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Many Hispanics On The 2002 Ballot - But Will Latino Voters Turn Out?

November 1, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All rights reserved. 

Throughout the fifty states and in the District of Columbia, ballots with the names of candidates competing for seats in federal, state and local government are stacked in polling places awaiting voters to mark their preferences. Many of those names carry Spanish accent marks, a witness to the growing presence of Hispanic Americans in the national political process. There are some 5,400 Hispanics who presently hold elective office at some government level and Latino leaders are hopeful that that total will increase after November 5th. That number does not include elected officials in Puerto Rico or other U.S. territories.

Hispanic success on Election Day 2002 will depend on many factors, the most elemental of which is voter turnout. The 2000 census calculated the number of Latinos in America at 35.3 million, and predicted that by 2006, they would form the largest minority group in the nation. Those numbers, however, do not automatically add up to electoral strength. The Hispanic community is young, almost 40% are not of voting age, many are not U.S. citizens, and countless others are ambivalent about the political process. According to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), less than 60% of eligible Latinos are registered to vote and, in the last election, less that 40% actually showed up to vote.

NALEO, like other mainstream Hispanic organizations, has launched voter registration drives in areas where Latinos have a strong demographic presence. Their studies show that Hispanic voting rates are proportionally lower than that of the general public. In a recent effort to change that statistic, the group undertook a massive voter education effort in Texas, California and New York to bring new Hispanics into the process. Other active efforts to register Latino voters are underway by organizations like the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and The Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) through its offices in Florida, New Jersey, Connecticut and New York. That group recently announced that, since it began its efforts in the summer, some 75,000 new voters have been added to the registries, mostly mainland Puerto Ricans.

Hispanics tend to be energized by issues that touch on their ethnicity and cultural identity. Office seekers running in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods have learned that Latinos respond to policies aimed directly at their communities -- immigration, employment, housing and education. California’s Governor, Grey Davis’ veto of a bill that would have allowed illegal immigrants to obtain state driving permits, may cause Hispanics to punish him in his bid for reelection. Previously they supported him with large majorities. They also favor politicians that make some attempt to communicate in their language, an asset for Florida’s Governor, Jeb Bush, who has forced his opponent, Democratic hopeful Bill McBride, to stay close to his Spanish phrase book.

Seeking Hispanic votes - and any others that they can attract - are Hispanic candidates running for federal and state legislatures, state governorships and elected positions in state, county and municipal jurisdictions.

All Hispanic members of the U.S. House of Representatives are up for reelection, including Puerto Ricans Jose Serrano (D-NY), Nydia Velasquez (D-NY) and Luis Gutierrez (D-IL). Eddie Díaz, a Puerto Rican Democrat, is running against an incumbent Republican, Ric Keller, in an area in central Florida where Hispanics are only about 10 percent of the population and, in Los Angeles, Luis Vega, a Puerto Rican Republican, is in a race with an incumbent House member, Xavier Becerra, a Mexican American Democrat. Darío Herrera, a 28-year-old Cuban American, is running as a Democrat for a newly created seat in southern Nevada that is only 15 percent Hispanic. Several Mexican American candidates also are running in two new districts in New Mexico where Hispanics are a minority. Races in California could add as many as three new Hispanic Members to the House of Representatives.

On the state level, there are several interesting races involving Hispanics. In New Mexico, Bill Richardson, a Mexican American former multi-term Congressman and Clinton political appointee, has squared off against Republican John Sánchez, a dynamic state legislator from Albuquerque who heralds his humble beginnings and family roots in New Mexico going back generations. In Texas, Democrat Tony Sánchez, a multimillionaire whose success has been in the oil patch, is challenging incumbent Governor Rick Perry, who is seeking a full term as Governor after stepping into the job after George W. Bush left it for Washington. Local politics are especially important to the Hispanic electorate since that is where most of the population resides. In May, Democrat Ed Garza, of Mexican heritage, became the second-ever Hispanic mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and Hispanics won the mayor's office in the sizable cities of El Paso, Texas, and Glendale, California.

A larger voter turnout among Hispanics could be significant in key races around the country. Political analysts agree that, with the election less than a week away, it is impossible to predict with confidence what will be the make-up of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Pollster Charlie Cook recently told a group of Capitol Hill staffers that so many races are so close that a post-election House could look like anything between a 2-seat advantage for Democrats to a 6-seat Republican pick-up to add to their existing majority. He saw no overall change in the Senate and a significant pick-up for Democrats in the Gubernatorial races. As the Herald went to press with the current issue, Hispanic leaders were all on the same page as to how well Hispanic candidates will do on Election Day. "If our voters turn out" one said, "we’ll have much to celebrate on Wednesday."

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