Obama courts the Latino vote

By the time she finished clapping, Roselia Ramirez had made up her mind. Ramirez, who had traveled to Washington from Big Spring, Texas, to attend the national convention of LULAC — the League of United Latin American Citizens — entered the Washington Hilton Tuesday afternoon still undecided about who she would support for president.

Though a lifelong Democrat who had only gone over to the other side once, to vote for Ronald Reagan, she had been unsure through the spring. But after hearing the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, give an impassioned speech that stirred the subterranean interiors of the Hilton’s International Ballroom, Ramirez related to him in a new way. Once she had heard his thoughts on how to help Latino children, and of his own experience as a community organizer in Chicago, everything suddenly seemed clear.

"Now I will vote for Obama," Ramirez said.

For those covering the campaign, this sort of statement is pretty familiar. Obama is, after all, a political figure of rock star status, whose live performance can still move people to his cause. But what made this case different was the disparity between the crowd’s reaction and what one thought it would be only a month ago. This was supposed to be a tough room for Obama. Instead it was his, and his alone.

It wasn’t supposed to be this easy. During the Democratic primaries, Obama’s chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had made Latinos an integral part of her campaign and her coalition. Many, in fact, thought Latinos would, out of a sense of supreme loyalty, throw their support behind someone else (John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee).

Moreover, President George W. Bush had worked for years to bring Latinos into the Republican fold. They were supposed to be a new cornerstone of the Republican Party. Now, Latinos’ almost total absence from the Republican ranks only serves as another reminder of the party’s internal battle for its own soul.

"There was a real attempt both in 2000 and 2004 by Bush to make an appeal to Latino voters," said Michael Jones-Correa, the Cornell University government professor who is also the director of Committee for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Immigration in the United States. "Anywhere from 40 to 44 percent of Latinos voted for him in the last election — and that as a result of a concerted effort to reach out to non-Anglo voters."

This success seemed to signal an end to the civil rights-era coalition, or what remained of it — where both blacks and Latinos fought alongside one another, under the stewardship of the great martyrs of the 1960s New Frontier. César Chávez, and the memories he brought forth of social justice, were dead. Now, the Republicans, with a former governor of Texas as their leader, offered the group a fluid relationship with Mexico — as well as more conservative positions on social issues like gay marriage and abortion to appeal to this voting bloc.

Despite Bush’s best efforts at national consensus-building and new alliances, however, the foundations of the relationship that he tried to forge were unsteady because seismic social shifts were occurring across America.

Citizens of the Southwest were used to an influx of immigrants, to Spanish speakers at their work and in their schools. But from 1990 to the present, the phenomenon grew from regional to national. It moved out of the Southwest and West, into the heartland and Mountain states, the deep South and the mid-Atlantic states. It spread from Santa Fe and Austin until it reached to Atlanta and Arlington and small towns in Mississippi. More and more representatives from those towns and counties were hearing from constituents that they were tired of hearing Spanish at the supermarket, that their lives were changing and the changes needed to stop. Latino children, for example, are now the majority of students served by Denver public schools. Between 1990 and 2000, Latinos counted for more than 94 percent of the population growth in Fairfax, Va.

"It took the Republican leadership by surprise because they were looking at it from a national level and not at the local level," Jones-Correa said. "Resentment was building in these areas not only by the change, but by the rapidity of the change. You’d have a small meat-packing town of 20,000 people and have 5,000 people move in. That makes a huge difference in what the town will look like."

It also made a huge difference in how such towns responded. For a nation of immigrants, we’ve always been pretty impatient with those for whom this country has served as a beacon. German and Italians and Irish all clung to their own native groups upon arriving here, and all were treated, in some fashion, as interloping outsiders unworthy of participating in American life. Latinos, it would seem, are no different — except that they are simply greater in number.

Born to parents who didn’t know the language, it’s always been left to the children to lead the way to assimilation — to join the Boy Scouts and buy Hannah Montana T-shirts, to go to college and name their first born Madison.

However, there is one difference, said Gregory Rodriguez, author of "Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America." As of 2004, 67 percent of those we identify as Latinos were of Mexican origin. But unlike the Irish who came here to flee famine or Jews fleeing prosecution, the Mexican experience in America is not a linear one.

This is not a simple story, where, one moment, a group is the object of discrimination, only to awake 30 years later as fully integrated and accepted members of American society. Last October during the 32nd annual National Italian American Foundation Gala charity benefit — held in the same ballroom as the LULAC conference — Italian Americans like Martin Scorsese and Rudy Giuliani could talk whimsically about the old neighborhood, where people only spoke their native language and seldom moved beyond their personal enclaves, because that period was over for Italians in this country. For Latinos, and more specifically Mexicans, this period is constantly being reborn.

"Previous immigrants have had a beginning, middle and an end," Rodriguez said. "The continuous nature of Mexican migration has caused major confusion both of what people think of them and among Mexicans themselves. Let’s take Swedish migration: At some point the native-born outnumbered foreign-born Swedes. But because of the continuous nature, it’s not as linear as that. In the 1920s, the majority were foreign-born. In the 1930, U.S.-born dominated and in 1970 the vast majority were U.S.-born and most of them the grandchildren of immigrants. Today, that’s obviously not the case (with Latinos)."

The result has also been continual fodder for nativists within the GOP. While Bush and McCain pressed for comprehensive immigration reform, both were rebuffed in their efforts by individuals whose constituents were angry at what they and Lou Dobbs saw as a Southern invasion of America. They were also rebuffed by the GOP base, which saw such reform efforts as akin to amnesty for illegal immigrants.

"I think it’s fair to say McCain lost his front-runner status because of immigration reform, because of its unpopularity within the Republican Party," said David R. Ayón, a senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "It was almost a near-death experience for his candidacy."

Indeed, one might argue that McCain’s comeback began in earnest when he repudiated his own efforts. Speaking to audiences in New Hampshire last summer, after firing most of his staff, McCain said he had been wrong in his support of the bill — he didn’t understand just how angry people were. Today he follows a more muddled message — calling for reform only after the border with Mexico is secure.

Yet, to play to his base and win the nomination, McCain may have done irrevocable damage to his chances in the general election. Polls now show Obama ahead among Latino voters between 30-40 percentage points, putting to rest any notion that Clinton Latino loyalists would move to the other party rather than support an African-American candidate. Now McCain is in a difficult situation, as he tries to woo voters in almost a stealth fashion in order to keep the conservative base — who can barely stomach his candidacy on the best of days — happy.

Obama has no such problem.

"The polls say I’m winning by 40 points," the Illinois senator said about the Latino vote, while talking to reporters during a flight from Butte, Mont., to St. Louis on the morning of July 5. "So this is not one of those situations where we appear to be having major problems in the Hispanic community … but I also want to listen to them and make sure I’m not taking them for granted. We’re going to fight for every Hispanic vote we can get."

Nowhere was the difference in Latino outreach between the two campaigns more apparent than at the Washington Hilton Thursday during the LULAC conference. Speaking first, McCain spent the majority of his speech talking about small businesses and taxes, the need for nuclear power and clean coal. He had given the same speech in Las Vegas, Sacramento and countless other places, minus the shout out to Latinos at the very, very end.

Now, it might be said that by giving the talk in the fashion he did, McCain was acknowledging the fact that the concerns of Latino Americans were universal, and not bound by race and ethnicity. But there are times to deviate from message, to fully acknowledge the cloud hovering over the room. When talking to LULAC members, he might have considered actually addressing the positions they wanted Indeed the only to hear about.effort of any significance to reach out to Latino voters at the event was signs being passed out saying "ESTAMOS UNIODOS McCain." Even with that small gesture, one could feel the coming wrath of one time-presidential candidate and Republican congressman Pat Buchanan, and his sidekick sister, the conservative commentator Bay Buchanan.

Sitting with his wife and two grandsons, Tony Nevarez, 71, leaned back in his chair inside the ballroom before Obama was due to speak. A LULAC member for 38 years, he sported a T-shirt that pictured both Martin Luther King Jr. and Obama. Nevarez shook his head when talking about the primaries.

"The Republicans did themselves major harm in promoting this anti-immigration view," Nevarez said. "What bothers me the most is how short-sighted the view was."

Needless to say, Obama approached the group differently than McCain did. He embraced his environment, speaking at length about comprehensive immigration reform, about how Latinos come here for the same reason the millions before them did — for an opportunity for that something better, for that chance. He talked about the need for comprehensive immigration reform and the need to bring undocumented workers out of the shadows and onto the road to citizenship.

At length, Obama stressed the common interests of affordable health care and education. He spoke of a young girl named Christina who asked for his autograph, then translated what Obama had said to her parents. He warned against the idea of establishing two classes of citizens. More to his own interest, Obama talked about what a difference they could make in states like Florida, Colorado and New Mexico.

"While I know how powerful a community you are," Obama said, "I also know how powerful you could be if you translate your numbers into votes."

It’s one thing to hold the day on July 8. It’s another to harness that same energy in greater force on Nov. 4. Should Obama win states like Colorado and New Mexico — which John Kerry only lost by 6,000 votes in 2004 — a big part of the reason would be the Latino vote. And should those two states prove instrumental in his presidential victory, those within the Republican Party will be forced to rethink everything that happened during the primary regarding immigration, and about who they want the GOP to reach. Of course, they might need someone to translate.

This story originally appeared at our sister site, The Washington Independent.