The Rising Latino Tide

I. I Can Help McBride!

"When I go door-to-door, and they open it up, they don't really listen to me," says Patrick Vilar, a fresh-faced young Democrat who is seeking election to the Florida House of Representatives this November in a district that, the conventional wisdom says, is Cuban, Republican and, for a Democrat, a fool's errand. "They read down the piece until they come to the line, 'Colombian Bar Association,'" he says. "That stops them. They look up and say, 'You're Colombian?' Then we start speaking in Spanish. It's a match."

Vilar is encountering many such matches as election day draws near because his district, like the rest of Florida, is changing into something no one anticipated just a few years ago. "This is a misleadingly Republican district," says Vilar. "I know, it's 45 percent Republican, 30 percent Democratic and 25 percent independent -- that's more independents than any district in the state. What people don't know" -- and he winks at me as if he's sharing some bit of political arcana that the powers-that-be aren't onto yet -- "is that 62 percent of the independents are non-Cuban Hispanics." Many are Colombian newcomers, half of whom have arrived in the past four years after fleeing the violence in their homeland.

Vilar's district, a fast-growing area on Miami's western edge, has the highest concentration of non-Cuban Hispanics in southern Florida, and it's not the only part of the state that's changing. Up Disney way, Orlando is home to a vast assortment of hotel workers from Puerto Rico and Latin America. But it's only now that anyone's noticing this transformation and the political opportunity it creates.

"It took the 2000 Census to wake people up," says Alvaro Fernandez, the Florida director of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, the nation's foremost Latino voter-registration organization. "It turns out that 70 percent of Hispanics in Florida aren't Cuban. Suddenly, the Democrats are chasing Hispanics."

Such was hardly the case two years ago. "There were no Spanish-language signs in Miami-Dade for Gore, not a one," says Doralba Muñoz, who chairs the Hispanic Caucus of the state Democratic Party. Indeed, everything about the Democrats' Hispanic operation in Florida seems to have been born yesterday. "There is no infrastructure, no clubs," says Jim Carlson, the statewide Hispanic outreach coordinator for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride's campaign. Carlson is based in the Orlando area, where the Puerto Rican migrants from New York are heavily Democratic. "There is no old guard to pass along the keys to the kingdom," he says. "But the stakes here are so high."

Are they ever. In 2002, as in 2000, Florida is up for grabs, with McBride, a moderate Democrat with a folksy manner and no experience in public life, running roughly even with the first brother, incumbent Gov. Jeb Bush. And with election day just around the corner, McBride's prospects hinge on get-out-the-vote campaigns, not only in Florida's black and Jewish precincts but in those areas around the state now settled by Hispanics from anywhere but Cuba.

He has help from unexpected quarters. One group that has been registering Puerto Ricans, surprisingly, is the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration, which, in a new program undertaken at the behest of Commonwealth Gov. Sila Calderon, has signed up 70,000 Puerto Ricans this fall, chiefly in Florida and New York.

Vilar's own connections go beyond mere governors. When he won the Democratic primary in early September, he was invited to the Colombian Embassy in Washington for an audience with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Any doubt that Vilar has been anointed the great Colombian hope is dispelled by the reception he receives at the Festival of Flowers, which brings thousands of Colombians to a Miami fairground on a Sunday in mid-October. A hastily assembled Vilar-for-state-rep brigade, which has sandwiched itself in the festival parade between a Colombian marching band and some vintage tail-fin Cadillacs, draws lusty cheers from the crowd.

Vilar's campaign is hardly confined to the Colombian community; his marching society comprises a smorgasbord of Latinos (even Cubans), whites and Haitians. But there is no question that he has mobilized a specific community. When I ask him if it helps to have McBride on the top of the ticket, he does a mock double take. "Neither Bush nor McBride pull votes in this district," he says. "McBride can't help me. I can help McBride!"

II. What the Numbers Say

At a time when the country is as evenly divided politically as it's ever been, it is the Patrick Vilars and the new Latino immigrant communities that are poised to realign the nation in a decisively Democratic direction. This is as American a tradition as can be found: The two great realignments of the past century both involved the mobilization of entire new groups into the electorate, centered around a distinct set of issues and organized by institutions with particular credibility among them.

Much of the base of the New Deal was the great second wave of immigrants who came to America between 1880 and 1924 from southern and Eastern Europe, most of whom had either never voted or never voted Democratic until Roosevelt took office. Prodded by the Congress of Industrial Organizations' activists in the steel and auto towns of Pennsylvania and the industrial Midwest, by the garment unions of New York and other such groups, millions of working-class Americans registered and voted Democratic for the first time in the early 1930s; the electorate expanded by nearly 25 percent between 1932 and 1936 in a massive ratification of the New Deal. Similarly, 30 years later, the great civil-rights campaigns compelled the Democrats to grant the franchise to southern blacks, whom the campaigns then mobilized and, under federal protection, brought to the polls for the first time. The difference, of course, was that the civil-rights revolution helped engender a counter-realignment that led to the Republican ascendancy of the 1970s and 1980s.

Now a new realignment is on the horizon; you can see it circling when you read the numbers on Latino population growth, Latino political attitudes and Latino partisan identification. In and of themselves, of course, numbers don't guarantee a realignment, which also requires some break with the old order and the right mix of leaders and institutions to organize the upsurge. In some states, most notably California, those leaders and institutions are already present; in other states, most unfortunately Texas, they are not. But the preconditions for change in a number of states are plain to see.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 35 million Latinos in the United States in 2000, a figure that grew by nearly 13 million during the 1990s -- a stunning 58 percent increase due chiefly to immigration. The states that immigration is changing most are the anchor states of the Republican ascendancy of the 1980s -- the Reagan Sunbelt, if you will. While the United States as a whole was 12.5 percent Latino in the 2000 Census, California was 32.4 percent Latino, Texas was 32 percent and Florida was 16.8 percent. For the Republicans, California, of course, is long gone: The home of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan is now the most Democratic state in the union. What gives Bush consigliere Karl Rove nightmares is that Latino immigration may mean that Texas and Florida could be lost as well -- Texas within a decade or so, Florida within the next week. And if Florida becomes a state on which the national Democrats can rely, getting a GOP president elected looks increasingly like squaring a circle.

Migration, of course, is not the same as naturalization, much less mobilization, but in some states -- California most of all -- those processes have been under way for years. Sergio Bendixen, the Miami-based pollster who specializes in Latino public opinion, notes, "In 1988, immigrants made up less than 20 percent of the Latino electorate. Today, they're almost half." As immigration and naturalization soared in California, the Latino share of the electorate rose from 9 percent in 1992 to 15 percent in 2000. Latino immigration to Nevada, Colorado and Arizona is also pushing those states in a more Democratic direction.

If these numbers should concern Rove, the emerging Latino ideology should alarm him, as the Pew Hispanic Center's massive new nationwide poll of more than 2,929 registered Latinos makes dramatically clear. Respondents were asked to choose a preference: paying higher taxes to support a larger government that provides more services or paying lower taxes for a smaller government providing fewer services. While whites and blacks opted for lower taxes and less government (whites by a 61 percent to 32 percent margin, blacks by a 52 percent to 39 percent one), Latinos went the other way, supporting higher taxes and big government by a 55 percent to 38 percent margin. Stunningly, the support for big government was highest among Texas Latinos, who favored it by a 63 percent to 32 percent margin. Among Latino Republicans, high taxes and big government still commanded 52 percent support. (Among white Republicans it got 17 percent backing.)

However, on cultural issues such as abortion and divorce, Latinos, particularly Latino immigrants, remain quite conservative. Thirty-four percent of Latino Democrats, for instance, find divorce unacceptable, compared with just 13 percent of white Democrats. But these are not issues that loom large in the electoral calculus of Latino voters. Asked to identify the two issues most important to them, 58 percent said education and 39 percent said the economy. Only 4 percent mentioned abortion.

In accord, then, with the Democrats' position on the economy, and convinced that Democrats are the more immigrant-friendly party, it's not surprising that Latinos identified Democrats (45 percent) more than Republicans (10 percent) as the party that shows greater concern for Latinos. The one great exception to Latinos' Democratic proclivities comes on the question of the president himself. In polling that Bendixen conducted in May, Latino voters favored a Democratic Congress by a 53 percent to 23 percent margin. But when asked whether they'd back Bush or Al Gore in a presidential rematch, they split: Gore received 46 percent, Bush 44 percent.

III. The Palm-Pilot Revolution

It's in Texas that the revolution was supposed to unfold this year. As the first Latino candidate for governor in the state's modern history, and as an oilman and banker worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Democrat Tony Sanchez planned to plunge unprecedented resources into a campaign to register and mobilize hundreds of thousands of Latino voters. And plunge he did: Though the final registration figures aren't all that impressive, people can't stop talking about the Palm Pilots.

"This is the most ambitious program I've even seen," says Priest Cantu, who runs the San Antonio field operation for Sanchez. "All our canvassers had these Palm Pilots to immediately register the voters' preferences. It must have cost a fortune."

But Sanchez's success at mobilizing people with his state-of-the-art technology has been mixed. Part of the problem is Sanchez himself, a candidate whose stump speeches suggest nothing so much as a banker reading aloud from a quarterly report. (He does read his speeches from a blue binder.) Part of his problem is his message, which ignores a range of populist themes -- raising the minimum wage, providing drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants -- that could awaken his Latino working-class base. Part of his problem is the flood of negative commercials, a number of them his own, which is turning potential voters away from politics. And part of his problem is that his campaign seems not to have connected with the Latino communities of Houston and Dallas, though it has definitely made an impact in the more historically Latino Rio Grande Valley.

"Down in south Texas, by the border, you see a lot of activity," says Southwest Voter Registration President Antonio Gonzalez. "The campaign has hundreds of people on the payroll, and there's a lot of energy. Sanchez [who comes from the south Texas town of Laredo] is their candidate."

But south Texas -- running from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico and as far north as San Antonio -- is a unique political turf and one of the most profoundly poor places in the nation. Its residents on the whole aren't immigrants (the immigrants pass through to areas with more jobs); many come from families that have lived there for generations. November elections are of no great moment because all local contests are decided in the Democratic primaries. "There are groups of old women who walk the precincts," says Victoria Tinajero, who coordinates the Sanchez field campaign along the border. "They've guaranteed to pull out 30,000 sometime voters, but it's not enough. Tony enabled us to do so much more; he brought in Palm Pilots ... ."

In this somewhat insular world, Sanchez is certainly a big deal, as is clear when he addresses a "Women for Sanchez" luncheon in El Paso. To this gathering of professional women, almost entirely Latina, he delivers his stock speech, attacking his opponent, Republican Gov. Rick Perry, for the sorry state of the schools, for the state's insurance crisis and for being indentured to the state's insurance industry.

What's missing from his text is any reference to the struggles that have erupted over the conditions of life for south Texas Latinos. In San Antonio and along the border, the church-based, working-class organizations affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) have built a powerful organization for economic justice. This year they persuaded the state legislature to pass a far-reaching living-wage statute for public employees throughout south Texas, only to see Perry veto the measure. They then convened a meeting of 10,000 activists this September to ask major candidates to back an agenda including this living-wage proposal and another measure enabling undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers' licenses.

According to several sources, Sanchez was reluctant to commit to these causes. Under the pressure of the IAF parishes, he eventually did. But having done so, he's said nothing about them since. For their part, the IAF churches committed to turn out 500,000 votes this November for their agenda. At affiliated churches (there are 50 in San Antonio alone), priests are now delivering homilies on the need to boost the vote in working-class Latino precincts, and parishioners are going door-to-door (no Palm Pilots for them), asking sometime voters to join them in voting at the early-voting polling places now open for business.

Yet despite the scope of its own activities and that of the Sanchez campaign, IAF organizers fear that Latino voter participation may not take off this year. "We're not finding a lot of activity in the neighborhoods," says Christine Stephens, the IAF's lead organizer in Texas. "The negative ads have really taken a toll on people's wanting to vote." Indeed, with millions of dollars sunk into a capital-intensive field campaign to increase voter turnout and millions more sunk into a negative media campaign that can only depress turnout, the Sanchez campaign is a marvel of self-negation.

Southwest Voter Registration leaders are projecting a doubling of the Latino turnout in 1998's gubernatorial election, predicting that the number of Latino votes cast will rise from 473,000 to 880,000. (Sanchez's own people say he needs -- and will get -- 1 million Hispanic votes.) But on Oct. 18, Texas Secretary of State Gwyn Shea reported that total registration increased by a net of just 200,000 voters this year and that a smaller percentage of voting-age Texans were actually registered than in 2000 and 1998.

One particularly ominous sign is that college-student volunteers on the campaign are almost impossible to find. The fact that Sanchez had been a major supporter of George W. Bush and has never espoused notably progressive policies has not endeared him to liberal activists, Latino or otherwise. "We've been in the trenches for 40 years for this?" asks one. "For a guy who's no better than a Republican?"

Whatever the limitations of Sanchez's campaign in south Texas, they pale in comparison with its problems in metropolitan north Texas (Houston and Dallas), the center of the state's immigrant influx. "We've got more Hispanics here in Houston than in all the Rio Grande Valley put together, more than in Bexar County [San Antonio]," says Marc Campos, a Houston-based political consultant long active in Latino campaigns. "Half of them are immigrants from Mexico and Central America, and they've all come in the past decade."

Yet the new immigrants here are largely an orphan population. "There hasn't been the kind of intense effort to naturalize and mobilize these people like there's been in California," says Campos. Accordingly, Houston has "the largest Hispanic population of any city that doesn't have a Hispanic member of Congress." And in greater Houston, nobody has particularly high expectations for Latino turnout in the November election.

IV. Rainbow Rifts

Latino Texas, in sum, is still light years from Latino California. The political culture of the state as a whole, of course, is vastly more conservative. The difficulty that unions have establishing a base in a right-to-work state means that a credible and militant force within the immigrant community is missing, though the IAF, with increasing success, seems to be playing much of the role in South Texas that the unions have played in California. But there's certainly been no break with the old order, no such surge of immigrant activism as came after the passage of Proposition 187 in California, and no major institutions that have arisen to mobilize the large immigrant communities of Houston and Dallas. Indeed, during a week's trip through Texas, I heard several Latino pols say that if Sanchez doesn't make it in November, it will take "20 years" or "a generation" before a Latino can make a credible run at the top of the ticket. This is too pessimistic: For all its shortcomings, Sanchez's campaign has hastened the mobilization of Latino Texas. Higher Hispanic turnout in south Texas could enable Democrat Henry Cuellar to unseat a Republican incumbent congressman in this month's election. But a quantum leap in political organizing in urban Texas is required to politicize the migration that, compared with California's, has not yet transformed the state.

Knocking Texas into the Democratic column, however,
doesn't require the Los-Angelesization of Texas Latinos. It merely means that enough nonwhite Texans have to go to the polls and vote Democratic -- because no Democratic candidate for president, governor or senator has gotten more than one-third of Texas' white vote during the past decade. The Democratic ticket in Texas this year was supposed to leap that hurdle by presenting voters with a Latino candidate for governor and a black candidate for senator -- former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. In particular, both members of this "Dream Team" were to benefit from the Sanchez surge among Latino voters.

But it's not clear how much of that surge will benefit Kirk. "There's resentment at Kirk in South Texas for beating [his Democratic primary opponent] Victor Morales," says Sanchez coordinator Tinajero. The Southwest Voter Registration's Ricardo Castañon notes that the Rio Grande Valley gave Morales particularly strong support in his one-on-one runoff with Kirk.

Polling shows Kirk has a better (though not very good) chance to win his Senate race than Sanchez has to win the statehouse. It would be particularly galling for Democrats if Kirk goes down due to nonwhite racial resentments, but it would hardly be the first time in recent years that black-brown tensions subverted a Democratic candidate, as defeated Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa can attest. Whatever the internal divisions within the Democratic coalition, however, the ongoing growth and mobilization of the Latino population means that the coalition is growing steadily larger.

But a cautionary note is still in order: While Latino voters are already contributing to the broad-based realignment of the nation and of several states, the realignment of a city or a district often requires the ability to build cross-racial coalitions. This is a lesson not lost on Patrick Vilar, who, upon returning to his headquarters from the Festival of Flowers, answers questions on a Haitian-American radio show. He then passes the phone to his Haitian friend Paul, who pitches for Vilar in mellifluous French while volunteers in the outer office phone voters in both Spanish and English. It's a cacophony that presages a change in our politics, a cacophony that's distinctly American.

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