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A Latin Power Surge

A new mayor in L.A. A decisive showing in '04. Latinos are making their mark on politics as never before. Get used to it.

By Arian Campo-Flores and Howard Fineman Newsweek

 

May 30 issue - Antonio Villaraigosa's cell phone was trilling incessantly. Every Democrat in the nation, it seemed, wanted a piece of the newly elected mayor of Los Angeles, the first Latino to win the office in 133 years. John Kerry phoned to congratulate him, as did John Edwards, Howard Dean, Al Gore and Sen. Chris Dodd. Driving to city hall last Friday as he spoke by phone with a news-week reporter, Villaraigosa interrupted the interview to field yet another call on a different phone. "Yes, I would like to speak to Senator Clinton," he said. "Can I call you back?" he told the reporter. Afterward, Villaraigosa recounted his exchange with Hillary: "She said that she and President Clinton were just elated with my victory," and "if they could be helpful in any way in the coming weeks and months," they were eager to do so. Villaraigosa said he had responded with a few admiring words of his own. She was "an example of what I need to do as mayor of the city of Los Angeles," he had told her. "Not get so caught up in all of the national attention and focus on my job."

Good luck. The stream of calls may well build into a deluge. Dashing and charismatic, with street smarts bred in the barrio, Villaraigosa accomplished what Democrats dream of doing nationwide: he energized Latino voters to turn out for him at historic levels and stitched together the sort of multiracial coalition that has often eluded less-gifted politicians. Though they won the Hispanic vote last November, Democrats lost ground to Republicans for the second straight presidential-election cycle. President George W. Bush captured roughly 40 percent (the exact figure remains in dispute) of the Hispanic vote, compared with 35 percent in 2000 and Bob Dole's 21 percent in 1996. For the Democrats, the set-back came in just the year that Latino voters, long considered a sleeping giant, stirred from their slumber. With turnout increasing from about 6 million in 2000 to an estimated 8 million last year, the Hispanic vote has become the El Dorado of American elections. To remain viable as a party, Democrats need to win Latinos back. At stake is nothing less than control of the presidency and Congress. If the GOP maintains its current share of the Latino vote, says Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network, "then the Democrats will never be the majority party again in our lifetimes."

How did things become so dire for the Democrats? For starters, John Kerry's campaign botched its Hispanic outreach, according to many accounts. Latino operatives complained that the campaign leadership marginalized and undermined them at every turn. The leadership's assumption, according to Paul Rivera, a senior political adviser on the campaign: that Latino votes would break down roughly as they did in 2000, as a Democracy Corps poll last July wrongly suggested. The Hispanic team struggled constantly for resources, the operatives say, and assurances of ad buys in battleground states often went unfulfilled, keeping Kerry off the Spanish-language airwaves for days at a time. "If the Kerry campaign had won Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico," all Latino-rich states, says Tom Castro, the campaign's deputy national finance chair, "John Kerry would be president right now."

Over at the Bush-Cheney campaign headquarters, where Latino outreach was embraced zealously, a different world order prevailed. "We were sitting at the big kids' table," says Frank Guerra, a consultant on the national media team. He and Lionel Sosa—a Hispanic marketing guru and veteran of six presidential campaigns—joined weekly conference calls with campaign strategists and chimed in freely with suggestions for Hispanic ads and even general-market ones. A master of the softly lit spot saluting Hispanic heritage and patriotism, Sosa built his ads around a consistent theme: "Nos conocemos" ("We know each other"). As he puts it, "We have a great leader, a man of his word, a man that truly is close to us." But Sosa also cut attack ads, an infrequent tactic in Hispanic political marketing. For one series of spots, he dispatched a cameraman to a Latino neighborhood within miles of Kerry's Beacon Hill home in Boston. "Have you ever seen him here?" the interviewer asked people on the street. "Has he been to any fiesta?" (He hadn't.)

With Karl Rove, a direct-mail devotee, at the helm, Republicans tailored messages to particular segments of the Latino electorate—a strategy they hope will keep winning over converts on the road to 2008. They targeted first-generation Hispanics with Spanish-language ads and second- and third-generation Latinos with English-language spots. "The day of advertising simply in Spanish to reach the Hispanic voter is dead," says Guerra. The campaign also tweaked some messages to appeal to particular nationalities clustered in different regions—like Cuban-Americans in Miami or Mexican-Americans in the Southwest—using radio announcers who could summon an array of accents and local idioms. "You don't dare use one accent in the wrong place," says Blaise Underwood, a grass-roots organizer for the campaign.

But the segmentation strategy that most worries Democrats involves religion. As with voters generally, last year the campaign courted Hispanic evangelical Protestants, who make up a growing portion of a traditionally Roman Catholic constituency. "In some states, such as New Mexico," says Underwood, "most of the evangelicals we were targeting were Hispanic." By reaching out to such churches, the campaign tapped into large concentrations of potentially sympathetic souls. "Many evangelical communities are greatly identified with the Hispanic community," says Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center. "That explicit ethnic connection is considerably more rare in the Catholic Church." The Republican effort reaped rewards. According to a Pew Hispanic study scheduled for release this week, Bush's support among Latino Protestants—who comprise one third of the overall Latino electorate—grew from 44 percent in 2000 to 56 percent in 2004. Democrats were caught flat-footed. They "were so focused on the 527s, I'm not sure... they paid sufficient attention to the 3:16s," says Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Center on Faith and Public Life, referring to the Biblical passage from the Gospel of John. Unlike black churchgoers who remain mostly Democratic for socioeconomic reasons, Lugo says, Latinos are "not a community in which economic issues alone are going to win it."

Outmaneuvered and outspent, the Kerry campaign learned a definitive lesson on Election Day: Hispanics had become much more of a swing constituency than a base, and no one could take their votes for granted anymore. In the aftermath, Kerry's Latino staffers and advisers, who had warned of such an outcome, vowed never to let it happen again. On Nov. 23, about 30 Latino Democrats convened in Washington, D.C., to plot strategy for future battles. Among the results: a proposal to create a new partisan Latino organization—for which $25,000 was quickly raised for a feasibility study—and a new group called the Coronado Project, composed of several members of Kerry's Hispanic team. This week the Coronado group will send a 12-page memo to a variety of Democratic bigwigs with a caustic critique of the party's handling of Hispanic outreach and a set of recommendations. "Failure to reform the party's approach to Latino voters," the memo reads, "maintains a caste system that is ineffective, if not suicidal, for the party." Recently, Kerry himself acknowledged his campaign's anemic Hispanic effort. During a dinner for Latino backers at his Georgetown home last month, he offered what two guests called "a full mea culpa" and the assurance that he'd strive to avoid a similar fiasco in the future. (The two guests asked not to be named because they considered it a private event.)

As a party, the Democrats' renewed commitment faces its first test in the midterm elections next year. On his travels as head of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean is making sure to schmooze Hispanics along the way—granting a recent interview, for instance, to El Latino, a Spanish-language weekly in Arkansas. The DNC has also run Spanish-language ads as part of its assault on Bush's Social Security plan. And the New Democrat Network, which poured $6 million into a comprehensive program to target first-generation Hispanics during the 2004 cycle, is eying potential races to direct resources to next year.

Some Latinos see a political opening in Bush's immigration policies—arguing that the president's guest-worker program, for example, does not do nearly enough to help the community that has shown him so much support. For their part, Republican ardor for Hispanics is as caliente as ever. Dean's counterpart at the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman, recently formed a Hispanic advisory committee with an impressive cast of luminaries, including George P. Bush, the president's half-Mexican nephew. Mehlman recently addressed the Latin Chamber of Commerce in Las Vegas and has held a "conversation with the community" in Orlando, Fla. Underwood, the GOP grass-roots organizer, says the party will be trying to master the complex brew of Hispanic nationalities in Florida during next year's Senate contest. "President Bush has given Republicans an opportunity," says chief polling strategist Matthew Dowd. "He's tilled the soil among Hispanics. Now we have to work it."

Faced with such GOP incursions, Democrats will be studying Villaraigosa's formula for victory, hoping to replicate it in other races nationwide—where the terrain may be more challenging than two Democrats squaring off in a Left Coast city. Villaraigosa captured 84 percent of an energized Latino-base vote, combined with half the white vote and nearly half the black one. Villaraigosa's "coalition-building is a map to be followed," says U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a Democrat, who hopes to emulate him in a future Chicago mayoral run. To cobble his alliance together, Villaraigosa had to perform an adroit balancing act—galvanizing his Hispanic supporters without coming across as ethnocentric and thereby alienating other racial groups. "He neither played [his ethnicity] nor downplayed it," says Rodolfo de la Garza of Columbia University. "It was just there." Villaraigosa assured he'd be a mayor "for all of Los Angeles," and assiduously courted other groups, most importantly blacks, who voted overwhelmingly for his opponent during their previous face-off in 2001. This time, his efforts paid off: he secured key endorsements from leaders like U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters and former L.A. Lakers star Magic Johnson.

The experiences of Villaraigosa's predecessors offer insights as well. Back when black mayors were sweeping into power in major metropolitan areas, many of them also knit together multiracial coalitions. David Dinkins—New York's first and only African-American mayor, elected in 1989—brought together black, brown and white folks on a foundation of organized labor, recalls Bill Lynch, who helped build the bloc. "If you energize your core base [blacks], it has a contagion effect on the other parts of the coalition," he says. It's what Fernando Ferrer needs to address in his current New York mayoral run if he has any chance of reviving a candidacy hobbled by some controversial remarks he made about the case of Amadou Diallo, who was gunned down by police in 1999. "If the Latino vote is going to count, it needs to be cohesive and establish a strong link to other groups," says de la Garza. "My own sense is that Ferrer is not energizing the base." But Lynch, who's advising Ferrer, says "it's still early in the process."

Increasingly, Latino candidates must confront another barrier: African-American misgivings about a surging Hispanic population. While blacks are accustomed to playing the dominant role in multiracial coalitions, says Lynch, "what happened in L.A. sends a clear signal that that could be about to change. There's always potential for power struggle in a coalition." Historically, de la Garza argues, blacks have hesitated to share the stage with Latinos. "They initially opposed extending the nomenclature of 'minority' to Latinos in the Voting Rights Act," he says. As much as things have evolved since then, "the romantic image of blacks and browns uniting is just that—romantic."

Which may lead some Latinos to ask: will there be a day when they can simply rely on their own demographic power to propel candidates into office? In recent years Hispanics have made considerable gains, winning in some unlikely places, such as Wichita, Kans. (mayor), Idaho (state senator) and Carrboro, N.C. (alderman). There are now more than 6,000 Hispanic elected officials, according to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. Just last year the Senate gained the first two Latinos in recent times: Republican Mel Martinez from Florida and Democrat Ken Salazar from Colorado. Yet in most of these cases, the candidates won because they either resided in majority-minority districts or they fashioned new iterations of multiethnic and multiracial alliances. Even if Latinos were to pursue a singularly Hispanic campaign strategy in a competitive race, their dizzying diversity—with recently arrived Dominicans, Cuban-American exiles and 10th-generation New Mexicans living under one umbrella—would raise its own prickly issues. Whatever the strategy, though, the bottom line is that Latinos are steadily securing higher office. While the traditional critique of Hispanic politics has been "that you guys aren't ready for prime time," says Antonio Gonzalez of the William C. Velasquez Institute, Villaraigosa shows that "Latinos can win the big one." Surely the next victory can't be too far away. Democrats had better pray they're part of it.

With T. Trent Gegax, Andrew Murr and Jonathan Darman

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

© 2005 MSNBC.com

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