Boxer Retirement Provides Overdue Opportunity for Minority Democrats

At the pinnacle of California's elected hierarchy sit three white Democrats each born before Pearl Harbor.

It's a stunning fact that a Republican Party that still depends on whites for 90 percent of its votes has more viable minority leaders to consider for its 2016 presidential ticket than do Democrats.

Much of that imbalance can reasonably be attributed to California. The announcement by Sen. Barbara Boxer on Thursday that she will not seek reelection next year marks a critical test of whether Democrats in the state will begin to fill that void.

California is one of the most reliably blue states in the country. It's also one of the most diverse. The dominant Democratic coalition here relies on overwhelming majorities among the growing numbers of minority voters: Even in California, President Obama did not carry a majority of whites in 2012. Yet he won easily, of course, behind preponderant support among minorities, who made up 45 percent of all state voters that year.

And yet at the very pinnacle of the elected hierarchy in the state today sit three white Democrats each born before Pearl Harbor: Boxer, fellow Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and Gov. Jerry Brown.

Talented minority politicians are operating just below that top tier. Kevin de Leon is the first Hispanic state Senate majority leader since 1883. Attorney General Kamala Harris is the daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother. Rep. Xavier Becerra, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, is Hispanic. So is former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The current Los Angeles mayor, Eric Garcetti, has some Hispanic heritage.

But none of them—or any other minority politicians in the state—have reached the very top of the pyramid, a position as U.S. senator or governor that would place them in the national discussion for president or vice president. The Democratic inability to produce a viable national Hispanic candidate from a state that symbolizes the rising influence of that ethnic community in American life is especially stark.

The California void has contributed enormously to the strange disparity facing the two parties in 2016. Although Mitt Romney lost four-fifths of minority voters in 2012, and relied on whites for 90 percent of his votes, Republicans have a substantial list of prominent minority elected officials to consider in 2016 as either presidential or vice-presidential candidates. That list begins with Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, two Cuban Americans who may seek the presidential nomination, and Bobby Jindal, the Indian-American governor of Louisiana, another possible presidential contender; Rubio and Jindal are also potential vice presidents.

Also sure to make that vice presidential list is New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who is Hispanic. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, another Hispanic, has shown political skills that should also merit consideration, although he may be too moderate for many GOP leaders. That won't be a problem for Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, a staunchly conservative African American.

In 2012, Obama lost whites by a wider margin than any previous presidential winner and triumphed largely because of solid minority support and turnout. And yet the list of minority leaders that Democrats might consider for their national ticket in 2016 is shockingly small. No minority Democrat has been mentioned as a serious possible presidential candidate if Hillary Clinton doesn't run. The only names to have surfaced at all in early vice presidential speculation are two African Americans—Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Cory Booker, the former Newark mayor and first-term U.S. senator—and one Hispanic, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, the former San Antonio mayor. Booker and Castro are both politicians of enormous potential, but each man is only in his 40s, has spent limited time on the national stage, and not long ago was running a mid-tier city.

The Castro example is especially revealing about the way California's void is affecting the national party. Although some Democrats speak of him as a possible 2016 running mate for Clinton (you can pick up Clinton/Castro bumper stickers in the offices of the Texas Democratic Party), most party strategists are hoping he will first win a statewide election in 2018 that would position him for the national ticket after that. It speaks volumes that many Democrats believe a national Hispanic leader may emerge sooner from Texas, where last November's Democratic gubernatorial nominee won just 39 percent, than from reliably blue California. That's a grim verdict on the financial and organizational infrastructure available for California Hispanic candidates seeking top-tier positions.

An even bigger problem for minority Democrats in California is that the endurance of the talented and tenacious Brown/Feinstein/Boxer trio has held back all young party leaders, white as well as nonwhite. The inexorable process of generational transition that Boxer began Thursday "is going to open up an era of politics in California where a younger, more diverse generation is going to rise to power very rapidly," predicts Simon Rosenberg, founder of NDN, a Democratic group that studies demographic trends. That day can't come too quickly for a national Democratic Party that has remarkably few minority leaders to consider for the 2016 ticket it hopes will succeed the first African-American president.