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The Hartford Courant

Hispanic Vote Could Prove Decisive

by Mari Carmen Aponte

January 30, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved.

Over the past few weeks, the presidential primary season has turned our nation's collective attention toward the small communities within Iowa and New Hampshire where election year issues have been determined and debated, agendas solidified and new presidential contenders emerged.

But something was missing in those town hall meetings, the diner chats and door-to-door candidate visits. The presidential primary season thus far has been missing the voice of the Hispanic community. And it is this very community that will figure prominently in swinging the vote in the final contest toward a particular candidate.

It is also the Hispanic community whose concerns - including bilingual education, the disparity of wealth, economic mobility, fair housing, human rights and college access for immigrant students - deserve to be the subject of substantive coverage and debate.

Many agree the Hispanic vote will play a major role, if not serve as the determining factor, in the 2004 elections. Hispanics now are the country's largest minority and represent 14 percent of the population. According to census data, one in every eight Americans is of Hispanic origin. In addition, Latino population centers typically exist in political battleground states or in states with large numbers of electoral votes.

In Connecticut, 9.4 percent of the population is Hispanic and composed largely of Puerto Ricans. Although it is one of the country's smaller states, Connecticut hosts one of the largest and most concentrated Puerto Rican communities in the country.

Between 1990 and 2000, Connecticut's Puerto Rican population grew from 146,000 to 194,664, accounting for more than 40 percent of the state's population growth.

As we look forward to Connecticut's March primary, the state's Latino community is energized and poised to play a significant role. Voter registration efforts across the state and nationwide are translating rising Hispanic population growth statistics into real political power.

The Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration has launched a national, nonpartisan voter registration and education campaign titled "Que Nada Nos Detenga!" or "Let Nothing Stop Us!" The campaign aims to empower Puerto Rican and Hispanic voters by making their voices heard. Since July 2002, the campaign has registered more than 185,000 new Puerto Rican and Latino voters nationwide, including more than 17,000 in Connecticut alone. It is grass-roots efforts such as this voter registration campaign that will make a true difference on Election Day.

The growing political strength of Connecticut's Hispanic population is evident in the number of Puerto Ricans who hold leadership positions in the state. Puerto Ricans hold 27 elected offices at the municipal, state and federal levels. And in 2002, Hartford elected Eddie Perez - the first Puerto Rican and Hispanicmayor of a capital city in New England.

But even in a state like Connecticut - with a politically engaged community, Latinos in leadership and an attentive congressional delegation - the Hispanic community's issues don't garner the attention they deserve. Community concerns including bilingual education, access to job skills, health education awareness and housing opportunities have taken a back seat.

As Latinos head to the polls this primary season, possibly in record numbers, these voters will make decisions based not on candidates' political affiliations or on how they fare in early contests. Latino voters will judge candidates by their records on addressing the specific issues of importance to the Hispanic community. It is too late for candidates to address these issues in Iowa and New Hampshire, but the presidential primary season has just begun.

Mari Carmen Aponte is executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington.

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