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Monday, July 30, 2007

The New Politics of Political Aid in Venezuela

Five years after U.S.-funded groups were associated with a failed coup against Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez, the U.S. government's political aid programs continue to meddle in Venezuelan domestic politics. A new focus of the "democracy builders" in Venezuela and around the world is support for nonviolent resistance by civil society organizations.

In the name of promoting democracy and freedom, Washington is currently funding scores of U.S. and Venezuelan organizations as part of its global strategy—including at least one that publicly supported the April 2002 coup that briefly removed Chávez from power.

When he first heard the news of the coup, the president of the International Republican Institute (IRI) praised those "who rose up to defend democracy," ignoring the fact that Chávez was the twice-elected president of Venezuela. Despite this declared support for a coup against a democratically elected president and for the opposition's blatant disregard for the rule of law, IRI still runs democratization programs in Venezuela that are underwritten by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The IRI, a supposedly nonpartisan institute established to direct U.S. democratization aid for which Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is chairman, is one of five U.S. nongovernmental organizations that channels funding from USAID to Venezuelan organizations and political programs. USAID also funds the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDIIA) and three U.S. nongovernmental organizations: Freedom House, Development Alternatives Inc., and Pan-American Development Foundation.

The United States has supported political groups in Venezuela since at least the early 1990s, but funding for "democracy-building" soared after Chávez was elected president in 1998. Both USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which funds IRI and NDIIA, sharply increased their funding to Venezuela's business associations, its official labor confederation, human rights organizations, and political party coalitions.

USAID's Transition Initiative

Several months after the unsuccessful April 2002 coup in Venezuela, the U.S. State Department established an Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) in Caracas, using money from USAID. Operating out of the U.S. Embassy, OTI has two stated objectives, according to the agency: to "strengthen democratic institutions and promote space for democratic dialogue," and "encourage citizen participation in the democratic process."

USAID established OTI with the explicit intention of aiding efforts to oust President Chávez. According to USAID, the new office would "provide fast, flexible, short-term assistance targeted at key transition needs."

Although it did not spell out what would be the desired "transition," in its 2001 job description for the new OTI director in Caracas, USAID stated that the director's responsibilities would include "formulating strategy and initiating the new OTI program in close coordination with U.S. political interests" and "developing an exit strategy and operational closeout plan."

Rather than directly funding Venezuelan organizations and political parties, OTI channels USAID funding through U.S. nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that in turn fund scores of Venezuelan NGOs and political party projects. In its January-March 2007 report, USAID reported 139 subgrants to Venezuelan entities working in 19 of the country's 23 states.

OTI, which has directed an estimated $30 million and an undisclosed private budget for its programs to Venezuela, is not the only source of U.S. political aid. The office describes itself as part of a "comprehensive assistance program to shore up the democratic voices and institutions in Venezuela," such as the NED and other State Department initiatives, including trips to the United States for selected members of the Venezuelan media. As U.S. economic aid decreases, OTI is seeking local funding to complement its own programs, noting in its January-March 2007 report that it succeeded in leveraging $3.5 million in local contributions in the year's first quarter.

In its January-March appraisal of its "transition initiatives," OTI boasts: "The partnerships that have formed between NGOs and citizens eager to participate directly in their own governance attest to the success of the program ... that is filling an important need that is laying the groundwork for a sustainable democratic future."

Although the NGOs funded by the U.S. government insist they are independent, they closely coordinate their programs among themselves and with U.S. officials. In February 2007, OTI's "team leader" visited Venezuela to participate in "a strategic planning" session with the "five implementing partner organizations," according to USAID.

OTI has also been organizing a meeting with two dozen Venezuelan NGOs "that promote citizen participation in local democratic spaces." In its January-March evaluation of ongoing operations, OTI says that "given the political parties' growing appreciation of the importance of democratic spaces, the meeting will provide opportunities to discuss the synergistic overlap between civil society and political parties."

With OTI support, IRI and NDIIA offer "technical assistance for political parties," working directly "with political parties to improve their capabilities in constituency outreach and institutional development," according to USAID. Both institutes say they offer their services to both government and opposition parties—although apparently only the opposition parties avail themselves of this "democracy-building" aid.

Freedom House is best known for its widely cited Freedom in the World and Freedom of the Press reports. But it is not commonly known that Freedom House is a major recipient of U.S. government funding—directly from USAID or through the government-funded NED.

Relying almost exclusively on government funding for its overseas operations, Freedom House says it works "directly with democratic reformers on the front lines in their own countries" in Central Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, the former Soviet Union, and the Balkans. According to Freedom House, its overseas activity "acts as a catalyst for freedom by strengthening civil society, promoting open government, defending human rights, and facilitating the free flow of information."

With USAID funding, Freedom House sponsors a "Human Rights Defenders" program in Venezuela that it promotes as "facilitat[ing] the interaction of Venezuelan civil society with counterparts in Latin America to help them improve domestic human rights reporting and to expand protections for human rights." The "longer-term goal," says Freedom House, is "to assist groups who will strive to safeguard and improve the functioning of democratic institutions in Venezuela."

For its part, in early 2007 the Pan-American Development Fund provided funding to Venezuelan NGOs to "document the following activities: the constitutional reform process, discrimination based on political affiliation, and persecution of human rights practitioners." Meanwhile, Development Alternatives Inc. has focused on "training in democratic leadership and values, increasing citizen participation at the local level, and supporting NGO participation in international events."

"Destabilization Plan"—An "Action Agenda" for Democracy

In May 2007, Eva Golinger, Venezuelan-American author of The Chávez Code and a prominent critic of U.S. aid programs in Venezuela, accused Freedom House and other U.S. organizations receiving U.S. government funding of orchestrating a "destabilization plan" (see Venezuelanalysis.com, May 26, 2007). Golinger claimed Freedom House was designing a campaign of nonviolent resistance to the Chávez government.

Freedom House collaborates with the Belgrade-based Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (Canvas), which has singled out Venezuela along with Zimbabwe and Ukraine as principal targets for its training programs. Describing Canvas's approach to political transitions, the center's website says: "Mass political defiance has occurred in Burma, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Tibet in recent years. Although those struggles have not brought victory over dictators, they badly harmed the authority of those oppressive regimes both in the countries and in the international community."

At a May 2007 press conference in Caracas, Golinger noted that the clenched fist featured on the flyer for a protest against the closure of RCTV, the country's largest television station (accused by the government of having supported the attempted coup), is the same logo used in opposition campaigns in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine—it is also the symbol featured on the Canvas website.
Comparison of logos used by opposition movements in countries where the opposition received funding from the NED.

USAID and NED funding of NGOs in Venezuela reflects the U.S. government's conviction that the democratic process is badly flawed and that such political aid will contribute to a "transition" to more democratic governance—or at least, to a leader more acceptable to Washington. The focus on NGOs shown by recent "democratization" aid is also a reflection of a new trend in aid that regards NGOs' participation in destabilization as the most effective instrument for moving dictatorships to democracies.

This new method of instigating regime change has been promoted by NED, Freedom House, Albert Einstein Institution, and the Council for a Community of Democracies. In recent years Freedom House prominently advocated orchestrating civil action to overturn dictatorial regimes. Its 2005 study, entitled "How Freedom is Won," concluded that 50 of the 67 "transitions to democracy over the previous third of a century" were driven in large part by "civil resistance, featuring strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, and mass protests."

Freedom House Board Chairman Peter Ackerman, who is also the founding chairman of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and coauthor of Strategic Nonviolent Conflict, is a leading proponent for international funding of NGOs engaged in nonviolent organizing against non-democratic states. Freedom House, according to a March 2007 address given by Ackerman, is "making every effort to improve the substance and scalability of training tools".

Another prominent advocate of the U.S. government funding political allies in the Third World is Mark Palmer, a State Department official who played a key role in founding NED and who now serves as the vice-chairman of Freedom House. In his June 8, 2006 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, entitled "Promotion of Democracy by Nongovernmental Organizations: An Action Agenda," Palmer called for the "radical strengthening of our primary frontline fighters for freedom"—namely, NGOs.

Palmer, who was instrumental in the creation of the Council for a Community of Democracies, lamented the fact that U.S. NGOs and "their governmental and private funders" have not made the funding of foreign NGOs involved in building "national movements" their primary objective. He advocated a major increase in government funding for "NGO programs focused on dictatorships."

Current U.S. funding of an array of NGOs and community groups in Venezuela, including training and consultation offered by organizations such as Canvas and the Albert Einstein Institution, raises concerns that the overriding objective may not be so much the advance of freedom, democracy, and human rights, but rather the furthering of U.S. strategic interests.

By including a democratic state such as Venezuela among the targets of national movement building, the independence and integrity of "democracy builders" in the United States can be called into question. Chávez supporter Golinger, for example, advised Venezuelans: "For the defense of the nation, it would be wise to end the actions of groups like Freedom House and the International Republican Institute, which serve as a front for the State Department and the CIA, and which operate openly in the country."

Democracy and Intervention

There is little doubt that democracy is being put to the test in Venezuela. With a history of democratic governance since 1958, Venezuela has been relatively stable, in Latin American terms. But a large part of that stability resulted from a pattern of elections in which well-established parties of the elite alternated in power. By breaking that pattern, Hugo Chávez disrupted that vaunted stability and at the same time made politics more inclusive. For the first time, the country's rural poor and urban workers had a voice in government. Winning several highly contested elections since 1998 by impressive majorities, Chávez has earned legitimacy as a democrat.

Questions about the integrity of U.S. democratization aid are now being used by the Venezuelan government to press its National Assembly to pass a new law that would subject all NGOs that receive foreign funding to governmental scrutiny and approval. If such a measure is instituted, at least part of the blame will lay with Washington and will constitute part of the antidemocratic legacy of U.S. democratization strategy.

It's past time for the U.S. "democratizers" to shut down their operations in Venezuela and make their exit. By intervening in Venezuela through NGOs, Washington lends credence to claims by Chávez and others who charge that the U.S. government is pursuing a policy of regime change in Venezuela.

The first step toward a more constructive foreign policy toward Venezuela should be an expression of support for the country's self-determination in its political and economic affairs. Concerns about the state of democracy, media freedom, or human rights in Venezuela could then be expressed through normal diplomatic channels without fueling suspicion that the United States and its shadow institutions are part of a campaign to undermine the elected Venezuelan government.

As things stand, however, Washington and its phalanx of democracy-building NGOs are not just raising concerns, but are also operating to influence internal politics inside Venezuela. Washington would not permit foreign countries and their agents to inject themselves into its own political process; it should assume no right to do unto others what it would not have done to itself.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

(Editor's note: WHOOPS, Wrong Video Earlier.)

Great work Dr. Rudy Crew, but it is just a little too late. The coaches at the fifth rank high school football team in the nation (teams seldom if ever play nationwide so it is an unofficial ranking) were fired for covering for a rapist on their "team". Too late for the young woman who was raped by Easterling (who will still get to go to college) and too late for the Taurean Charles, star player in the video above. These Miami Northwestern coaches should have been fired a long time ago. Incidentally, Taurean seems like a very nice if heavily burdened young man.

He didn't want to injure the smaller teammate and showed remarkable restraint by not beating the shit out of his fucked up "coach". He got into trouble however at the University of Florida and perhaps was scapegoated to cover for a bunch of players having serious legal troubles. It would seem that after getting new recruits the young man was expendable.

In 2004 Taurean was kicked off the team and put on partial scholarship. He transferred, attended Bethune Cookman. What many college scouts ignored because of his stellar play on a championship team was that his speed and his size are eclipsed by lots of other players at his position. He is 6'1 235 and running a 4'8 which isn't going to wow NFL guys. Had he put up game film in top college action it might have helped people to ignore all of this and the rap sheet going around. His arrest record is worse than what really happened according to witnesses, but it is too damning.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

It will all be Miami soon, all Miami. Latinos taking over, the local newspapers and white folks hate 'em but there is nothing to be done but to move away. Tancredo said it- America will all be a Third World banana republic ruled by a clique of inept bongo-beaters on the take, just like Miami. Or maybe not.

The mayor of Los Angeles was deemed to be a very skilled technocrat with support from a variety of ethnic groups and constituencies. But the man couldn't keep his dick in trou (being a man is soooo difficult) and the star may have dimmed momentarily for Villaraigosa in Los Angeles after his hot papi antics were revealed. (If you're not up on things he was cheating on his wife with a high-profile reporter on Spanish language television.) The mayor of L.A. may have a former mayor of N.Y.C. to thank if he weathers this controversy-- presidential candidate Rudy "Caligula" Giuliani has given cheating-on-your-wife-mutiple-times-in-public-divorcees more, ahem, moral space. (Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa left)

Other rising stars include Los Angeles D.A. Rocky Delgadillo, Harvard and Columbia Law graduate and protege to a power broker. Said power broker hopes to groom the man into a presidential candidate (realistically long after Scowcroft is gone from this world of course). There are a host of other would be stars in L.A. Hispanic political firmament. None are much like the politicians here in Miami either. In most cases these are fully assimilated, hyper-educated politicos in an American world city. Their bases are broader and their power is tied as much to unions as it is development money and big and small business. These fellas, and a few ladies, are as good with street organizing as they are with patronage. And they see unions as a way of spreading wealth and opportunity among the (Hispanic) underclass. They also value assimilation to American civic life and education. This isn't suprising as most began as union organizers, and civil rights and student activists. And they are spreading the gospel of unions throughout the South.

In the flurry of union activity that is happening now, South Floridians should understand that a power shift may be brewing. This is radically different than the ethnic warring, patronage job flipping, and planning and administrative debacle that has characterized Miami. It is the attempt to create a fair waged, worker empowered economy that in the long run will increase consumer power and broaden the middle class. Rather than examine it here however I will share a comparative study of two other cities that show the night and day difference union influence can have on the make up of politics.

Los Angeles and Houston

By the middle of the 20th century, Los Angeles and Houston were the dominant cities in the dominant states of the just emerging Sun Belt. Politically, though, they were both still tight, white little towns. (Rocky Delgadillo, right)

Each city had a remarkably small informal governing committee -- all white, all Protestant, all CEO, all right-wing -- that held sway over matters large and small. In Los Angeles, the Committee of 25 met regularly in Asa Call's office at Pacific Mutual Insurance, tending to the selection of pro-business mayors. To persuade Norris Poulson, a conservative congressman, to run for mayor in 1953, committee members had to promise him that they'd personally shell out for a chauffeured limousine should he be elected. (He was and they did.)

In Houston, the city's real business was conducted in Suite 8F of the Lamar Hotel. In the 1950s, recalled Leon Jaworski, later the Watergate prosecutor but at that time a young Houston lawyer, "Jesse Jones [a right-wing Democrat who'd served in the Roosevelt administration], for instance, would meet Gus Worthman, Herman Brown [of Texas's mega-construction company Brown and Root], and maybe one or two others and pretty well determine what the course of events would be in Houston."

Half a century later, the cities have evolved along strikingly similar lines. Each saw its black electorate grow to roughly one-quarter of the citywide total, and each elected and re-elected an African American mayor. But the most dramatic change, surely, has come to each over the past 20 years, during which both cities have been substantially remade by the epochal migration of Mexicans and Central Americans to the United States.

The racial and economic recomposition of the two cities has been little short of astounding. In 1950, Los Angeles was the whitest major American city (78 percent in that year's census), with Houston not far behind (at 73 percent). In 2000, Los Angeles had become the least white of America's eight largest cities (just 29 percent) with Houston lagging by only a bit (at 31 percent white). In both cities, the percentage of blacks has also been in decline for the past two decades as the Latino populations have soared. In Los Angeles in 2000, 47 percent of the city was Hispanic, while in Houston, the figure stood at 37 percent. In both cities, the percentage of registered Latino voters lag behind those of whites and blacks, especially because many Latinos are not citizens.

(Houston, pictured left)

To walk through the Hispanic working-class communities in either city -- and the immigrant communities in particular -- is to see American urban poverty. In Los Angeles, hundreds of thousands of immigrants live in the converted garages and slowly decaying single-family homes. In Houston, Sylvia Garcia is the only Latino on the Harris County Board of Commissioners, half of whose district is within Houston city limits. She comments, "I have a colonia in my district -- 95 percent of the residents speak Spanish, and most have incomes beneath $15,000."

Most of Houston's poor don't live in colonia-like conditions, but a large number don't have any more income than those who do. Eighteen percent of all Houston households had annual incomes below $15,000 in 2000; another 15 percent had incomes between $15,000 and $25,000. (Note- strikingly, these income levels still best Miami).

In Los Angeles, things weren't a whole lot better. In 200, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, the city's living-wage coalition, found that 60 percent of the city's Latinos lived in households making less than $30,000 a year. What's more, the low-wage sector of the L.A. economy -- in restaurants, day labor, non-union janitors, off-the-books factories, and the like -- was booming: Overall employment increased in Los Angeles County by a scant 2 percent during the 1990s, but the number of working poor grew by 34 percent. Once the epicenter of the post-World War II middle-class miracle, L.A. had become a poverty-wage boomtown, overwhelmingly Latino and immigrant.

But in the last two decades there is one way in which Los Angeles' and Houston's Hispanics have fared very differently: political power. In Los Angeles, with a great assist from the labor movement, the Latino community has achieved considerable political representation and, as part of a dominant multiracial Democratic political culture, helped build a movement for progressive change that has begun to affect the lives of many of its members. In Houston, absent a sizable labor movement and hemmed in by right-wing Republican domination of every aspect of state politics, a vast Latino immigrant community remains largely unmobilized and markedly underrepresented.

Most striking is the disparity in congressional representation. Houston has no Hispanic member of Congress, making it by far the largest Latino community in the nation not to have a representative. Los Angeles County has five Hispanic members, and the Los Angeles metropolitan area seven. (The total Los Angeles County delegation consists of the five Latinos, five white Jews, and three African Americans.)

Slightly less than a quarter of the members in each house of the California and Texas legislatures are Hispanic, but there the similarities end. In Texas, most Latino legislators and congressional representatives come from the long-established Mexican American communities that constitute virtually the whole southern part of the state; the vast new immigrant populations of Houston and Dallas remain woefully underrepresented. In California and Los Angeles, by contrast, most Latino officeholders represent Latino districts. In Texas, both houses of the legislature are overwhelmingly Republican, as is every statewide officeholder. In California, both houses are heavily Democratic, as is every statewide officeholder except, of course, Governor Schwarzenegger. The mayor and two recent Assembly speakers (Antonio Villaraigosa and current Speaker Fabian Nunez, a former political director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor) have been Latino. (Los Angeles, right)

At the level of city and county, the disparities don't seem quite so great. Harris County and Los Angeles County each have one Hispanic commissioner or supervisor out of five. L.A. has four Latino city-council members out of 15; Houston has two out of 14. In his 2001 race for mayor of Los Angeles, left-Democrat Villaraigosa lost with 46.5 percent of the vote, while in Houston's mayoral race that same year, pro-immigrant but conservative Cuban Republican Orlando Sanchez lost with 48.5 percent of the vote.

But these differences are actually far greater than the numbers suggest. To begin with, L.A.'s Latina supervisor, Gloria Molina, is one of three liberal Democrats who control the board, while Houston's Commissioner Garcia is the only Democrat on her board. The four Latino Democrats on the Los Angeles City Council have nine other Democratic colleagues; there are just two Republican members. Eight Republicans sit on Houston's council.

Not surprisingly, the difference between the largely liberal Democratic control of California and L.A. and the conservative Republican stranglehold of Texas and Harris County (with a kind of centrist hegemony in Houston proper) has meant a huge difference in terms of legislation affecting the Latino poor. California has a state minimum wage that's $2.60 higher than the federal wage; Texas does not. California has 32 cities and counties that have passed living-wage ordinances, led by Los Angeles in 1997; Texas has one (San Antonio, a city that has been heavily majority Hispanic since the time of the Alamo).

Two days before the election that recalled him, then-Governor Gray Davis signed landmark legislation (Senate Bill 2, or SB2) that required employers with at least 200 workers to offer family health insurance by 2006, and employers with more than 50 workers to offer individual health coverage by 2007 -- in both instances, with employers picking up 80 percent of the costs.

Texas has the highest rate of medically uninsured residents in the United States; California is in the middle of the pack. But in both states, and in Houston and Los Angeles especially, a clear majority of Latinos have no coverage. Calling SB2 a "job killer," the California Restaurant Association has qualified an initiative for the November ballot to nullify it, and the issue is shaping up as the major state ballot-measure brouhaha of the fall election. Should SB2 survive, it will provide health benefits to more than 1 million Californians, the majority of them Latinos, who currently go without.

Why this disparity between California and Texas, and Los Angeles and Houston more particularly? It's not the weight of Hispanic numbers, at least not at the state level. Latinos constitute 32 percent of each state's population; they represented 20 percent of the turnout in the 2002 election in Texas and 17 percent in California. The major difference is at the local level: Hispanics constitute nearly half of all Angelenos but just over one-third of all Houstonians. With more than 4 million Latinos living in Los Angeles County, most in overwhelmingly Latino communities, not even a Tom DeLay could block the formation of large numbers of Latino-dominated districts. (And, of course, the California districts were drawn by Latino-friendly Democrats.)

But the disparity in power and outcome between Hispanics in the two cities is as much a result of qualitative as of quantitative factors. Foremost among those is the different political and institutional cultures of Texas and California. In Los Angeles, certainly, large numbers of white voters have been willing to make common cause with Latinos. Antonio Villaraigosa came close to being elected mayor in 2001 in an election where Latinos constituted just 22 percent of voters; he received about as many votes from liberal whites, clustered chiefly on the city's Westside, as he did from his fellow Latinos.

In Texas, of course, white Democrats are an endangered species. With Republicans in control of both chambers of the state legislature, it matters little that Latinos' share of the legislative delegation is the same as in California: There are way too few white Democrats in the legislature for Hispanic Democrats to claim any power. In Houston, the level of Latino representation in city and state legislative seats has actually declined in the past couple of years: They suffer from a dearth of white Democratic voters. (In both cities, tensions between the Latino and African American political elites -- and voters -- wax and wane, but the key differential in level of Latino power is the one between the two cities' white electorates.)

One big factor in this disparity is organized labor. The key institution in the rise of Hispanic political power in both Los Angeles and California has been the city's Latino-led labor movement, which mobilizes more Latino voters, anoints more Latino candidates, and constructs more progressive coalitions than any force in the state. Under the leadership of Miguel Contreras, who assumed control of the County Federation of Labor (the local AFL-CIO) in 1996, L.A. labor has registered and mobilized hundreds of thousands of new immigrant voters, turning out thousands of activists at election time to walk precincts and work phone banks. In recent city-council and state-legislative elections, the union has been able to produce 400 to 600 volunteers in a single district on election day; when Villaraigosa was running for mayor, the union had 2,100 volunteers working on the day of the vote. (Around the Ista's old hood in L.A. left)

Houston, by contrast, is a corporate-dominated city in a right-to-work state. Its labor movement is capable of writing some checks to candidates and mobilizing its own members -- but there aren't many such members, and the movement is still shrinking. Councilwoman Garcia estimates that in her election as controller in 1998, only a fraction of her 200 to 300 election-day volunteers were from unions. One young union activist in Houston estimates that on a typical weekend shortly before election day, local labor is doing well to turn out 20 to 30 volunteers.

What this means is that Hispanic candidates in Houston often have to assemble their campaigns from scratch. Houston does have a network of Latino elected officials, often referred to as "the Tejano Democrats," who hail from long-settled, nonimmigrant Mexican American families. In Los Angeles, by contrast, both Villaraigosa and Nunez, the two Assembly speakers, come out of the immigrants'-rights movement and have worked closely with Contreras to highlight immigrant concerns. Moreover, the two local unions that constitute Contreras' shock troops at election time are the immigrant-dominated janitors and hotel workers. (The two locals turn out more volunteers than any of the County Federation of Labor's roughly 350 other affiliates.) That explains why when the janitors bargained with management during their successful 2000 strike, they always had a number of elected officials joining them.

Since the mid-'90s, three L.A.-area congressional seats have switched from Republican to Democratic, in large part due to the union's efforts in closely fought elections; a fourth new seat was created in the latest reapportionment. Democratic funding sources and international unions spent vast amounts of money in L.A. to produce those outcomes. As well, the unions have forked over additional millions to mobilize Latinos for gubernatorial campaigns and a series of significant ballot measures. These efforts continually draw in new Democratic voters, most significantly from the burgeoning immigrant neighborhoods around Los Angeles.

No such outside assistance comes to Houston. For now, at least, all statewide elections are effectively conceded to the Republicans. There are no progressive initiatives with any chance of enactment. The kind of ongoing registration that's a permanent part of the L.A. landscape is absent from Houston's. Indeed, national Democrats come to Houston to take money out of it. John Kerry recently raised $2 million at a fund-raiser there, with everyone's full understanding that it would be spent in a faraway battleground state. Democrats "drag the bag in Houston," says University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray, "to spend it in Ohio."

That said, at least one national institution doesn't think that labor or the Democrats can afford to ignore Houston, or Texas, for the indefinite future. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Executive Vice President Eliseo Medina says that his union, in conjunction with other groups, will soon kick off a campaign to register 1 million new voters in the state, and that the SEIU will initiate a Justice for Janitors campaign in Houston later this year.

At least twice before, in 1938 and 1946, labor unions made a concerted effort to organize the South in the correct belief that a non-union South would be a huge impediment to progressive change at the national level. Now the SEIU is taking up that battle again, in fiercely anti-union terrain. But if Houston Hispanics are ever to achieve the clout of their Los Angeles counterparts, this is a battle they need to join. From their perspective, it should be the biggest game in town.