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Hispanics Take Their Place In Politics…Voter Apathy A Mystery

Hispanics Take Their Place In Politics

As Numbers Grow, So Does Their Influence.

Joseph Spector

September 29, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, NY). All rights reserved.

Standing under Gov. George Pataki campaign banners, Luis Zamot on Tuesday urged a crowd eating empanadas, sweet fried plantains and quesadillas to vote Republican.

Supporting Republicans is an atypical role for a Hispanic community that traditionally backs Democrats. But it's a role that's growing.

At Tuesday's fundraiser for Republican attorney general candidate Dora Irizarry of Manhattan, the first Hispanic woman to run for statewide office, Hispanics in Rochester pressed the need for greater representation in politics - in all circles.

"We can't be taken for granted by any political party," said Zamot, co-chairman of the newly re-established Hispanic Republican Committee of Monroe County.

And politicians are realizing it. The Hispanic population is the fastest growing ethnic group in Rochester, and the group's growth nationally has prompted every political candidate from president to county legislator to want to reach out to Hispanics.

Their growing influence is evident in this year's race for governor, in which Republican Pataki and Democratic challenger H. Carl McCall have taken steps to court the Hispanic vote.

Rochester - which has the largest concentration of Hispanics in upstate New York, according to the U.S. Census - has already made great strides in attracting Hispanics to local politics.

Rochester has at least one Hispanic representative on every major board: the Monroe County Legislature, Rochester Board of Education and City Council. Last year, Luis Perez was the first Hispanic to run for mayor.

Perez said he now tells children in the community, "You can dream one day about being mayor because somebody has already tried to do it."

Expanded courtship

The Hispanic population in the six-county Rochester region nearly doubled to 48,000 from 1990 to 2000, according to the U.S. census. In Rochester, Hispanics now represent 13 percent of the population.

Puerto Ricans are the area's largest Hispanic group, representing 78 percent of the Hispanic population in the city.

"The Hispanic influence, the clout the Hispanic community holds is tremendous," said Ted O'Brien, chairman of the Monroe County Democratic Committee.

The Hispanic Republican Committee, dormant for years, was re-established six months ago. County Democrats are also discussing bringing back a Hispanic caucus.

Hispanics migrated to western New York more than a half century ago. Now second- and third-generation families are becoming more active in the community and in politics, Hispanic leaders said.

"We're now individuals who have a growing middle class in this community, have resources and are more apt to be politically active in this community," said Jose Cruz, who was elected to the County Legislature in 1999.

"I think what people are looking at now are not only the numbers, but the potential."

Pataki, particularly, has made inroads with Hispanics. And that's crucial in a state where Democrats hold a 5-to-3 edge over Republicans.

He has learned to speak Spanish, has opposed the U.S. military bombing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques and was endorsed by Dennis Rivera, a powerful Hispanic union leader in New York City.

Pataki and McCall also unveiled Spanish-language ads this month, with Pataki stressing the importance of education - a centerpiece of McCall's campaign

Meanwhile, McCall has aligned himself with key Hispanic politicians in New York City, where three-quarters of the state's 2.9 million Hispanics live.

McCall, who is black, talks frequently about being a minority growing out of poverty to be the first African American to hold statewide office - comptroller.

In recent statewide elections, Hispanics overwhelmingly supported Democrats. In 1998, 70 percent of Hispanics supported Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Vallone, who was trounced by Pataki, according to exit polls by Voter News Service.

Eighty percent of Hispanic voters in New York voted for Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election, despite Republican George W. Bush's efforts to embrace the Hispanic community, the group also found.

New views

Hispanics, however, do not necessarily vote solely by party, said Lisa Navarrite, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights group, based in Washington, D.C.

"One thing we know about the Latinos is they vote for the person," Navarrite, a former Brighton resident, said.

State Assemblyman Joseph Robach, a Democrat-turned-Republican, is running for state Senate in November in the district with the largest Hispanic concentration in Rochester. He said Hispanic support is based more on personality than political affiliations.

"It makes them a group people are going to listen to more and that no political party can take for granted," he said.

It's also a group becoming more educated politically and more focused on issues.

"Latino voters care about substance, not just about style," Raul Yzaguirre, president of La Raza, said in a report this summer on the Hispanic vote. "Speaking Spanish at campaign stops, advertising in the Spanish media and other sorts of `pinata politics' can help to get the attention of Latino voters, but it's not enough."

As Hispanics gain greater economic status, some said their ideals are becoming more in line with the Republican Party, which generally stresses self-determination and entrepreneurship. Some said supporting Democrats, deemed more sympathetic to social and urban issues, should not be considered the norm.

"I've always believed in the American dream," said business owner P.J. Estevez, 33, an organizer of the Hispanic Republican Committee. "It's a party about choice and that people don't have a right to a free ride."

Both parties, though, said they still have a long way to go in getting Hispanic voters registered and active. Because voters do not specify their ethnicity when registering to vote, it's impossible to know how many Hispanics register and vote in elections.

But anecdotal evidence shows voter turnout among Hispanics to be low.

And even though Perez was seen as a mayoral candidate who would invigorate the Hispanic vote, he lost to popular Democratic Mayor William A. Johnson Jr., in every Hispanic-dominated electoral district except one - where he won by two votes.

Johnson, who is black, also connected with urban voters.

Additionally, a Quinnipiac University poll on Thursday found Democratic Attorney General Eliot Spitzer leading Irizarry, 55 percent to 17 percent, among likely voters. He also had more support among New York City and upstate voters, and from minorities and women, the poll found.

"The battle for inclusion has been won," said Julio Vazquez, president of the Ibero American Action League in Rochester. "The question now is how do we use that to empower ourselves."

How the Hispanic community has spread

Here is a breakdown of the Hispanic community in the Rochester area, according to the 2000 census. The Hispanic population continues to grow in size and political influence in the six-county metropolitan region.

  Rochester Monroe County suburbs Five surrounding counties
Puerto Rican 78% 51% 54%
Cuban 4% 6% 3%
Mexican 3% 13% 19%
Other 15% 30% 25%
Total Hispanic population 28,032 11,033 8,494
Change since 1990 +40% +73% +62%


Numbers may not add up to 100 percent after rounding. The five surrounding counties are Genesee, Livingston, Ontario, Orleans and Wayne.

JOHN KOHLSTRAND researcher, KEVIN M. SMITH staff artist

Hispanic Voter Apathy A Mystery

By Rich McKay

October 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002 El Sentinel. All rights reserved.

DELTONA -- When José Pérez lost his pitched battle for mayor of Volusia County's largest city last year - he went back and looked at the numbers and at ethnicity.

It turns out that only about 700 or 10 percent of about 7,000 registered Hispanic voters went to the polls. Hispanics make up about 20 percent of the city's population.

What that tells Pérez is that Hispanics have political muscle, but they're not flexing it.

"If I knew why, I'd be in office right now," he said from his day job as an AT&T manager. "I find it to be very disappointing."

It hasn't gotten any better since Pérez's defeat a year ago.

Rafael Valle lost his bid for the County Council District 5 seat in the Sept. 10 primary.

"Out of my 2,300 votes not even 10 percent were Hispanic. That's sad," Valle said.

It's even more striking when you look at the growth in Hispanic population in Volusia County alone in the past 10 years, which jumped to 29,111 in 2000 from 14,668 in 1990, a 98 percent increase, according to the census.

Hispanics' lack of participation has Pérez thinking of jumping back into the political arena in an area where he can have an impact on Hispanic voters. He's eyeing the Supervisor of Election's post when it comes on the ballot in 2004. It's currently held by Deanie Lowe, who says she will retire then.

Pérez feels he'll be sensitive to areas that Lowe and other past supervisors have missed in educating the voters, especially Hispanic voters.

Pérez, 55, was born in Puerto Rico and moved with his family to The Bronx, New York, when he was six. He came to Deltona in the 1980s.

He served on the city commission for six years and was defeated by Mayor John Masiarczyk in 2001.

Pérez isn't saying that Hispanic voters would automatically vote for an Hispanic official, but he can't help but notice the lack of participation, especially in Central Florida, where Hispanics have assimilated well.

"I'm not sure if it's voter apathy or a lack of education about voting," he said.

Pérez said he wants registration drives in Hispanic communities, and a push to educate everyone about the importance of votes.

"It's supposed to be one-person, one-vote, but many neighborhoods aren't represented," he said.

Blanca Hernández, the president of the Volusia County Hispanic Association, said that part of the problem could be that young Hispanic families are working too hard to fully get involved in the American political scene.

"A lot of them are working in Orlando and raising kids," she said. "Working parents don't have a lot of spare time."

But Hernández is optimistic.

"The Hispanic community here is maturing," she said. "I think as we grow, you will see not only more active voters, but more direct involvement in politics."

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