Union Tribune

September 4, 2003

Latino power sets stage for Democrat hopefuls


WASHINGTON At a June convention of Latino public officials from across the country, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson laid down a challenge:

"This next election we must demonstrate the power of our numbers," the nation's only Hispanic governor said, "because some people are wondering: This great sleeping giant is it for real?"

Switching to Spanish, he declared: "We are for real!"

Richardson will be making that point to a national audience today in Albuquerque as he and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus sponsor a debate for Democrats campaigning for the right to challenge President Bush in next year's election.

The potential power of Latino numbers has turned political heads.

Fernando Guerra, a professor of political science at Loyola University in Los Angeles, said today's debate is a political watershed.

He said the fact that one of the first major debates of the 2004 presidential campaign "is being held in the Southwest and co-sponsored by a Spanish-language organization shows the symbolic importance that the political system is now giving to Latinos."

With the exception of immigration, the issues expected to dominate today's discussion health care, wages, education are part of a classic working-class agenda. That raises the question: Is there a particular Hispanic agenda that can unite them as a political force?

"Yes and no," says Maria de los Angeles Torres, a political science professor at DePaul University in Chicago. She says that while issues of economic and educational opportunity tend to unite Hispanics, they are far more diverse than is commonly recognized.

"There are generational, national origin, income and class differences," she says.

From 1970 to 2002, the Hispanic population grew 68 percent, reaching 37.4 million. This year, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that Hispanics had become the nation's largest minority group.

A just-released survey of Hispanics by the Annenberg Public Policy Center demonstrates why both the Democratic and Republican parties are waging major campaigns to attract them and why Latino leaders insist that no party can take them for granted.

Hispanics tend to favor a liberal agenda on economic issues. Two-thirds of the survey respondents favored government programs to reduce income inequalities, for example. But on social issues, such as school vouchers and abortion rights, they leaned toward the conservative agenda.

The survey found that the only Hispanics, by group, that leaned toward the GOP are the Cubans, who favored the Republicans by nearly 2-to-1. Other groups, whether from Mexico, Central America, South America or Puerto Rico, were far more likely to identify themselves as Democrats.

But at least one-third of all the groups declined to identify with either party.

Hispanic leaders and political analysts have noted that low voter turnout among Hispanics has kept them from reaching their political potential. In 2000, Latinos accounted for 6.5 percent of those who voted, yet they made up 10 percent of the voting-age population.

The debate will be televised live in San Diego County on KPBS at 5 p.m. today. The Spanish-language television network, Univision, will tape the event for broadcast Saturday morning.