Imperial County electorate in 2020. While President Biden won the historically blue county with 61% of the vote, former President Donald Trump cut his margin of defeat by 17 points from 2016, the largest swing of any county in California.
The political shifts along the southern border offer some warning signs for the state's ruling party that could spell trouble for Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, in the recall election next Tuesday.
In California's most Latino county, demographics alone may not deliver the gains Democrats have come to rely on from Latino voters.
And the county's one constant — low voter participation — points to a fossilized method of outreach to a largely Spanish-speaking community also grappling with both health and economic crises.
"The Democratic Party doesn't really exist here in Imperial County," Ureña says.
Right now in Imperial County, Ureña says, "most people don't even know what the recall is about."
On the recall, Latino voters paint a mixed picture
For Rosalba Jepson, economic anxieties are carrying over into the recall election against Newsom.
"Get rid of him," says Jepson, a voter and teacher in Imperial County. "We work hard, he gets paid," she adds.
"I had to switch from teaching in class to doing something online I had never, ever done before. You think that wasn't stressful? Nobody paid me that extra time."
Political polling on the vote released in recent weeks paints a mixed picture of where Latino voters stand, though the momentum is trending in Newsom's favor.
An August CBS News poll found likely Latino voters split 50% to 50% on keeping Newsom in office, while more recent surveys from the Public Policy Institute of California and the Institute of Government Studies at the University of California, Berkeley found two-thirds of Latino voters oppose the recall.
So far in the recall election, Latino voters across the state have returned mail ballots at lower rates than any ethnic group, according to Political Data Inc., which tracks turnout in California.
"No. 1 in all the bad things"
Imperial County stretches from the canyons east of San Diego to the Arizona border. The economy is dominated by agriculture; the valley's priority claim to Colorado River water transformed the region into a winter vegetable powerhouse, sending lettuce and salad mix to supermarkets across the country.
Everyday issues can make civic participation a low priority for residents, says Raul Navarro, a political science instructor at Imperial Valley College.
Job opportunities are few and far between: The county's unemployment rate is 18.9%, far higher than anywhere else in the state.
Rates of diabetes, heart disease and asthma are exacerbated by local pollutants, such as the chemical-laden dust blowing from the exposed bed of the Salton Sea and the exhaust of cars idling at the border port of entry.
COVID-19 has ripped through the county, resulting in the state's highest number of deaths per 100,000 residents.
"We're No. 1 in all the bad things," Navarro says.
Trump's focus on the border
No issue resonates for voters in Imperial County more than immigration. For many living along it, Trump's constant emphasis on the border struck a chord.
In Imperial County, investments in U.S. Border Patrol agents and infrastructure mean jobs and the potential for easier cross-border commutes.
"I think a lot of people just really were not engaged," says Sayrs Morris, the chair of the county's Republican Party. But that changed with Trump, she says. "His policies were helping make our area secure and prosperous, [and] they really wanted to come out and support him."
Trump also showed up: In 2019, he visited two cities in the county, El Centro and Calexico, touting a newly installed section of the border wall. Local organizers says the visit allowed them to build a network of Trump voters in the lead-up to the 2020 election.
The result was Trump winning 36% of the vote after carrying just 26% of the county in 2016.
Danny Ramirez, a Democrat living in Calexico, says his socially conservative views have made him a reliable voter for Republican candidates. And he thinks Catholic and evangelical fellow Latino Democrats in the region are ripe for a similar political conversion.
"I believe that the majority of the Imperial County is also pro-life and pro-family, but they don't vote that way because they don't know," he says. "Those Democrats are more Republican than they think."
Ramirez isn't shy about his beliefs: At his used bus dealership along a popular highway, he displays large signs denouncing state and national Democrats for their positions on abortion rights.
Will momentum carry into the recall?
Ureña, the Calexico council member, says a focus on the roots of the recall campaign could be an effective message to convince Latino constituents to support Newsom.
The petition to remove Newsom from office, written in early 2020, charges the governor with hurting residents in myriad ways, but the first is this: "Laws he endorsed favor foreign nationals, in our country illegally, over that of our own citizens."
"It's not about COVID; it's not about stealing money," Ureña says. "The proponents of this measure think that Gov. Newsom is helping [undocumented] immigrants too much, and all of this racist rhetoric ... is coming out."
And the delivery of the message is important, too, Ureña says. A progressive vision can win in Imperial County in the recall election and beyond, he says, "but the cultural representation just needs to be there. Things need to be bilingual."
"Gov. Newsom has been attentive to the needs of Latinos and low-income people across the state: protecting us, sending us the stimulus checks and things of that nature," he says. "It's just a matter of, again, communication, getting into our homes and genuinely visiting our communities."