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