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Voter Turnout Hurts Latino Mayoral Hopefuls


October 28, 2001
Copyright © 2001
CHICAGO SUN-TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

As a very young boy growing up in Texas in the late '50s, I remember hearing U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough say that he would rather be governor of Texas than president of the United States. Being governor would make him head of the Texas Democratic Party and, to him, that meant he could control the political agenda and have a greater impact on the lives of Texans than he could as president. Some 20 years later, Tip O'Neil put it this way: ''All politics is local.''

Latinos haven't learned that lesson yet. If being governor is more important to our quality of life than being president, ostensibly it should follow that being mayor is more important then being governor. In Los Angeles and New York, Latinos have turned out to vote in higher numbers for president and governor than for mayor, and have lost the more important mayoral elections in the process. If Latinos hope to elect a mayor in Chicago, we must learn from these two losses and devise a winning strategy.

When Mark Green was declared the winner of the Democratic mayoral runoff election for the second time, the Latino community witnessed a lost opportunity to see one of its own nominated to the highest position of power and responsibility in New York. To me it resembled a rerun of a similar opportunity lost in L.A.

Last June, Antonio Villaraigosa lost in his bid to become the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in more than 100 years. He lost by roughly 40,000 votes. Villaraigosa overwhelmingly carried the Latino vote, but lost 70 percent of the white vote and 80 percent of the black vote. Two things could have changed the outcome.

Villaraigosa would have won had he received 40 percent of the white vote instead of 30 percent, and had he received 30 percent of the black vote instead of 20 percent. Or, he could have mobilized an additional one-third of the 150,000 Latino registered voters who stayed home to get out and vote for him. I wouldn't bank on the first alternative, but I would bet the farm on the second possibility. Latinos had the votes to win it for Villaraigosa.

In New York, Fernando Ferrer lost the Democratic nomination for mayor by only 18,000 votes. Like Villaraigosa, he overwhelmingly carried the Latino vote but, similarly, Ferrer lost 80 percent of the white vote. A slight majority of blacks supported Ferrer, and that kept the election close.

Two things could have changed the outcome.

Ferrer would have won had he received 25 percent of the white vote instead of 20 percent.Or, he could have mobilized an additional one-twentieth of the 400,000 Latino registered voters who stayed home to get out and vote for him. Again, I wouldn't bank on the first alternative but I would bet the farm on the second possibility. Latinos had the votes to easily win it for Ferrer.

Latinos have consistently led the nation in increasing voter registration and voter turnout since 1976. In the last presidential election, Latino voter turnout increased 2.5 million--an increase of 50 percent over 1996. By comparison, voter turnout overall increased only 10 percent.

Arguably, Latinos are making their mark in national elections. All year, in fact, pundits have been saying that unless Bush can get more than 35 percent of the Latino vote in 2004 he will be a one-term president like his father.

In Illinois, both Jim Edgar and George Ryan made capturing at least one-third of the Latino vote a campaign priority. They succeeded and they won.

It's a safe bet that Richard M. Daley will seek re-election in 2003 and that he will win. But no one is betting on his seeking re-election in 2007, and if he doesn't, it's a very safe bet that a viable Latino candidate will run for mayor. Better than a bet, it's a promise. And if that candidate does no worse than Villaraigosa and Ferrer among whites and blacks, and can mobilize Latinos like Harold Washington mobilized blacks in 1983, Chicago will have its first Latino mayor.

A combined total of 58,000 votes cost Latinos mayoral victories in L.A. and New York, while 550,000 Latino voters didn't bother to vote. To win, Latinos must stop relying on the overrated support of others and concentrate more on registering to vote and fully mobilizing the power of the Latino vote. Only then will Latinos achieve the greatness in leadership to which we are destined.

Juan Andrade is president of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, a national organization based in Chicago.

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