On election day in Compton this year, Isaac Galvan passed out burgers and soda to voters who went to the polls in what turned out to be a historic moment in the Los Angeles suburb.
Galvan drew raves. He sure knew how to make a good burger, many said.
They might have also said of the 26-year-old that he knew how to run a campaign.
After years of Latinos trying but failing to elect one of their own to the Compton City Council, Galvan had finally become the first Hispanic a win a seat on the lawmaking body of a town that had become a majority Latino city a decade earlier.
“We’ve been praying to eventually get some Latino in office,” says the Rev. Alex Leon, a pastor in Compton. “Our prayers were answered.”
Galvan himself was more practical about his role in the city’s politics.
Isaac Galvan and his politics
“I was the first Latino to win,” he says, “but not the first to run.”
For Galvan was no political virgin. He was acutely aware of what a lot of Latinos stubbornly refused to admit:
That many Latinos, even when they are citizens and able to vote, nevertheless stay away from the polls — and it can be difficult to win relying on those votes alone.
“I noticed with other Latino candidates, they wanted to treat African-Americans the same way they were treated,” he says. “I was campaigning to include African-Americans.”
Galvan’s victory, in other words, was partly the result of building a viable political coalition with African Americans and others instead of just running a campaign depending entirely on Latino votes.
It is shrewd, smart politics, according to experts who say Galvan is more typical of big city politicians who routinely practice coalition politics than he is of most small town pols.
Compton’s political culture
While other Latino politicians are out and about bragging about majority numbers in towns like Compton, they say, Galvan knows those demographics are often misleading.
“There’s always a lag time between demographic shift and political representation,” says Fernando Guerra, a professor of political science and of Chicano Studies at Loyola Marymount University.
“Latinos have always been able to count on African-American support on major (civil rights) issues, but what happens at the local level … not as much.”
Galvan is changing that.
For starters, in spite of his young age, Galvan has been around the block politically more than once.
He has connections to a controversial political clique that has had criminal run-ins in other Los Angeles suburban cities.
Galvan’s former boss – a onetime Compton City Council candidate — was convicted of a felony political conspiracy charge that was reduced to a misdemeanor at his sentencing for sending out attack mailers with copies of fake official documents.
But then, Compton is hardly a town for softies.
It was once known as the “murder capital” of the country, and the 10-square-mile city of almost 100,000 that is two-thirds Latino and one third African American has a poverty rate that hovers at 25 percent.
Galvan himself survived a tough childhood. When he was 12, his father was killed in a traffic accident, and Galvan spent time being raised by his mother in Los Angeles and his grandmother in Compton.
But he stayed out of trouble, enrolled in Santa Monica College and opened a small printing business nearby while keeping his eye on the changing demographics and politics of Compton, once black political haven.
Latinos became a majority in Compton but failed at winning any council races, even when a voting rights lawsuit pushed the city toward single-member districts.
Now Galvan stands on the precipice of what Stanford professor Albert Camarillo calls “multicultural… transformative political change.”
Galvan, though, must first deal with problems left over from his campaign. He ran afoul of campaign finance reporting laws, and some people in Compton don’t like the people he hangs around with.
But he steadfastly refuses to turn his back on the supporters and politics that got him elected.
“If someone tells me to stay away from the blacks,” he says, “I will never talk to them again. Period. I have a lot of passion about that.”