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