Mike Swift and Julia Prodis Sulek
2/7/08 San Jose Mercury News 11A
An unprecedented surge by a unified bloc of Latino voters powered
Hillary Clinton to victory in the California primary Tuesday,
allowing Latinos to shape the trajectory of a presidential race for
one of the few times in American history.
Has the large and growing Latino population whose national political
clout rarely reflects its numbers finally arrived?
''The sleeping giant has awakened. The Latino vote is here,'' U.S.
Rep. Hilda Solis, D-El Monte, told reporters Wednesday. ''They
really showed their colors here. Well over 71 percent in my district
voted for Clinton.''
''They are kingmakers,'' said Al Camarillo, a Stanford history
professor. ''You saw that decisively for Clinton last night.''
Latinos made up a record 30 percent of all Democratic primary voters
in California; they make up about 20 percent of the state's
registered Democrats, said Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo. They
went for Clinton by more than a 2-1 ratio. Latinos went decisively
for Clinton in other states as well, helping her to victory in
Arizona and to a near-equal split of delegates in New Mexico.
''This is really historic, Latino voters coming out in higher
proportions than their registration,'' DiCamillo said of the
California result. In the 2004 presidential election, a lower share
of Latino adults voted in California than any other ethnic group,
Census Bureau records show.
A history lesson
Experts caution that it's a gross oversimplification to view the
diverse Latino population -- immigrants and native-born, English and
Spanish speakers, with roots in countries across Latin America and
Europe -- as monolithic.
But even though their influence may be greatly muted in the general
election because of the dynamics of the electoral college, the
California primary showed that Latino voters, after years of
emerging promise, have finally become more than just a swing vote.
Historians said there are only a few times when Latino voters played
such a pivotal role in a presidential election.
In 1960, Latinos helped swing Texas to John F. Kennedy. And in 1988,
Texas Latinos helped swing the Democratic primary to Michael
Dukakis, allowing the Massachusetts governor to argue that he could
win in the South, even though Jesse Jackson and Al Gore carried most
Super Tuesday states in the South, said Louis DeSipio, a professor
of political science and Latino studies at the University of
Clinton's consistent edge over Barack Obama among Latinos in
multiple states Tuesday ''suggests a connection across the nation
for Latinos, but also success by the Clinton campaign in targeting
them,'' DeSipio said. But there is still time for Obama to better
tailor his message to Latinos before the Texas primary, he said.
The voter registration drives that followed immigration protest
marches of 2006 may have played a role in the Latino voter turnout
in California and other states, Latino leaders said, playing on
negative feelings from Proposition 187, the voter measure that
denied social services and health care to illegal immigrants.
Dolores Huerta, a longtime labor activist who co-founded the United
Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez, said Latinos were motivated to vote
for Clinton as a protest to the last eight years of poor education
and health care as well as a growing anti-immigrant sentiment.
Huerta was already in Texas on Wednesday, campaigning for Clinton in
preparation for the March 4 primary.
The Bill Clinton years
''I think our community has been under attack and this is their way
of fighting back,'' said Huerta, 77, co-chair of the Clinton
campaign's Hispanic national outreach effort. ''They remember the
Clinton years were better years, and they respected Hillary. Obama
has no history here.''
Others said the racial identity politics that have marked the last
generation of national politics are waning. From former Los Angeles
Mayor Tom Bradley, to Southern California congresswomen like Maxine
Waters, whose district has double the number of Latinos than blacks,
there are many examples of Latinos supporting black politicians.
Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research &
Education Institute at Stanford, said many of his students have
never even heard the loaded 1980s racial stereotype of ''the black
welfare mother who has a Cadillac.''
Increasingly, Carson said the quality of a candidate's message to an
ethnic group and many other factors -- not racial identity --
determine voter choice. He added, ''If Barack Obama spoke Spanish,
the election would be over.''
Yet others acknowledge there is some political tension between some
Latinos and some blacks, namely fear of a finite pool of resources
that minorities must share.
''Some of us are trying to sweep that under the table,'' said
Fernando Guerra, a professor of political science at Loyola
Marymount University and director of the Center for the Study of Los
Angeles. ''I think a very, very small segment of the Latino
community has a tough time supporting an African-American candidate
. . . but the vast majority of Latinos are not in that category.''