Anyone who doubts the flexing power of Connecticut's Hispanic vote — for that matter, the Hispanic vote throughout the United States — should spend five minutes with a young man in a hurry named Joseph Rodriguez.
Last fall, Rodriguez, 22, whose parents moved here from Puerto Rico, didn't stop at getting himself elected as a Democratic member of the New Haven Board of Aldermen. Excited about the possibility of changing politics in Washington and transfixed by what promised to be an epic primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Rodriguez threw himself at the job of organizing New Haven's Hispanic wards for Obama, an effort that eventually contributed to the Illinois senator's 4-percentage-point win over Clinton in Connecticut's Feb. 5 primary.
"There is no question that, by late last summer, Hillary Clinton was way ahead among the Hispanic community in New Haven," Rodriguez said last week. "The mainstream media kept saying that the Latino population would vote for Hillary because of favorable memories of the presidency of Bill Clinton."
"These so-called political commentators also said that Latinos were Democratic conservatives and would go for Hillary, or that Latinos wouldn't vote for an African American," Rodriguez said. "But I knew that the commentators really didn't understand Latinos."
While simultaneously running for alderman, Rodriguez set up a phone bank for Obama, dispatched teams of canvassers on door-to-door efforts in eight wards, and worked closely with a college group, Yale Students for Obama, educating New Haven residents about their candidate. Rodriguez and his Yalies even organized a "Faith Lit" effort every Sunday morning, canvassing Hispanics as they left church and placing Obama literature on the windshields of cars parked for services.
"On primary day, New Haven went 2-to-1 for Obama — 12,000 votes for Obama, 6,000 for Hillary — and we demonstrated what the Latino vote can do," Rodriguez said. "We've proven that all of these myths about our voting patterns [across the country] aren't true."
Before this extraordinary election year is out, Americans are going to hear a lot more about the Joseph Rodriguezes of the Hispanic community. And on Tuesday, the powerful Mexican-American vote in Texas will figure prominently in that state's Democratic primary. (Texas' 7 million Hispanics are now one-third of the state's population; they are projected to grow to 15 million, roughly half the state's population, by 2030.)
There's no doubt that the candidates know the importance of the Hispanic vote. Last week, as soon as Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., endorsed him, Obama dispatched Dodd, who is fluent in Spanish, to be his surrogate speaker in Hispanic districts in Texas.
Nationwide, there are 46 million Americans of Spanish-speaking descent, or 15 percent of the total U.S. population, and Hispanics are expected to grow to 102 million, or almost 25 percent of the population, by 2050. Hispanic population growth is dramatic in many critical swing states — Florida, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico — that figure prominently in Electoral College vote counts.
Andres Ramirez, vice president for Hispanic programs at the New Democrat Network, a Washington think tank, has analyzed the Hispanic vote in this year's presidential primaries. He calculated that Hispanic participation increased from 9 percent of the overall Democratic primary electorate in the 2004 primaries to 13 percent this year.
In Connecticut, Ramirez found that the number of Hispanic voters grew from 2,535 in the 2004 presidential primary to 20,236 this year. This swelled the Hispanic vote to 6 percent of the state's primary electorate. It might not sound like a lot, but many elections are decided by just a few percentage points, as occurred in the state primary this year.
This gives Hispanic voters a powerful ability to sway elections.
Ramirez also found that rising participation among Hispanics is good news for the Democrats — 75 percent of Hispanics who voted in the primaries this year voted Democratic. And in states such as Florida, where Cubans and other Hispanics historically have leaned toward Republicans, Ramirez has concluded that the large turnouts this year showed a substantial shift to the Democrats.
"The Latino electorate is still the great unknown to many in the political and press arena," Ramirez said in an e-mail interview last week. "As a result, they are prone to succumb to stereotypes and myths. This election will certainly help debunk some of those myths due to the increased roles that Latinos are playing."
Connecticut's current Hispanic population of roughly 450,000, expected to grow to more than 750,000 by 2030, exhibits most of the dynamic factors found nationwide. The diversity of the Hispanic community is growing, as "new Latinos" from Central and South America augment the state's predominantly Puerto Rican base. Young, second- and third-generation Hispanics who have become more culturally assimilated often are willing to split ranks with their parents and vote independently. They are "breaking by age," or education levels, like any other ethnic group.
And the considerable economic success of a new generation of professional Hispanics — professors, business managers, mid-level civil servants — is propelling the Hispanic community into so-called first ring or second ring suburbs, from Bloomfield to Oxford.
A Unifying Issue
Although most Hispanic political activists and experts agree that the community does not vote as a bloc, one topic has clearly energized it this year. After three years of repeated efforts by the Bush administration and Senate Republicans to enact tougher immigration laws, a backlash favoring the Democrats has swept through.
Last November, the Pew Hispanic Center polled 2,000 Hispanics nationwide and found that 79 percent of Hispanic registered voters said that the immigration issue has become "extremely" or "very" important to them in the presidential race — up from 63 percent who said the same thing in June 2004. And 41 percent told Pew that the Democrats are doing a better job of dealing with illegal immigration, while 14 percent said that Republicans are doing better.
Yolanda Castillo is a vocational counselor with the state Department of Social Services who lives in Hartford's South End. She is a member of the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus and, after carefully studying the websites of the Democratic candidates this year, decided to back Clinton.
Castillo says one of the mistakes that white voters make on the immigration issue is considering it a problem that happens somewhere else — along the borders of far-off Texas, say, or in southern California.
"Well, right now in Connecticut, in Danbury, we have a mayor who is really against illegal immigrants," Castillo said. "He has decided to turn municipal police officers into immigration police. Oh my God. We are in the United States, in 2008, where people are supposed to be free and pursuing opportunity, and this is happening right here in Danbury. And here's why that is significant now. Puerto Ricans like me, who are citizens, or Cubans, who were invited here, might not have cared about this issue before. But I can tell you that I am one totally faithful Democrat who will fight for all Latinos on this issue."
Ramirez said he believes that the immigration issue has galvanized Hispanics to register and vote — one reason that Hispanic turnout rates climbed this year.
"Many Latinos who have been reluctant to engage now have a cause to champion," Ramirez said. "The Republican party has gone to great lengths demonizing immigrants and making this a Latino issue while ignoring immigrants from other regions. Latinos know that there is no hope for them in the GOP."
One barrier to understanding the nation's diverse Spanish-speaking population is the very classification "Hispanic" and the stereotypes it promotes. In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration decided to classify in the national census all Spanish-speaking residents as one, whereas all other groups are classified by race.
"By definition, anyone coming from a Latin American country is Hispanic, but what do you do with a Brazilian, who speaks Portuguese, or Caribbean islanders, who think of themselves as distinct?" said Orlando Rodriguez, a Cuban-American demographer who is the manager of the Connecticut State Data Center at the University of Connecticut.
"'Hispanic' is a broad classification that simply doesn't apply to most people, any more than everyone who speaks English is an Anglo," he said. "There's a complexity and sophistication of the community not covered by the term, and Hispanics are climbing the economic ladder and maturing as a group just like everyone else."
Grace Santana, a purchasing and production planner for a Danbury technology firm, lives with her fiance and two sons by a previous marriage in an upscale subdivision high up in the ridges of Oxford. A Puerto Rican born in Danbury, she is planning on voting for Obama, but not simply because he is a fellow minority.
"It makes no sense for me to vote for Obama because he's an African American, just as it makes no sense for me to vote for Hillary because she's a woman," Santana said.
"That's the old politics, dividing people into groups, but there are better ways to look at the candidates. I lived in Europe for 18 years and saw how America is perceived over there and how much Bush is hated in Europe," she said. "Obama just strikes me as the kind of leader who will restore a lot of respect for America abroad."
Santana and Ramirez predict that Obama will get at least 40 percent to 45 percent of the Hispanic vote in Texas on Tuesday, enough to maintain his lead in the Democratic delegate count. Meanwhile, Alderman Rodriguez of New Haven is taking no chances. With his Yale students, he'll be canvassing for Obama in Rhode Island, which also holds its primary Tuesday, and helping to manage a Connecticut phone bank of bilingual speakers who will be calling voters in Texas.
Guillermo Papier, an Argentinian-American who runs a mortgage brokerage in Norwalk, agrees with his Democratic friends that Obama is a gifted orator. But Papier is a registered Republican who supports John McCain, and Papier said he doubts that Obama has the staying power to last through the general election in November.
"Plato used to say that you should learn virtue before oration, so you have some substance behind your words," Papier said. "And I'm not sure there's that much behind Obama's great oration. If McCain is smart enough to stay in the middle of the road, and not to get seduced by the extreme conservative wing of the Republican party, he can beat Obama."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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