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Democrat & Chronicle

Issues Harder To Pin Down In Battle For Latino Vote

Denise Marie Santiago

September 6, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Democrat & Chronicle. All rights reserved. 

A flurry of e-mails flooded the computer mailboxes of about 125 local Latino professionals after Democrats dumped Jose Cruz as minority leader in the Monroe County Legislature this summer. The messages spoke of organizing, maybe starting a new political party.

For Ivan Ramos, the answer was simple: Vote Republican.

In another time, those may have been words of a Latino heretic. Latinos have long been loyal to the Democratic Party, and with something local to show for it: The four Hispanics who hold elected office are Democrats.

But while not wholly embraced, his idea that there is an alternative found an unusual tolerance. That helps explain why Ramos and a small but passionate group of Latinos are betting that they're not the only ones set on a new course.

As members of the Hispanic Republican Committee of Monroe County, they manned a voter registration table and campaigned with Republican candidates for office at last month's Puerto Rican Festival. They spend Saturdays poring over voter lists for potential recruits.

They are working with "Amigos de Pataki," and have contacted the Puerto Rican Gov. Sila Calderon's office to offer assistance in her recently announced campaign to register Puerto Ricans living in the United States.

That the head of the Democratic Committee of Monroe County was not aware of the potentially groundbreaking project makes me think they're on to something. After all, part of the three-year, $6 million project will study why mainland Puerto Ricans vote at only half (40 percent) the rate of those on the island.

But I'm not convinced either that the Republicans, they of anti-immigration policies and English-only initiatives, represent me - notwithstanding Bush's attentiveness to Mexican-Americans, Pataki's trips to Vieques or recent polls suggesting that Latinos are warming up to the GOP. (Approval ratings are high among most Americans, including Latinos, thanks to the wave of patriotism that swept the country after 9/11.)

Consider, too, the recent choices they've made in some prominent races. Judge Dora Irizarry, the Republican candidate for attorney general and the first Latina to run for statewide office, has about the same prospect of winning that the Rev. Luis Perez, the Republican candidate, had in last year's race for mayor: a snowball's chance in Puerto Rico .

What's at stake is indisputable. The Latino population is exploding, and in the Rochester area alone it grew by 50 percent in the last decade. Their sheer numbers suggest a potential to determine political races.

With that population swell has come more diversity among Latinos themselves. While still disproportionately poor and suffering the resultant social ills, the Latino middle-class grew 80 percent in the last 20 years. More are buying homes, attending college and earning graduate degrees.

So identifying Latino issues is not as easy today as it once was. There are differences of opinions among Latinos, even on closing borders and bilingual education. Blue-collar concerns like the minimum wage are not utmost on the minds of white-collar workers seeking to break though glass ceilings.

"The most important issues (to Latinos) are the same as with mainstream America," said P.J. Estevez, a 33-year-old small-business owner who co-chairs the Hispanic Republican Committee. "Our kids going to good schools, having a home, living in a good neighborhood."

Those will always be the issues that bind us.

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