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Caribbean Business

Beating The Odds: Puerto Rican The Frontrunner In Race To Lead Democrats

By Mary Farley – Reporter, Caribbean Business

2 February 2005
Copyright © 2005 Caribbean Business. All rights reserved. 

Washington, D.C. - As Democrats prepare to elect new national leadership in less than two weeks, the fierce competition has yielded a Puerto Rican as one of its top contenders. While media attention has focused primarily on the race for who will become Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the race for Vice-Chair has been no less intense. Alvaro Cifuentes, Chair of the DNC’s Hispanic Caucus, has emerged as the frontrunner in a competitive contest despite starting out as the David against two Goliaths from the United States Congress and another Hispanic.

A national base

Cifuentes has shown surprising strength in locking up the support of over 200 voting DNC members this early in the race and facing two members of Congress. With only 440 voting members, 221 votes would give Cifuentes the win. According to Teresa Krusor, Vice Chair of the Kansas Democratic Party, Cifuentes has built up support by reaching out to Democrats "from all backgrounds and from every state." Krusor says that Cifuentes is winning the war among rank and file DNC members in part because he has waged a campaign largely focused on the interests of the membership of the DNC. Cifuentes’ support includes members of the Young Democrats of America and the College Democrats of America, as well as African American leaders, and grassroots activists from around the country.

Julia Hicks, Vice-Chair of the Colorado State Democratic Party, has traveled across the country to show her support for Cifuentes. Her support, she says, is based on "his passion and vision." Virgie Rollins, a native of Michigan and member of the National Federation of Democratic Women agreed, and went on to say that Cifuentes "sees beyond demographics and has always actively supported our community and our issues at the DNC." Both women are African American and representative of the broad appeal across demographic lines that Cifuentes has been able to garner. Public endorsements from Democrats in delegations in Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, Minnesota, New Hampshire, California, and Kansas during the last week struck a similar tone.

Texas State Democratic Party Chair Charles Soechting has also praised Cifuentes for "engaging red states even when the DNC did not." Soechting is one of several DNC members who have traveled around the country urging support for Cifuentes. During his conversations with fellow Democrats, Soechting is quick to point out that Cifuentes regularly traveled to Texas to work with Democratic activists while organizing the Party’s national network of Hispanic elected officials.

The largest minority

When it comes to Hispanics, Cifuentes enjoys even stronger support, including that of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Chair of the Democratic Governors Association and one of the top Hispanic elected officials in the country. Richardson touted Cifuentes as someone who "understands that we need to support state parties and grassroots leaders," but went further to assert that Cifuentes "understands the Hispanic community better than anyone in Democratic politics, and his role will be vital." The comments echoed similar praise from a cadre of Hispanic elected officials from across the United States including New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid, Mayor Raul Martinez from Hialeah, Florida, Los Angeles Councilman and Mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, Georgia State Senator Sam Zamarripa, Texas State Representative Pete Gallegos and others.

Cifuentes’ support among Hispanic elected officials largely stems from his current role as Chair of the DNC’s Hispanic Caucus. Cifuentes is credited with establishing an unprecedented national network of Hispanic elected officials and growing the Hispanic membership of the DNC by more than 30%. During the 2004 Presidential election Cifuentes was an outspoken critic of the Kerry campaign, making the front page of the New York Times for arguing that the Presidential contender was not doing enough to win over the support of the country’s minority groups. Cifuentes was quoted as stating that "the word of mouth…is not that [Kerry] does not get it, it is that he does not care." Cifuentes earned respect from many Democrats for dealing with the issue up front and assertively, and as one Democratic operative described, for "pushing harder than anyone at the DNC for minorities." The campaign did not heed Cifuentes’ front page advice, however, and on November 2nd President Bush scored a decisive victory among Hispanics by increasing his vote margin to 40% in the critical demographic. Facing their second demoralizing loss in a row and losing ground among Hispanics, Democrats are now looking at Cifuentes as critical to the Party’s success given that he is the only Hispanic viably seeking a post among the Democratic Party’s national leadership who would focus on the Hispanic constituency.

Hurdles Ahead

The DNC has one Chair and five Vice-Chair positions but Party rules call for the posts to be equally divided among men and women. Cifuentes is competing for the sole male slot that will be open once a male has been elected as Party Chair. Cifuentes’ main opposition has come from two members of Congress, Rep. Mike Honda from California, and Rep. Gregory Meeks from New York, although Philadelphia lawyer Nelson Diaz, of Puerto Rican origin, is also in the race. Neither Rep. Meeks nor Rep. Honda has emerged as the alternative to Cifuentes, but Rep. Honda secured the endorsement today of the AFL-CIO’s political committee. There is also a concerted effort building up in support of Rep. Honda by members of Congress who would strongly prefer to see one of their own at the DNC. A senior Democratic operative who asked to remain anonymous pointed to the fact that Cifuentes is committed to serving full-time as Vice-Chair as a key reason for his success, saying that "a lot of DNC members feel that a member of Congress has his own constituency to serve, and won’t be invested in the work of the Party the way they should be." Teresa Krusor argues that ultimately, Cifuentes "comes across as sincere, and passionate, with an understanding of the DNC’s membership and a game plan to keep us involved."

Cifuentes still faces hurdles, including his opponents, but he is no political novice. During his tenure in the Puerto Rican government, Cifuentes played a key role in securing the right to collective bargaining for more than 200,000 public employees, and in securing universal health care for residents of the island. Cifuentes also led the initiative to activate the National Guard to clean up Puerto Rico’s public housing, which had become drug infested war zones feeding 90 percent of the drug trade on the east coast of the United States. The move was successful, but resulted in Cifuentes and his family receiving threats of physical violence. Cifuentes was also an ardent supporter of Puerto Rican statehood, and as a result, he remains a target for political attacks from his former foes. In the ten years since leaving Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, however, Cifuentes has been successful working as a senior counsel to some of the country’s most prestigious firms, and has been increasingly active in Democratic politics.

If he wins on February 12th, however, Cifuentes will have no doubt beaten the odds. The biggest obstacle then will be a Republican political machine that has proven it knows how to win, and plays for keeps.

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