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The Hartford Courant

Somos El Futuro (We Are The Future)

By Ronald Fernandez

May 4, 2001
Copyright © 2001. The Hartford Courant. All Rights Reserved.

Hartford and Albany could be identical twins. Both are home to their state's luxurious legislative chambers; both have significant Latino and African American populations; and both boast downtowns so dead they need a Lazarus to resurrect them.

Urban problems abound. But so do solutions because both cities are also home to a blossoming sense of genuine political power. In Albany's case, the legislature's Puerto Rican /Hispanic Task Force recently hosted a conference -- Somos el Futuro -- that included representatives from as far away as Los Angeles and as close as Hartford and New Haven.

At the conference's plenary session, the first speaker was a demographer. Normally they elicit as much enthusiasm as a Communist in Congress, but this fellow brought important news: Latinos now outnumber African Americans as the nation's largest minority group. So the conference focused on ways to translate people into political clout.

Former Connecticut legislator Juan Figueroa (he is now president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York) spoke like an attorney with street-smart experience in front- and back-room politics. In the past, Latino victories resulted in redistricting schemes that "cut us into pieces," he told the conference. This time, the redistricting process mandated by the census figures would be used to dramatically increase Latino representation in legislatures throughout the United States. He suggested that Latinos find out who was going to draw the voting lines and then influence them with public and private pressures.

Meanwhile, in the halls, offices and coffee shops of the nation's state legislatures, political professionals will actually negotiate the sure-to-be-ugly redistricting process. Moving from English to Spanish and back again, Figueroa stressed that few incumbents wanted to concede power to Latinos waiting in the wings and everyone wanted to avoid suicidal battles with African Americans also eager for change. Thus, the panel included speakers who focused on alliances between the Latinos and African Americans. Instead of divide and conquer, the rule in Albany was walk side by side, forget party affiliations and win the battle of redistricting the nation.

This is an all-American message, seconded by Connecticut's John Martinez. He is a deputy majority leader of the Connecticut House and also president-elect of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators. This organization includes every Latino state legislator in the country and Puerto Rico . Martinez's idea is to pursue a bipartisan approach that prioritizes the problems that "affect and afflict" Latinos, from access to capital to immigration issues. Martinez means to create a list of priorities that will be endorsed at the national level. Then, state legislators will work with an army of other Latino organizations (The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, La Raza and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus among them) to produce a wish list that has legitimacy in every barrio in the nation. Every legislator in the caucus sits in front of a red (no) and a green (yes) button, introducing and making public policy. According to Martinez, they will be heard.

Equally important, the National Hispanic Caucus has already assembled an impressive list of corporate advisers that includes Citibank, Pfizer, Ford, American Express, Verizon and Philip Morris. Profits, after all, are bilingual; the bottom line is never English only.

Until the conference's massive Saturday night banquet, I had remained skeptical of Latino political power. But the performances that night by establishment politicians convinced me that Latinos could be right: Somos el futuro.

First came the conservative Republican governor of New York, George Pataki. He tried a few words in Spanish, and he then screamed in English that the Navy had to stop bombing the Puerto Rican island of Vieques . He would personally lobby in Washington to make sure that "ni una bomba mas" (not one more bomb) became a political reality.

Then came U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. To a standing ovation, she, too, lambasted the Navy for Vieques bombing and assured listeners that Latinos would be a political priority throughout her term.

My favorite was H. Carl McCall. He is a Democratic candidate for governor and he (correctly) accused Pataki of being a Vieques -come- lately.

The fawning over Latino votes bordered on the obscene; in truth, the speeches were as hard to swallow as the dinner. But Pataki andClinton did nevertheless underline the potential power envisioned by leaders like Martinez.

He and his colleagues have the future in their hands. So, echoing an old union song from the 1930s, here is my advice: "I mean, take iteasy, but take it."

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