Hispanics see new political clout at conference

The Associated Press
Saturday June 30, 2001

With shouts of “Arriba!” whistles and thunderous applause, Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa was greeted like a conquering hero here at a gathering of Hispanic officials. 

Though Villaraigosa lost the race to white candidate James Hahn, Hispanic officials, buoyed by census data showing their growing numbers, believe that victory – greater political power – is inevitable. 

This year, census findings showed there were 35.3 million Hispanics in 2000, or about 12.5 percent of the population. They now rivals blacks, who number between 33.9 million and 35.4 million, as the country’s leading minority group. 

“It means influence, it means buying power, it means having a greater voice and being able to have more officials that can represent that voice,” said Deborah Ortega, a city council member in Denver, Colo. 

Ortega was one of about 900 Hispanic elected officials, from city council and school board members to members of Congress, that attended this week’s National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Education Fund annual meeting. 

At the conference, they swapped strategy on how to translate their growing numbers into political power by mobilizing the immigrant vote and by backing “crossover” candidates with broad appeal in areas without Hispanic majorities. 

Many were brimming with excitement generated by Villaraigosa’s campaign, which they said raised the profile of Hispanic politicians and demonstrated Hispanic voters’ support and higher-than-average turnout. Hispanics made up 22 percent of the electorate June 5, compared to 15 percent in 1997. 

“I have no tears. I put all my sweat on that battlefield,” Villaraigosa said Thursday to a crowd of about 500 who greeted him with hugs, cheers and a standing ovation. “There was an energy, an excitement there, that all of us can tap into.” 

There are about 5,000 Hispanic elected and appointed officials across the country, ranging from sheriffs and school board members to mayors and U.S. representatives. 

Still, Hispanics represent just 1 percent of elected officials in the country. Hispanics account for 4 percent of members of Congress and there are just seven Latinos in elected, statewide offices. 

On one hand, these numbers “generate great pride,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the NALEO Educational Fund. “On the other side, they show we have so much more work to get done.” 

Much of that work lies in cultivating crossover candidates that appeal to voters beyond the Hispanic community. The association chose the Bay Area as the site for its conference to highlight San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales’ success at garnering votes outside the Hispanic community, which accounts for about 30 percent of the city’s population. 

Hispanic leaders are hoping to apply the lessons learned in California to North Carolina, Arkansas and other areas that saw explosive growth in Hispanic populations over the last decade. 

Forthcoming mayoral elections in New York and Houston promise to be high-profile tests of Hispanic candidates Fernando Ferrer and Orlando Sanchez, and the association plans to make phone calls and walk precincts in those cities to get out the vote. 

“The Latino mayors of large cities that have succeeded have that crossover appeal,” said Michael Madrid, vice president of San Antonio, Texas-based political consulting firm Guerra DeBerry Coody. “It allows them to transcend ethnic labels.” 

Dale Prairie, a council member in Bernalillo, N.M., said he plans to take that lesson to heart in his next campaign. He believes he lost a bid for county treasurer because he did not have the votes of high-tech employees and elderly people. Now he realizes the importance of courting those constituencies. 

“Latinos are looking forward to growing more in numbers and being able to win more elections in their own communities,” he said. 

Besides appealing to broad coalitions of voters, candidates must also attract a new bloc of immigrant voters. Since 1993, 5.3 million immigrants became naturalized citizens; of those, 2.3 million were Hispanics, said Louis DeSipio, an associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

Helping immigrants to register to vote, teaching them about voting rights and the importance of voting, and urging them to go to the polls were the focus of one workshop at the conference. 

Officials also dug into the nuts and bolts of governing at workshops on school finance, municipal budgets, education and affordable housing. Such discussions indicate political maturity in the Hispanic community, Madrid said. “It’s not just about breaking into the system, it’s about making the system work.” 

What’s next? “Short of electing somebody to the White House, electing a United States senator is the next breakthrough we need to make,” Vargas said. 

“The last election in 2000 broke new ground. You had two middle-aged white men speaking Spanish,” Vargas said. “Success at the ballot box is going to require Latino strategies. We want these parties to work for the vote of the Latino community.” 



On the Net: 

National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials: http://www.naleo.org/