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Latinos Are The Face Of The Political Future

-- Timm Herdt is chief of The Star state bureau

July 2, 2003
Copyright © 2003 All rights reserved. 

To the political demographers who chart the future of the American electorate, there is one unassailable truth: The Latino vote, while important today, could be determinative in the future.

The reason is not just that Latinos -- now officially the largest minority group in the United States -- will constitute an increasingly large share of the overall population.

As important politically is the geographic concentration of Latinos in large and growing states, California chief among them.

The U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute estimates that by 2025 -- one generation forward -- Latinos will constitute more than 20 percent of the population in the nation's four largest states. In California, it will be 43 percent.

Those four states -- California, Texas, Florida and New York -- will provide 150 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

Although his timing may be a decade off, it seems that the goal professed by Los Angeles-based immigrant rights activist Ben Monterroso will be achieved:

"To get into a position so that in the year 2012 we can be the ones who elect the next president of this country."

Monterroso was a lecturer last week at a seminar hosted by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials at the group's annual convention in Phoenix.

It was clear that others share his view of the importance of the Latino vote in presidential politics -- and much sooner than 2012.

Six of the nine Democratic presidential candidates personally came to Phoenix and two others arranged to speak to the convention via satellite hookup.

Over and over at this gathering of Latino politicians the refrain was heard that the Latino vote will shape the future of politics in America, and the American West in particular.

On the numbers, the demographers are no doubt correct.

Political demography, however, is much more complicated than simply counting heads, calculating birth rates and factoring immigration trends. There is a political element as well.

If the Latino vote is to ever determine the outcome of elections, there must be something about Latino voters that makes them distinct from the rest of the electorate.

To date, that has been the case because Latino voters have been overwhelmingly Democratic voters.

In the last eight presidential elections, no Republican has received more than 37 percent of the Latino vote (Ronald Reagan in 1984). No Democrat has received less than 59 percent (Jimmy Carter in 1980).

The question that will determine the future of American politics is whether the Latino vote will continue to be relatively monolithic into the future.

The answer is uncertain.

Latino political activists are careful not to concede their allegiance to Democrats.

Clarissa Martinez de Castro, director of voter mobilization for the National Council of La Raza, noted that increasing numbers of Latinos are registering as independents.

"We need to get people involved in the process," she said. "It's the job of the politicians to convince people and make their cases."

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the nation's only Latino governor, pointedly said, "The problem with Democrats is in taking the Latino vote for granted."

Fortunately for Democrats, in Richardson's view, Republicans have yet to position themselves to take advantage.

"They've tried a lot of outreach, but it's not policy," Richardson said. "Republican policies are not sensitive to Hispanic issues. They're not sincere in appealing to Hispanic concerns."

The Democratic candidates hammered on the same theme.

President Bush may have run for office promising immigration reform, said Rep. Dick Gephardt, but he can never deliver because "his own party isn't for it. They've never been for it."

Immigration remains a defining issue for Latino voters.

It is on that issue that a generation of new voters -- the daughters and granddaughters of immigrants -- will form lasting views about political parties.

Last year, Monterosso noted, was the first in California history that a majority of new babies born in the state were Latino.

His long-range political advice: "Let's start thinking about those babies who are going to turn 18, 18 years from now."

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