The Inexplicably Uncourted Latino Vote
By Vanessa Cardenas
Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town
Saturday, October 13, 2007; 12:00 AM
Presidential candidates from both parties have yet to fully embrace the importance of the Latino vote. Meanwhile, President Bush has alienated the Latino community by allowing the administration's policy to be hijacked by restrictionists. Alienating the fastest growing voting population is a big mistake for any politician or candidate that wishes to remain relevant to the Latino community -- an increasingly significant segment of our society.
Republican candidates have refused to participate in several important public forums sponsored by Hispanic-American groups. They skipped the nation's largest gathering of Hispanic elected officials, last July's convention of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, and refused invitations to the National Council of La Raza's annual convention. They also turned down the invitation to participate in a presidential debate sponsored by media giant Univision, as well as a forum on minority issues sponsored by PBS. The Univision debate, dubbed as the first ever presidential debate in Spanish, had to be cancelled because only Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) agreed to participate. And just last week, none of the Republican presidential contenders were on hand at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's forum in Washington.
While Democratic candidates have attended more of these events, certain notables, mainly Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, skipped last week's Caucus Institute debate as well. Candidates from both sides of the aisle need to recognize the key role Latino voters will play, not just in 2008, but in future elections.
Latinos are now the second largest group in the United States. Before the midterm elections in 2006, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that more than 17 million Hispanics would be eligible to vote. And judging by the enormous mobilizations in 2006 and the Get Out the Vote efforts underway, this community is eager and waiting to come out in full force.
The Latino community will also play a crucial role in several key states -- Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, California, Texas and Arizona. And the changes in the 2008 primary schedule will only highlight the emergence of Latinos as a crucial voter group. The Nevada caucus will be held in January 2008 and a number of states with large Hispanic populations -- Florida, California and New Jersey -- have also moved up their own primaries. Hispanics have the opportunity to be a decisive factor in these states.
In the last four years, restrictionists have managed to change the tone and message of the administration's discourse on issues important to Latinos. Significantly, in the 2004 presidential election President Bush won roughly 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Bush spoke to Latinos in a language they could understand -- figuratively and literally. He talked about family values, hard work and the American dream. He spoke about "compassionate conservatism," and he promised new emphasis on U.S.-Latin America relations.
Fast forward four years. Now we have immigration raids; millions of immigrant workers under threat of forced firings; Latin America relegated to afterthought status on the administration's agenda; and disastrous economic policies for the poor. There is nothing compassionate about the avalanche of legislation against immigrants at the local and national level.
Nothing has been more alienating to the Latino community than the discourse around immigration reform. First there was the onerous bill offered by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), which sought to criminalize undocumented immigrants. Then we saw the collapse of the Senate immigration bill earlier this year, blamed largely on a group of restrictionist senators in spite of the fact that President Bush supported it. And lately, there have been a plethora of local anti-immigration ordinances. The proponents of these tactics say they want the undocumented to leave and that they just seek to "enforce the law." Yet, the result is that all Latinos -- including U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents -- feel targeted.
And the restrictionist messages of entrepreneurship and fiscal discipline do little to assuage those fears. Influential voices like Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), Lionel Sosa and Linda Chavez know this and are ringing the alarm, asking extremists to temper their discourse. Yet their pleas appear to be falling on deaf ears.
Alienating the fastest-growing voting population is a big mistake for any politician who wishes to remain relevant to the Latino community. And today all Latinos, regardless of status, are painfully aware that the 2008 election will be a test of strength. Politicians and candidates can no longer afford to ignore this constituency. For their sake, let's hope they do not.
The author is director of ethnic media for the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
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