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Super Tuesday: What California voters want from this election

Homeless man Theo Henderson with all his belongings

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Theo Henderson produces a podcast about people who, like him, live on LA’s streets

California is preparing to vote for its preferred Democratic candidate in its primary on Super Tuesday this week. The BBC’s James Cook went to Los Angeles to hear the hopes of six residents.

Theo Henderson lives in the shadows.

For seven years straight he has been sleeping on the streets of Los Angeles.

A decent education and a good teaching job weren’t enough to save him from a series of personal disasters: the deaths of his parents at an early age, ill health, unemployment and finally homelessness.

When the economic earthquake of 2007 fractured the American economy, Mr Henderson fell through the cracks.

The effects of capitalism have spread through the United States “like the coronavirus”, he argues, infecting the poorest Americans and leeching compassion from those above them.

“We’re a blaming and shaming society,” he says.

Despite his plight Mr Henderson produces a regular podcast about life on the streets of Los Angeles. He would like to see capitalism dismantled entirely but accepts that is not going to happen.

Instead he is supporting Bernie Sanders, the left-wing senator from Vermont and current favourite to win the Democratic nomination to run for president.

A President Sanders, he believes, would tackle homelessness, improve access to healthcare and restructure the economy to benefit the many not the few.

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Claudia Oliveira: “We have the largest economy in the United States and that voice is not being heard”

A short drive away in MacArthur Park, Claudia Oliveira is also worried about people in the shadows.

This area has a dark history of drug dealing and gang violence but it is bright and bustling today with vendors hawking everything from boxes of sunglasses to insurance policies.

An immigrant, Ms Oliveira is a member of a community council in this majority Latino district.

“In California, one out of four people are either immigrants or related to an immigrant,” she says. “We have the largest economy in the United States and that voice is not being heard.”

About 46 million people living in the US in 2017 were born abroad, according to the respected Pew Research Center. Of those, an estimated 10.5m were in the country illegally.

Donald Trump harnessed those statistics to win the White House for the Republicans in 2016 and has since slowed the flow of immigrants with tighter border controls, harsher treatment of migrants and their families, and intensely hostile rhetoric.

Ms Oliveira, who supported former mayor Pete Buttigieg in the primaries, wants a more compassionate approach, including a road to citizenship for undocumented migrants if they contribute to the community and pay their taxes.

“Once we can be more inclusive of the immigrant voice, we’ll be able to have more long-lasting solutions to all of our issues,” she says.

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California has suffered a series of devastating wildfires in recent years

The issue of immigration is important for voters in California but homelessness and the provision of affordable housing rank even higher, according to a study by the Public Policy Institute of California.

When the Los Angeles Times asked Californians to pick the number one priority for the next president from four key issues, nearly half chose something else entirely – climate change.

Al Huck agrees with that.

He works in high-tech medical care and lives in Simi Valley, a leafy city to the north-west of LA best known as the final resting place of Republican President Ronald Reagan.

“Climate change is huge,” he says. “We have all these wildfires out here in California… huge fires.”

According to records dating back to 1932, California has experienced the vast majority of its deadliest, largest and most destructive wildfires in the past 20 years.

The factors behind the increase are complex but scientists say human activity has “significantly enhanced wildfire activity in California“.

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to exist much longer if if we keep going on this route,” says Mr Huck.

He thinks Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York and billionaire founder of the media and financial data company which bears his name, is best placed to tackle this existential challenge, and to beat Mr Trump, whom Mr Huck regards as “a criminal”.

Mr Bloomberg “knows how to get things done and he also knows how to lead,” he says.

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Choir member James Moore Jr (L) says turnout among the young is critical

The second priority for voters in the LA Times poll was healthcare reform, which for Ebony Lamkin is a matter of life and death.

She suffers from severe Crohn’s disease, which requires repeated hospital stays and expensive medication – one treatment alone costs $20,000 a month, she says – leaving her dependent on Medicare, a health insurance programme administered by the federal government.

“Without it, I won’t survive,” she says, bluntly.

In the past few years Ms Lamkin has been resuscitated three times and has needed three blood transfusions.

She says that changes made under the Trump administration meant she had to stop chemotherapy for six months when the government withdrew her funding, leaving her unable to afford the drug alone.

“My health deteriorated,” she says. “It just went down, down, down.”

She is back on the medication now but remains worried about the future and is uncertain about which presidential candidate would best protect her.

Ms Lamkin sings in the Voices of Destiny Choir, which rehearses at the Greater Zion Church in the LA suburb of Compton, a predominantly African-American district.

For her fellow performer, postal worker James Moore Jr, the biggest issue in this election is “social justice” and specifically the treatment of black Americans at the hands of the police.

“They’d rather just shoot us down and kill us,” than try to defuse a situation, he says.

For Mr Moore, 31, turnout among the young will be critical in determining his country’s future.

“I believe that if we allow our voices to be heard, especially in my generation as a millennial, then I believe that we can get Bernie Sanders in, or anybody else other than Donald Trump,” he says.

Worryingly for Joe Biden, who breathed life into his ailing campaign with a handsome showing among African-American voters in Saturday’s South Carolina primary, not one member of the gospel choir says they are intending to vote for him.

Polling suggests Barack Obama’s former vice president is trailing in the Golden State behind Mr Sanders, with Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, scourge of Wall Street and a former law professor in third place.

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Jasmin Tuffaha Gutierrez: A “responsible adult in the White House would be wonderful”

For Jasmin Tuffaha Gutierrez, who works for a non-profit organisation advocating for workplace rights, “any thinking, responsible adult in the White House would be wonderful but I’m trying to shoot a little bit further than that – and I love Elizabeth Warren.”

For Ms Tuffaha Gutierrez the economy is the biggest issue in the campaign, “neck and neck with getting Trump out of the White House”.

Many Republicans also think the economy will be the biggest issue of 2020, and consider it their trump card thanks to steady growth, unemployment at a 50-year low and record stock market highs.

Ms Tuffaha Gutierrez is not convinced.

“The only reason that the economy is doing well is because of policies enacted by the previous Democratic administration,” she says, adding “all of those statistics started when Obama was president.”

She is worried about Republican tax policies which, she says, benefit the richest people in the country at the expense of everyone else.

And there are indications that the underlying economic picture may be more complex than the White House makes out. Even before coronavirus posed a threat to growth and triggered a sharp fall in share prices, data suggested a sharp slowdown in the growth of median household income, adjusted for inflation during the Trump presidency.

That is the sort of statistic which Mr Sanders will surely highlight if he secures the nomination.

But even if he does, can a 78-year-old who wants to build a democratic socialist America actually be elected to the highest office in a nation whose power and wealth is often seen as synonymous with capitalism?

“I would like to believe so,” says Theo Henderson as he prepares for another podcast episode about life on the streets, “but I’m an African American man and I know the hatred runs deep in this country.”

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