2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
Speaking Truth to Power!

Clinton's Latino edge no accident

 

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2/7/08 Chi. Trib. 1

 

 For those who doubt the power of political machinery, take a look at how Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama went about appealing to the hearts and minds of Latino voters here on Super Tuesday.

As early as 2006, Clinton began actively courting support from movers and shakers in the Hispanic community, among them popular Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who commands a political organization that can crank out the vote as well as anything patented in Chicago.

Obama built an impressive field army to win Iowa, but he was late to the game in the nation's biggest state with the most Hispanic voters. His field office in Hispanic East Los Angeles opened just days before Tuesday's primary. His counter to Villaraigosa was an endorsement from Sen. Edward Kennedy, the immigration reform champion-from Massachusetts.

The result: a big California win for Clinton, propelled by a Latino vote that went more than 2-1 in her favor Tuesday, exit polls showed.

"Barack had a pathetic campaign in the Latino community," said Juan Andrade Jr., president of the Chicagobased U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute. "He deserved to get his butt kicked."

Obama held his own with Clinton in the overall balloting in many states Tuesday, but one clear weak spot was his showing among Hispanics, who are a growing force in Democratic politics.

The phenomenon wasn't just confined to California. Exit polls show Clinton grabbed the lion's share of Hispanic votes in an array of other primaries Tuesday. Even in Illinois, which Obama easily won, Latinos di- vided their votes almost evenly between their home state senator and New York's Clinton.

If there's good news for Obama, it's this: With the exceptions of Texas on March 4 and Puerto Rico on June 7, the Democratic calendar has been cleared of contests where Hispanic communities figure prominently.

At Kayley's Beauty salon in East Los Angeles, cosmetologist Isabel Figueroa and customer Mercedes Guerrero were busy Wednesday rehashing their reasons for choosing Clinton over Obama.

Clinton, they agreed, has been a known and inspiring commodity since her husband was president in the 1990s. Obama, to them, seemed an empty slate. "I know nothing about his past record-whether he was good or bad" as a politician, Guerrero said.

Obama: Unknown factor

Kevin Egheali, a waiter in a nearby cafe who is of Mexican ancestry, said he, too, knew little about Obama. That information void, however, led Egheali to render judgment based on racial and ethnic tensions that sometimes flare on the streets.

"I'm not really fond of black people," Egheali confessed, explaining that what little he knows of African-Americans has been formed from seeing gangs tussle in the neighborhood. Blacks and Latinos are the nation's two largest minorities, and that sometimes has proved a big plus for politicians from those groups.

Black mayors Harold Washington in Chicago and Tom Bradley in Los Angeles were able to put together diverse coalitions to sweep into power in their respective cities.

But ethnic and racial tensions can simmer, and relations between blacks and Hispanics have not always been smooth. For instance, the amnesty program for illegal immigrants two decades ago was not popular among many blacks who feared newly legalized immigrants would take jobs and depress wages.

Obama and Clinton have both backed liberalized immigration reforms and other programs that have strong support in the Hispanic community. But she and her positions are simply better known.

Latinos: Politics may vary

Latinos are a rapidly growing political bloc, but they make up a community that is hardly a monolith. Hispanics of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage predominate, and they tend to vote Democratic. Florida, on the other hand, is home to a large number of Latino voters of Cuban ancestry who have become a significant force in Republican politics.

In last week's Florida primary, more than half of all Latino voters backed John Mc- Cain, helping to doom the candidacy of rival Rudy Giuliani and giving the Arizona senator a big boost as he headed into Super Tuesday, from which he emerged the GOP front-runner.

Roberto Suro, the former head of the Pew Hispanic Center, said that the Hispanic tilt for Clinton lines up with a broader demographic split in the Democratic primaries. Take ethnicity out of the picture, Suro said, and Clinton's voters still tend to be less educated and more blue collar than Obama's.

Clinton: Early coups

Clinton made early strategic decisions which locked up crucial Hispanic support, Suro said. Perhaps most important was Villaraigosa, a rising Hispanic political star in California backed by a strong grass-roots army of supporters who can deliver votes. Another Clinton coup was winning the vocal backing of Dolores Huerta, a beloved figure in the Hispanic community who co-founded the United Farm Workers union with Cesar Chavez.

"Clinton has been working this community for a long time," said Suro, now a journalism professor at the University of Southern California. "She had a big aggressive campaign backed by a good ground game. Obama was late."

That's a point that has been particularly vexing to U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the Chicago Democrat who has been serving as one of Obama's point men to the Hispanic community.

Obama's campaign has been culturally nearsighted when it comes to Hispanic voters, Gutierrez lamented, failing to reach out to Spanish language media, a prime source of information for middle-age and older Latinos.

"Can you blame a community of people that have not been actively courted for not responding to his campaign?" Gutierrez asked.

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