By Steven Harmon
Staff Writer, Bay Area News Group
As the state slowly emerges from a long economic drought, Californians are the most optimistic they've been in years, according to a wide-ranging post-election poll released Wednesday.
But how Californians view the state of the state often depends on their race and ethnicity.
Latinos and Asian-Americans, on the rise politically and economically, are feeling good about California's future -- and theirs. Whites, on the other hand, are a relatively grumpy bunch as demographic changes continue to transform the Golden State, the Public Policy Institute of California survey shows.
Most Latinos (54 percent) and Asians (51 percent) believe the state is on the right track, while only 36 percent of whites have the same sense of hope for the future.
"The economy and politics are moving in a direction that gives Latinos and Asians a sense of optimism," said Mark Baldassare, PPIC's president and CEO.
Overall, 44 percent of Californians say the state is headed in the right direction, the highest percentage since 2007 and up from a low of 14 percent in July 2009. Forty-one percent believe better times are coming next year, up from a low of 15 percent in July 2008. And 42 percent say California will be a better place to live in 2025 than it is now, a 17-point increase since voters were asked in 2004.
PPIC surveyed 2,001 California residents from Nov. 13 to Nov. 20. The poll has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Perhaps as a reaction to the election, in which Democratic President Barack Obama won handily and liberal-backed initiatives such as Gov. Jerry Brown's Proposition 30 tax measure were approved, older, white voters -- who tend to vote Republican -- are the most pessimistic. Indeed, 80 percent of Republicans believe the state is headed in the wrong direction.
But among Democrats, whites are as optimistic as nonwhite Californians: 60 percent of both subgroups believe the state is on the right track.
But it was Latinos and Asian-Americans who drove the elections in California. A Field Poll study showed that Proposition 30 would not have won without the wide support of the two groups. And while GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney bested Obama by 8 points among whites, the overwhelming support among African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans gave Obama his 20-point win here.
"After the votes were cast and we won, these communities are now very hopeful that we're finally taking a step in the direction that our voices are being heard," said Horacio Arroyo, director of civic engagement with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
"It gives us that feeling that we certainly won key battles in November and that we were at the center of that victory," he said, adding: "It feels like all the ducks are lining up" on issues from comprehensive immigration reform at the national level to driver's licenses for some illegal immigrants in California.
The sense of optimism among Asian-Americans is also attributed to the large number of Asian Pacific Islanders elected to office this year. Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, became the first Filipino to be elected to that chamber. And six Asian Pacific Islanders were elected to Congress, including Riverside Democrat Mark Takano, the first openly gay Asian-American congressman.
"There are now stronger candidates feeling more empowered because they have a larger percentage of the community who are registered to vote and engaged in the process," said Kim Geron, a political-science professor at Cal State East Bay and president of the Alameda chapter of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance.
By a 2-1 ratio, those who voted for Proposition 30 believe the state is going in the right direction. The success of the initiative, which means schools will be spared from more than $5 billion in cuts, may have lifted Brown's fortunes: His job approval is at an all-time high at 48 percent. Even the Legislature's approval, at 34 percent, is at its highest mark since 2008.
At the same time, 46 percent of Californians -- 66 percent of Democrats, 48 percent of independents and only 22 percent of Republicans -- say passage of Proposition 30 makes them more optimistic about the state's budget situation.
"Taxes are a little high, but the state is in so much debt, it needs to be paid off," said Jim Garrido, 67, a retired Hispanic biotech worker from Pleasanton. "And schools aren't going to have to cut back. That was the main thing. It'll take time, but at least it's going in the right direction. It made me feel good about the future. The economy is getting better, though we need to do more."
Denise Hunt, a retired paralegal from Union City, works as a mentor to an at-risk student in Oakland and tutors a student from a wealthy San Ramon family. She said she feels more hopeful because passage of Proposition 30 -- which will funnel most of the new revenue to schools -- showed that the state's leaders were "showing they wanted to save our next generation."
"Governor Brown went right in there cutting out cars, furloughing state workers," Hunt said, referring to Brown's executive order that cut state workers' hours by 5 percent. "Some things we have to sacrifice, but we don't have to sacrifice our youth."
But Michael Lazur, 65, a retired probation officer from Walnut Creek, said he has mixed feelings about the state's future. Passing Proposition 30 "had to be done," but too many businesses are leaving California, he said.