PUERTO RICO HERALD
Hispanic Candidates Emerging as Contenders Nationwide in 2002
March 29, 2002
The Rise of the Hispanic Voter. Political analysts in the United States have been predicting it for years, as the Hispanic population has boomed and mobilized politically. Moreover, elected officials and candidates across the country are responding, crafting policies and platforms with an eye to this emerging voting bloc.
The political potential of US Hispanics is clearly on the verge of becoming a reality. The question now remains not if, but when they will be a decisive force in US politics. With midterm elections this November, and with a spectrum of Hispanic candidates vying for key offices, 2002 could turn out to be the watershed year.
Hispanics still face an uphill climb, however. The truth is that despite the census statistics, despite the predictions of pundits, and despite President Bushs forays into Spanish in his quest to master at least one language, Hispanics today wield a far smaller share of political power in the United States than they could.
Granted, Hispanic voters play no small part in national politics. President Bushs electoral success, initially in Texas and then nationwide, was built in no small part on his efforts to reach out to the Hispanic community. Hispanics also influenced the outcome of last years election for New York City mayor, even though the Puerto Rican candidate, Fernando Ferrer, was defeated by Mark Green in a bitterly contested Democratic primary. Displeased with Greens racially-charged smear tactics against Ferrer, Hispanic voters helped vote his Republican opponent, Michael R. Bloomberg, into office.
While Hispanic voters are already flexing their political muscles, however, Hispanic elected officials remain a rarity. There are currently no Hispanic senators, no Hispanic governors, and only a handful of Hispanics in important statewide positions like Lieutenant Governor or Attorney General. There are 19 Hispanics in the US House of Representatives; but that number comprises less than 5% of the chambers 435 members. Moreover, the success of Hispanic mayoral candidates in cities like Hartford, Austin, Miami, and San Antonio has been offset by failed efforts to control the city halls of the nations largest cities, despite close calls last year in New York, Los Angeles, and Houston.
That may soon change. Based on early predictions and primary election results, there will be a number of Hispanic contenders for a wide variety of offices across the country. Whats more, these contenders represent some new and encouraging trends in the national Hispanic community: Hispanics in statewide offices; Hispanic women in Congress; the diversification of the nations Hispanic communities; and pan-Hispanic voting across national and cultural lines.
In Texas, oil tycoon Tony Sanchez won the democratic primary for governor on March 12, and observers believe his deep pockets and middle-of-the-road politics will make him a tough opponent for acting governor Rick Perry. The New York Times described Sanchez as combining "the two hottest trends of the moment Hispanic candidates and very, very rich candidates." Also in Texas, the seat of retiring US Senator Phil Gramm could be filled by another Hispanic. High school teacher Victor Morales received the most votes in the Democratic primary, but he still needs to win a runoff on April 9 to be the partys candidate in November.
In New Mexico, the only state ever to send a Hispanic to the US Senate and one of only two states ever to have a Hispanic governor, former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson is favored to win the Democratic gubernatorial primary next month. Just two years ago, Richardson was under consideration by Al Gore to become the nations first Hispanic vice presidential candidate. Scandals at the Department of Energy derailed that possibility, but Richardson hopes to re-emerge on the national scene with a win this November.
In Los Angeles, Linda Sanchez, sister of US Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, won the Democratic primary for an open congressional seat on March 6. Sanchez is now the overwhelming favorite to win the November election and join her sister in Washington. Perhaps even more remarkable than the prospect of two sisters in Congress, Linda Sanchez would become only the seventh Hispanic woman ever to serve in the US House (Ileana Ros-Lehtinen became the first in 1989).
In Florida, former policeman Eddie Diaz, the victim of a near-fatal shooting two years ago, has declared that he will attempt to become the states first Puerto Rican Congressman. The dominance of Cubans among Florida Hispanics has been diluted by a large influx of Puerto Ricans to Central Florida, and Diaz would represent a new district drawn to reflect population increases in the 2000 Census.
Finally, voters in Chicago this week handed Congressman Luis Gutierrez a decisive victory over challenger Marty Castro in the Democratic primary. Gutierrez had the distinct advantage of incumbency, but as a Puerto Rican in an overwhelmingly Mexican-American district, he was considered vulnerable to Castro, who is of Mexican origin. However, voters were clearly willing to look beyond the differences between the two Hispanic groups, and Gutierrez walked away with over two thirds of the vote and an almost guaranteed election to his sixth term.
The jury is still out on whether this year will finally see the full-scale emergence of Hispanic candidates to match the already formidable influence of Hispanic voters. Yet there are definite signs that Hispanic candidates are mounting campaigns with the potential to succeed this year and lay the groundwork for progress in years to come. If so, the combined efforts of Hispanics at the polls and in elected positions could result in the kind of political power that the pundits have predicted for years. Stay tuned.