The Latino fac­tor

To at­tract this cru­cial vot­ing bloc, the can­di­dates must ad­dress racial equal­ity.

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion - By Al­berto R. Gon­za­les

Sen. Barack Obama’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign has reignited an ex­am­i­na­tion of race re­la­tions in Amer­ica. It has led some to ques­tion how deep the di­vide is be­tween black and white Amer­i­cans. From my per­spec­tive, the ques­tion ig­nores the re­al­ity of our di­verse so­ci­ety. We must also con­sider the di­vide be­tween the ma­jor­ity from an­other group, one that I hap­pen to be­long to: Lati­nos.

Ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, Lati­nos are the na­tion’s largest mi­nor­ity group, at 42 mil­lion peo­ple and 14% of the pop­u­la­tion. By 2050, that pop­u­la­tion will triple, to 128mil­lion, which will be 29% of the Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion.

Those num­bers are al­ready hav­ing a po­lit­i­cal im­pact. Just how strong it may be could be­come clear in Novem­ber. In a close pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the Latino vote could de­cide the out­come. For ex­am­ple, in the closely con­tested strate­gic states of New Mex­ico, Florida and Colorado, Lati­nos make up, re­spec­tively, 37%, 14% and 12% of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers.

The con­ven­tional wis­dom is that Lati­nos vote Demo­cratic. But not nec­es­sar­ily. In 1999, ac­cord­ing to a Pew His­panic Cen­ter re­port pub­lished in 2007, Democrats en­joyed a 33% ad­van­tage over Repub­li­cans in par­ti­san al­le­giance among Latino reg­is­tered vot­ers. How­ever, in 2003, a suf­fi­cient num­ber of Lati­nos voted for Repub­li­can Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger (over a re­spected Latino Demo­crat) to make Sch­warzeneg­ger the gov­er­nor of Cal­i­for­nia. In 2004, Pres­i­dent Bush won a his­toric per­cent­age of the Latino vote (more than 40%). By 2006, again ac- cord­ing to the Pew His­panic Cen­ter, the Democrats’ edge in par­ti­san al­le­giance had dropped to 21%.

Pew’s num­bers now show that Latino vot­ers are head­ing back into the Demo­cratic fold, but the mes­sage in th­ese vot­ing pat­terns and in the de­mo­graphic pro­jec­tions is that nei­ther party can af­ford to take the Latino vote for granted.

The great di­ver­sity within the Latino pop­u­la­tion presents a chal­lenge for both par­ties. Mex­i­can Amer­i­cans in Texas, Cuban Amer­i­cans in Florida and Puerto Ri­can Amer­i­cans in New York do not agree on ev­ery is­sue. But — while I can’t speak for all Lati­nos — I be­lieve there are is­sues that res­onate for us all.

Among them, of course, is im­mi­gra­tion. Latino sup­port will swing to the po­lit­i­cal party that has the courage and for­ti­tude to put for­ward a spe­cific im­mi­gra­tion so­lu­tion that is ef­fec­tive and ef­fi­cient in se­cur­ing our borders, that sup­ports the eco­nomic in­ter­ests of the na­tion and that is com­pas­sion­ate in a way that is con­sis­tent with the char­ac­ter of a na­tion of im­mi­grants.

Be­yond im­mi­gra­tion, both par­ties need to forge closer re­la­tion­ships with Latino vot­ers. They need to con­nect with and make use of sur­ro­gates, as the Democrats have done with L.A. Mayor An­to­nio Vil­laraigosa. They need to make more con­tact, an ef­fort both par­ties launched last week­end, when they spoke to a con­fer­ence of Latino elected and ap­pointed of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton. More im­por­tant, they need to em­brace poli­cies from the Latino point of view.

What is that point of view? For starters, we may now wear suits on Wall Street or Main Street, but we know the ex­pe­ri­ence — per­son­ally or from our par­ents and grand­par­ents — of work­ing in the fields, on the docks and in the kitchen. We want a job, not a hand­out. We value op­por­tu­nity over more gov­ern­ment. We are risk tak­ers, will­ing to bet on our­selves and start a busi­ness. We want a so­ci­ety that rec­og­nizes and re­wards us based on our hard work and in­ge­nu­ity, not our skin color

We are un­abashedly proud of Amer­ica, and we are pre­pared to en­list, fight and die for this coun­try, some­times even with­out the right to vote for its lead­ers. We be­lieve an ed­u­ca­tion rep­re­sents free­dom in Amer­ica, and we are will­ing to work mul­ti­ple jobs so our chil­dren can go to col­lege.

Fi­nally, al­though we know that Amer­ica strives to be a fair coun­try, the harsh re­al­ity is we are not one na­tion with lib­erty and jus­tice for all. And yet equal op­por­tu­nity — to a job, to cap­i­tal and to credit — is a cor­ner­stone of Amer­i­can suc­cess. The prom­ise of equal op­por­tu­nity is what drew our par­ents and grand­par­ents and what still draws im­mi­grants to the U.S., and it is what firmly knits them into the coun­try once they are cit­i­zens.

As we move to the next phase of the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, some peo­ple may try to dis­cour­age dis­cus­sion about race re­la­tions in fa­vor of is­sues they say are of greater im­por­tance: the war against Al Qaeda, the cost of en­ergy, the sub-prime mort­gage cri­sis. How­ever, we need lead­ers who ap­pre­ci­ate — and who choose to con­front — the cru­cial el­e­ments of racial in­equal­ity within th­ese so-called big­ger is­sues. Those are the lead­ers who are likely to be suc­cess­ful in find­ing ef­fec­tive so­lu­tions to our most im­por­tant chal­lenges.

I have said of­ten that Lati­nos share a com­mon prayer: “Just give me a chance to suc­ceed.” I be­lieve that the can­di­date who will win Latino votes is the one who un­der­stands that de­sire and who will en­gage the is­sue of racial equal­ity for Amer­i­cans of all col­ors. It’s po­lit­i­cally wise. More im­por­tant, it is the right thing to do for our na­tion. Al­berto R. Gon­za­les is the for­mer at­tor­ney gen­eral of the United States.

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