Latinos gaining clout in voting

Expected to play big election role

With a record 5 million Hispanics voting in the last presidential election and the numbers of Hispanics swelling, it’s not hard to see why both major political parties want to lure their vote.

Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, said it’s smart to target the Latino vote because in the coming presidential election it will be “decisive in a way it has never been in the history of elections in this country.”

The Southwest Voter Project is a non-profit, non-partisan Latino civic organization seeking to increase the number of Latino voters. Gonzalez predicted that out of 8 million registered Hispanic voters, 6 million will go to the polls in November.

Ten of the key battleground states, including California, Texas and Illinois, have high concentrations of Hispanics who can affect the outcome of the presidential race, he said.

“I think the Democrats are a little bit running scared,” he said. “Governor (George W.) Bush is going to be a formidable opponent.”

About 30 percent of Hispanic voters are Republicans, Gonzalez said, adding that “if Bush gets 40 percent, forget it.”

“This election is over,” he said.

But in order for Bush to attract those voters, he will have to break to a degree from the Republican right, just as President Clinton broke from traditional Democrat groups and commandeered Republican ideas, Gonzalez said.

On the flip side, Vice President Al Gore can’t be satisfied with the 60 percent of the Hispanic vote Democrats traditionally receive.

“He has to get around 70 percent,” Gonzalez predicted.

Arizona House Minority Whip John Loredo, D-Phoenix, said that while the number of registered Latinos is increasing, they don’t always vote.

“I think in my district, it’s not necessarily voter apathy, but voter protest,” he said. “They don’t see enough of the negative in the community changing. When it comes to issues such as environmental racism and education, they feel the political process is stacked against them.”

Yet Loredo predicts the November elections will bring out the highest number of Latino voters ever, and he gives Republicans credit.

“They (Latinos) are offended by the attention from the Republican Party,” he said. “They feel as if they are being viewed as dumb enough to vote for the very people who are hurting them.”

Alfredo Gutierrez, a former state Senate majority leader, said when he belonged to the board of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, the organization that analyzed the issue of Latinos registering but not voting.

The study found that outrage sends large numbers of Latinos to the polls, he said.

Gutierrez points to California, where then-Gov. Pete Wilson and Proposition 187 galvanized the Hispanic vote in 1994. Wilson backed the proposition that sought to strip government assistance such as health care and education from undocumented and some legal immigrants. Despite the proposition passing, that election saw the initial surge of the still-increasing California Latino vote, political analysts say.

And 63 percent of those who participated in a 1996 Los Angeles Latino voters poll said Wilson’s illegal immigrant proposals reflected racism against Latinos. The Tom?s Rivera Policy Institute poll also revealed that one-third of the Latinos who voted in the Los Angeles area voted for the first time in a U.S. election. Then, in California’s 1998 state and local elections, many Republicans who were perceived as anti-Latino were defeated.

“This guy was the best thing that ever happened to us in California,” Gutierrez said of Wilson. “He was able to mobilize the Hispanic community in California like nobody ever had. We didn’t realize it then, but he was a blessing.”

Gutierrez said Arizona Latinos may have outrage to draw them to the polls in the form of Proposition 203, which seeks to transform bilingual education into a one-year immersion program.

“Ron Unz may be our little Pete Wilson,” he said of the Californian behind the ballot proposition.

Margaret Kenski, owner of Tucson-based Arizona Opinion, a polling firm, isn’t convinced the bilingual issue will create that outrage.

Kenski, a Republican, said there are a number of Latinos who agree with the proposition. In Tucson, the leaders of the proposition drive are Latinos.

“I think it will be a question of who gets to them with symbols first,” Kenski said. “If the symbols in their minds are that this is an anti-Hispanic proposition, then clearly they will be against it.”

Kenski said the importance of the Latino vote in Arizona was demonstrated in 1996 when Latino voters were critical in winning the state for Clinton.

“I think we’re seeing enormous changes,” she said. “I think that increase we saw in 1996 was the first trickle of that (Hispanic voting), and I think it will be an accelerating phenomenon.”

Nathan Sproul, executive director of the Arizona Republican Party, said it’s not farfetched to believe that Bush could do very well with the Latino vote in the state. Gov. Jane Hull; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; and Arizona Secretary of State Betsey Bayless, all Republicans, have captured big Latino numbers, he said.

“I think that shows the Hispanic community is not necessarily a monolithic group,” Sproul said. “If a candidate addresses issues important to them, they will vote for that candidate.”

Reach the reporter at [email protected] or (602) 444-7113.

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