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

How will Obama fare with Texas' Hispanics?


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Guillermo X. Garcia
2/10/08 San Antonio Express-News 01A


Every Sunday, the Rev. Arturo Pe00F1,na gathers his small Southeast Side congregation to talk about love, kindness and forgiveness.

Today, he wanders into more secular terrain.

He plans to bring up the polarizing issue of whether Hispanic Democrats would reject voting for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama because he is African American.

"I want to create a 'Let's talk about this' situation, to know that this is a historic point in our nation, that minorities are the Democratic nominees for the highest office, but at the same time to note that it's the qualifications, not the race of the candidate, that counts."

The volatile issue, which he'll raise between services, should resonate in the tiny community of the Abundant Grace Lutheran Church on Rigsby Avenue. The more than two dozen members of the church, a mission of the much larger Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, are split almost evenly along racial lines -- half African American, half Latino.

Results from primaries and caucuses so far suggest that Hispanic voters finally may be asserting their long-awaited clout at the ballot box.

In Florida, Hispanic Republicans gave Arizona Sen. John McCain a decided advantage, helping him to a narrow win over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and putting McCain on a path to his party's nomination.

With the Democratic race heading toward delegate-rich Texas for its March 4 primary, the battle for the votes of Hispanics will take on a sharper focus as Obama tries to make inroads with Latinos, a pivotal voting bloc that appears to have coalesced behind his opponent, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

In the nominating process so far, according to an analysis of available exit polling data from CNN, Clinton has won every state in which there was more than 15 percent participation by Hispanics with the exception of Illinois, Obama's home state.

In the 24 states that held Super Tuesday caucuses or primaries last week, Clinton won almost 65 percent of the Latino vote, while Obama garnered about 35 percent. Obama, meanwhile, has racked up overwhelming support among African Americans nationwide.

The trend among Hispanic voters bodes well for Clinton in Texas. Only California, with 13.1 million, has a larger Hispanic population than the almost 8.5 million who reside in Texas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Clinton decisively won that state's Hispanic vote by a margin of 67 percent to Obama's 29 percent. MSNBC said Clinton's California Hispanic vote total was amplified by the largest-ever Latino turnout.

But the large Hispanic turnout also has brought a new question to the forefront: Would Latinos reject Obama based on his race?

That issue gained national notoriety last month when the Clinton's chief pollster said that historically, Hispanics have been reluctant to cast a ballot for a black candidate.

But over the years, African American candidates have enjoyed strong support from Hispanic voters in mayoral races in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. In Texas, candidates like former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk drew strong Latino support, both locally and in his unsuccessful run for state attorney general.

There may be other reasons for the ethnic divide. The exit polls show that, while African Americans supported him heavily, Obama did progressively better among more educated, higher-income groups regardless of race. Clinton, meanwhile, fared better with the working class.

Some experts have said some of the tension between ethnic groups is rooted in economics. When people are struggling for survival, they often see themselves in competition with others vying for the same scant opportunities.

Whatever the reasons, the candidates' in-state representatives, political consultants, community leaders and ordinary citizens insist that racism won't be a factor for Texas' Latino voters.

"This is a historic moment for the African American community," former Democratic National Committee member and current Clinton strategist Andy Hernandez said. "But to say that a Latino won't vote for Obama just because he is black is just ludicrous and plain silly."

State Rep. Juan Garcia of Corpus Christi, who backs Obama, terms the issue "an intriguing story line, but I don't buy it."

Garcia, who attended Harvard Law School and was friends with Obama there, said the candidate's main problem "is that he is facing someone who is arguably the most well-known woman on the planet."

Garcia believes the Clinton campaign inserted the race issue to disrupt the Obama campaign theme that portrays him as someone whose passion and vision brings people together.

Awareness factor

Some feel Clinton's early and extensive Hispanic outreach effort and Latinos' familiarity with her through Bill Clinton's eight years in the White House, help explain why Hispanics like her better.

"For us here in San Antonio, we just don't know very much about him yet," said Republican strategist Lionel Sosa, who's credited with organizing Hispanic voter efforts for George W. Bush's successful gubernatorial races.

Sosa also disputed the idea that Hispanics won't vote for Obama or that the two ethnic groups don't work toward common goals.

"Why else do you think we have the biggest MLK March and celebration in the nation here, in a city that is 61 percent Latino and 6 percentblack? Because we march with them," he said. "I don't think it is a bias against blacks as far as Latinos are concerned, but that does not mean that there isn't a certain competitiveness."

Sosa, a longtime GOP strategist, initially backed Democrat Bill Richardson for president, in part because of Richardson's Hispanic roots. He now supports McCain.

Sosa said race won't dominate the debate locally.

"I think there is more unity in San Antonio among the black and Latino communities than other places, and I think that as (Obama) gets exposed to Latinos here in Texas, he is going to cut into Clinton's Hispanic support," Sosa noted.

"I fully expect that as he becomes known, he'll attract a strong share of Hispanics, perhaps as much as 40 percent of the vote."

Obama will need to secure that support if he hopes to compete with Clinton, who has bagged a large number of endorsements from prominent Hispanics, including former Mayor Henry Cisneros.

Juan Sepulveda, a local community organizer who is supporting Obama, said he thinks the racial divide is overstated -- and noted that Hispanic and African American residents of San Antonio have a lot in common.

"There are lots of divisions people think exist that just aren't there," he said. "We literally live on the same side of town. We go to the same schools and want the same thing for our kids -- economic improvement, better job opportunities on our side of town."

A sampling of voters on the gritty, industrial Southeast Side, where African American and Hispanic residents live in close proximity, offers signs that voters will make up their minds for other reasons.

"I think whoever votes for Barack because he is black, or votes against Barack because he is black, is small-minded," said the Rev. Thurman Walker, pastor of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, whose 2,500 mostly African American members makes it one of the East Side's largest churches.

Walker, who counts himself as an Obama supporter, said he believes Hispanics are attracted to Clinton because she is much better known than Obama.

"I don't know that this is about color," Bobby Henry, 37, said as he waited for a bus to get to work last week. "Obama sure talks a great game, but will that be enough to convince Mexicans to vote for him? I don't know, but I expect he is going to have a hard time trying to get himself and his ideas in front of Latinos."

"I don't understand," Dan Perez, 78, said as he walked his dog around their Dell Crest neighborhood. "Why would anybody decide they are going to vote for someone or not vote for someone just because of their skin color?"

"I think people will vote for the better candidate, no matter his race," said Tania Walton, 40. "I don't see why people won't vote for Obama. He is the new face with a different attitude, and the country needs that now."

Auto salesman Robert Randle said he'd heard about Hispanics' reluctance to back Obama but doesn't understand it.

"I don't know, it makes me feel kind of angry," the 52-year-old San Antonio native said. "If people don't know what he's about, how can they condemn him? I think it is terrible to think that Hispanics won't vote for him just 'cause he is black.

"You know, inside, we all got the same color blood."


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