Este informe no está disponible en español.
This Is A Great Time To Be Hispanic Voter
By Melissa Harris
August 24, 2001
WASHINGTON -- New York Gov. George Pataki chartered two planes for his visit to Vieques -- one for himself and Puerto Rico Gov. Sila Calderon, and one for the media circus following them.
For Pataki and politicians across the United States, Vieques has become the cause du jour -- 60 years after bombing exercises began on the tiny Puerto Rican island. They arrive in droves with spokesmen, staff and television crews filling the islands few hotels and crowded roads.
If they cant make the trip, then theyre more than willing to express an opinion: The Navy needs to end its exercises and leave Vieques.
They are Democrats, such as national party chairman Terry McAuliffe and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. And they are Republicans, such as Pataki and President Bush.
The math is simple: Hispanics are becoming a major force in American politics. Census data predict that by 2050, they will make up 47 percent of the U.S. population, and their growth rates may exceed 2 percent in one year.
Even at the height of the post-World War II baby boom, the U.S. population never grew by 2 percent in one year.
Theyre Americas future undecided voters, who can be swayed by a candidates position on an issue dear to them. Party affiliation is not a factor.
And thanks to the attention generated by the civil-disobedience arrests of celebrities such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., actor Edward James Olmos and the Rev. Al Sharpton, Vieques is becoming one of those issues.
The island, home to 9,000 U.S. citizens, is a big topic of discussion in congressional districts across the nation with large Hispanic populations.
"Vieques is increasingly becoming an important issue for all Latinos because its an issue of fairness," said Lisa Navarrete, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic organization with roots in the Mexican community. "Its another example of a Latino community being besieged by the federal government."
And elected officials are letting their constituents know that they agree -- because its politically advantageous. Pataki, a Bush loyalist running for re-election in 2002, personally lobbied the president in the Oval Office, calling for an immediate and permanent end to the bombing. Three days later, Bush announced his decision to end the exercises in 2003.
The future of Vieques looms large for U.S. Rep. Ric Keller, R-Orlando, who won election in 2000 by 2 percentage points.
Kellers district is 16 percent Hispanic, a 5 percent increase since 1990, according to census data.
"If Keller would make a strong statement for peace in Vieques, I think he could win re-election easily," said James Auffant, a native of Puerto Rico and former Democratic candidate for the Florida Legislature. "He helps us; well help him out -- no matter if hes a Democrat or Republican."
Keller said he supports President Bushs proposal to get the Navy out of Vieques in two years.
Keller said he holds meetings with Hispanic clergy and business leaders, attends community events such as Festival Medina and has a staff member who does immigration case work and speaks Spanish.
He also is sponsoring legislation called the Veterans Citizenship Act of 2001. The act eliminates the red tape required to obtain citizenship for legal immigrants serving in the military for more than three years.
"I went to Hispanic business leaders and asked them, Why do Hispanics tend to vote for Democrats and not Republicans? " Keller said. "The common denominator that I heard was that Republicans are insensitive on immigration issues, and this legislation developed from those conversations."
From local elections to presidential politics, Hispanic votes are a matter of political survival. And Republican strategists fear that if they dont start paying attention to the countrys fastest-growing minority, its going to be difficult for them to win the White House in 2004 and beyond.
But if Republicans take policy positions that appeal to Hispanic voters on issues such as immigration, Vieques and education, they risk a backlash within their own party -- alienating a base that traditionally has been seen as anti-immigrant.
"Republicans are playing a risky game, but they have nowhere else to go," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a public-policy professor at Florida State University The GOP is at risk of losing former Republican strongholds such as Colorado, Florida, Mississippi and Nevada. And swing states such as Michigan and New Jersey could become solidly Democratic because of a boom in Hispanic voters.
The stakes are high in Florida, where the political demographics are changing rapidly.
Democrats already outnumber Republicans in the state by more than 370,000 voters. And unless Republicans grab the Hispanic population in Central Florida, deHaven-Smith said, Gov. Jeb Bush could have a tough road to re-election.
The governor isnt wasting any time, either. Today, he will be at a Republican Party fund-raiser in San Juan, where he hopes to take in at least $150,000 for his re-election bid.
Although Central Floridas Puerto Rican community is decidedly Democratic-leaning, a Bush campaign spokeswoman said the governor plans to push hard for this sizable vote during next years governors race.
"We are going to aggressively pursue the Puerto Rican vote," said Karen Unger, Bushs campaign manager.
Florida, deHaven-Smith said, is a blueprint for the nation.
Across the nation, registration tables are popping up in Hispanic neighborhoods that were once Democratic fortresses.
Republicans are targeting educated, religious and entrepreneurial Hispanics whose interests, they think, most closely match their own.
Critics, however, say the Bush administration is attempting to woo these voters through unfulfilled promises and symbolic marketing strategies.
President Bush has pledged to name a Hispanic to fill the next vacancy on the Supreme Court, pledged to speed up applications for citizenship and is considering granting legal residency to almost 3 million illegal Mexican immigrants residing in the United States.
Ten percent of White House nominees are Latino. And arguably Bushs most high-profile Hispanic appointment has been former Orange County Chairman Mel Martinez, who directs the Department of Housing and Urban Development and works hard to push the Bush agenda.
The presidents Saturday radio addresses are re-recorded in Spanish. And, with his eye on the Hispanic vote, Bush decided in June to stop military-training exercises on Vieques.
"Hispanic values are Republican values," White House spokeswoman Mercy Viana said.
But Marytza Sanz, director of Orlando-based Latino Leadership, said Hispanics are looking for more than agreement on values.
"A Saturday radio program and a promise for the Supreme Court doesnt buy my vote," said Sanz, whose organization hosted a "Political Salsa" forum in July that attracted 200 people. "What difference does it make that he speaks Spanish when my neighbor has been laid off?
"That doesnt impact my life. It doesnt bring businesses to my area."
The White House, however, says Bush is a different kind of Republican. He has Texas roots, speaks passable Spanish and is more moderate on immigration issues.
The president opposed California Proposition 187, a Republican-backed ballot measure in 1994 that would have ended education and other state services for illegal immigrants.
The plan branded the party "anti-newcomer," Bush said.
Bush and Keller may be anomalies for the GOP, willing to split with the partys pro-military stance on issues such as Vieques. But the strategy may backfire.
Battle for votes
Hispanics have an affinity for Democrats, and many experts say that no policy initiatives, barring a complete ideological shift, will break the Latino-Democrat alliance.
"To make serious gains among Latinos, the GOP will have to consider a wholesale policy redirection on health care and social-welfare programs," according to an August study released by the nonpartisan Center for Immigration Studies.
Hispanics overwhelmingly rejected Bush in 2000, despite his success with them in Texas.
Al Gore grabbed 62 percent of Hispanic voters, and polls show a growing likelihood that they will vote for Democrats again.
A 1999 survey, sponsored by The Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, found that these new citizens become more Democratic with increasing education and tenure in the United States.
That means Republicans might be looking for voters in the wrong places.
Even in South Florida, the only bastion of Hispanic conservatism in the United States, Democrats are winning new followers.
Cubans, who make up a large portion of the states Hispanic population, tend to vote Republican because of the partys strong anti-Castro stance. But the once large GOP lead among Cubans has dwindled to just 6 percentage points nationally, according to the Washington Post survey.
"Its important that the Republican Party is not just trying to reach out to Latino voters during an election cycle," said Louis DeSipio, an expert in ethnic politics at the University of Illinois. "As long as they see this as a long-term effort, as something that will pay off in 2008, 2012 and 2016, change may happen slowly."
Republicans agree, viewing recent strong approval ratings for Bush as a sign that their efforts are working, while Democrats view them as a call to action.
That explains Democratic Party leader McAuliffes recent strong criticism of Bush after Puerto Ricans demanded in a nonbinding referendum that the Navy leave Vieques immediately.
"The question is: How much worse does it have to get before George Bush puts a stop to it?" McAuliffe said. Vieques residents, he said, "sent a strong, clear message to George W. Bush that the Navy must leave the island immediately and not in 2003 when its politically convenient for him and his Republican colleagues."
Hispanics are listening, rallying around issues such as Vieques and mobilizing in ever-larger numbers.
"Its like we are a new gold mine, and they just discovered us," said Sanz, whose organization is holding training sessions for Orlando Hispanics interested in running for public office. "But we have been around for years and years, and no one paid attention. . . . Now we are a new lion waking up.