Hispanic Voters Getting Attention From Politicians
The Tribune (Port St. Lucie/Fort Pierce, FL)
September 9, 2003
By Deirdre Shesgreen,

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Hispanics have moved to the center of the political spotlight this year, labeled by both parties as a key swing voting bloc that could determine who wins the White House in 2004.

A still-emerging political force, Hispanic voters may be the soccer moms and office park dads of this election - that all-important sliver of the electorate that both parties avidly court as the campaign season begins.

Census data released earlier this summer showed that Latinos have surpassed African-Americans to become the nation's largest minority group, a milestone that caught the attention of political strategists of all stripes.

Now, Democrats and Republicans alike are scurrying to appeal to voters like Mike Apodaca, a 50-year-old San Diego, Calif., retiree who supported President George W. Bush in 2000 but is lukewarm about his performance so far. Or Carlos Chavez, a 23-year-old Albuquerque, N.M., sales representative who voted for Al Gore but now finds himself drawn to Bush.

"The Hispanic vote is up for grabs," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat and the nation's only Hispanic governor. "It's a sleeping giant about to explode."

Sharon Castillo, a spokeswoman for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, said: "Both parties are reaching out to Hispanics in unprecedented ways it's very clear Latinos are going to play a key role" in selecting the next president.

Already, the Democratic Party has revamped its primary calendar to create "Hispanic Tuesday," as Adam J. Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University, has dubbed it.

Iowa and New Hampshire will still kick off the Democratic primary voting.

But two states with significant Hispanic populations - New Mexico, which is about 42 percent Hispanic, and Arizona, which is about 25 percent Hispanic - will follow on their heels on Feb. 3. (A handful of other states, including Missouri, will also hold primaries that day.)

In another sign of the retooling, Democratic Party officials held the first-ever bilingual presidential debate last week in Albuquerque with a special focus on Hispanic issues.

"In the old days, it was Iowa and New Hampshire and we didn't play a major role in those states," said Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, a prominent Latino civil rights organization. Now, he says, "things are going to change dramatically."

Even as the scrambling for Hispanic votes begins, however, two key questions remain.

For starters, will Latinos buy the message either party's candidate is selling after years of feeling invisible in the political process? And second, will such a diverse ethnic group - including people from many different countries and vastly different life experiences - really vote as a bloc that either party can lay claim to?

Until now, voters, activists and party strategists alike say that outreach to Hispanic voters has been mostly superficial - what Yzaguirre calls "pinata politics."

"We are a population that is hungry for attention," Yzaguirre said. "What we've gotten in the way of attention is a lot of symbols - a lot of pinatas and mariachi bands and Mexican food.

"It's done very skillfully," he added, "but it's all fluff."

Too often, added Richardson, politicians have crafted narrow appeals to Hispanic voters that reveal a lack of understanding of the community's broader needs and desires.

The message "can't just be civil rights and immigration," Richardson said.

During Thursday's debate, for example, all the candidates embraced granting legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants who have lived and worked in the United States for years.

But in interviews last week, not one of about 20 Hispanic voters named immigration as a top concern.

Even Mike Brady, a 51-year-old Hispanic man who works in the border town of El Paso, Texas, as a customs agent and was visiting Albuquerque last week, said immigration is of little concern to his family. "Our immigration policies are pretty good," he said, citing the economy instead as his chief concern.

His wife, Annette, lost her job at a casino in June and hasn't been able to find any other work.

"We've had so many manufacturing plants shut down" in El Paso, Annette Brady said. Their financial situation got so bad that she recently had to file for bankruptcy and isn't sure how they're going to recover.

"The misconception about Hispanics," Richardson said, "is that they don't care about what mainstream America cares about. They do. They care about good jobs, homeownership, good schools just as much as anybody else."

For either party to be successful, they have to broaden their pitches, activists and voters said.

And they may also have to overcome a sense of cynicism about political efforts to woo them.

"Most of the time I think it's a ploy," Floyd Gonzalez, a 51-year-old former Albuquerque municipal employee, said of the political courting of Hispanics.

"They learn Spanish just to get them through but then they really don't do anything (to achieve) what they're promising. I don't think they're really sincere," he said over a lunch at the Barelas Coffee House near Albuquerque's downtown.

His lunch companion, Louis, a 37-year-old accountant who declined to give his last name, was even harsher. "Everybody gives you lip service and they don't fulfill promises," said Louis, a Republican who says he stopped voting after college. "It's a frustration that borders between irritation and silliness."

Democrats have typically received a large majority of the Hispanic vote. But in the 2000 election, then-Texas Gov. Bush made significant inroads with Hispanic voters, picking up 35 percent of the Latino vote, almost twice the number Bob Dole got in 1996.

Bush did it, voters in both parties say, with a sprinkling of Spanish on the campaign trail, a knowledge of border issues from his time as governor of Texas, and perhaps most importantly a sense of connection.

"He really truly came across as saying, 'We want you'," said Edward Lujan, a former state GOP party chair in Albuquerque. "It was just like, 'I like him. I really connect with him.' "

This election, Republicans are aiming to increase Bush's share of the Hispanic electorate, while Democrats are trying to reverse his gains.

This rival courtship will play out in battleground general election states with big Latino populations, such as New Mexico, where Al Gore won in 2000 by just 366 votes; and Florida, where the infamous recount ended with Bush's 537-vote margin.

"We can expect to see the candidates spending a lot of time and resources trying to personalize their connection with Hispanic voters in those states," said Segal of the Hispanic Voter Project.

Castillo, of the Bush campaign, says the GOP has a natural advantage on issues and a natural appeal with Bush.

"He not only speaks Spanish, he speaks Hispanic - he speaks to the issues that Hispanics care about," she said.

Richardson concedes that Bush is politically popular among Hispanics.

But, he says, "the rest of the party drags down their Hispanic outreach" with initiatives that are seen as hostile to immigrants and the poor. At the same time, Democrats can't take the Hispanic vote for granted, he said.

In interviews in Albuquerque last week, several Hispanic voters who say Bush won them over in 2000 are not so enamored now.

"He fed us a good story and he looked good at the start," said Apodaca, the San Diego retiree who grew up and was visiting his mother in Albuquerque last week.

Apodaca says he disagrees with Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq and thinks Bush has ignored more important problems at home.

"He centered his focus on one thing - getting this Hussein guy - and he's

forgetting other problems," said Apodaca, a Republican who says he's not sure how he'll vote this election. "He needs to pay attention to his people here, see what they need."

Among about the Hispanic voters interviewed, only one had moved toward the GOP. Carlos Chavez, the 23-year-old salesman and a registered Democrat, said he voted for Gore in the last election because he thought he would keep the economy humming, but he now describes himself as "pretty hooked" on Bush.

"I didn't think Bush was going to be good," Chavez said while waiting for his father-in-law at his neighborhood barbershop. "What really changed me was the war. Now he has my full support."

The views of these voters illustrate another political reality: the difficult task politicians and their strategists face in trying to craft a message that appeals to such a diverse ethnic group.

At the first mention of politics in the barbershop, a lively debate broke out among the four Hispanic men waiting for or giving haircuts. Derrick Lucero, a 20-year-old city worker, argued vociferously with Chavez about  Bush's job performance, the war in Iraq, and which party better serves the interests of Latinos.

The friendly bickering illustrated what pollsters already knew: that Hispanics defy easy political categorization.

More Hispanics identify themselves as Democrats than as Republicans - 49 percent compared to 20 percent, according to a 2002 survey by the Pew Hispanic Center.

But polls have also shown that Hispanics are socially conservative and independent minded - further to the right of most white voters, for example, on issues such as abortion and homosexuality.

"There is no Hispanic bloc," says Ben Chavez, an 80-year-old former Republican politician who is now a die-hard Democrat. "There's too much diversity."

Chavez notes that his ancestors are from Spain. But the label Hispanic applies to him as much as it does to an Indian from Mexico or a black from the Dominican Republic. And all are likely to have a different take on politics, he said.

Chavez expressed skepticism that Hispanics would ever be unified enough to gain the political clout equal to their numbers. But others disagreed and said Richardson's "sleeping giant" analogy is on target.

At the barbershop, Carlos Chavez and Lucero found common ground on one issue: Hispanics need to find their political voice.

"We just need to get together and get smart about it," said Lucero, noting that African Americans have done so and are now a potent  political force.

If Latinos do become more organized and politically unified, Carlos Chavez said, politicians will have to come up with more than immigration platforms and a few Spanish phrases as their message.

"The voice of Hispanics is getting louder, so they're going to have to be sincere," he said.