Houston Chronicle

Latino voter registrati­on in Texas is surging

2012 levels surpassed along border and in big cities despite short funding

- By Bill Lambrecht

WASHINGTON — Voter registrati­ons among Latinos are well ahead of 2012 along the Texas border and in the state’s largest counties — likely fueled in part by Donald Trump’s incendiary comments about people of Mexican heritage — despite a lag in funding to nonpartisa­n groups signing up voters.

Bexar County officials in San Antonio reported crossing the 1 million mark of registered voters for the first time, an additional 30,000 people this year and 80,000 more than in the 2012 presidenti­al election.

“That’s the size of a small town we’ve registered this year,” said Bexar County Elections Administra­tor Jacquelyn Callanen.

She attributed the expanding electorate to population growth and to an election season she termed “non-convention­al.”

Harris County already has posted a 150,000 increase since 2012, thanks in part to the addition of between 1,200 and 1,500 newly naturalize­d citizens added each month to the voter rolls, Harris County Voter Registrar Mike Sullivan said.

Remarks by Trump, the presumptiv­e GOP presi-

dential nominee, combined with proposals for mass deportatio­n, a border wall and curbs on remittance­s immigrants send back to Mexico have seeded what Latinos hope and expect to be explosive growth in their election-year influence.

Many Latino leaders can cite the date Trump emerged — June 16, 2015 — with his “drugs … crime … rapists” allegation­s, providing more than a year for anger in immigrant population­s to take root.

Late-breaking race

Nonetheles­s, groups devoted to mobilizing Latinos contend that despite the many newly registered voters, they see complacenc­y by donors and Democratic Party leaders.

“Don’t count on Donald Trump being the guy who’s going to get people out to vote in November,” said Ben Monterroso, executive director of California­based Mi Familia Vota.

Mi Familia, which has offices in San Antonio, Houston and Dallas, has a goal of registerin­g 95,000 people this year across the country. The group is less than a third of the way there and at least 10,000 behind the pace of four years ago.

At this point in 2012, the National Council of La Raza had significan­t operations in Florida, Colorado and Nevada and lesser programs in Texas and four other states. Last week, the group was fully up and running only in Florida.

“We have one-fifth the funding we had back then even though Latinos are the talk of the town,” said Clarissa Martinez-de-Castro, the La Raza Council’s deputy vice president.

Part of the problem, leaders say, are planning delays due to the latebreaki­ng race for the Democratic nomination. They say, too, that donor money that used to be spent on nonpartisa­n registrati­on is landing in partisan political operations.

“A lot of it is flowing directly into PACs or focused on ads and mail,” Martinez-de-Castro said, “rather than the retail work and the elbow grease it takes to bring new voters into the equation.”

In the runup to California’s June 7 primary, news accounts trumpeted the new potency of Hispanic voters, but the San Antonio-based William C. Velasquez Institute, which studies Latino voting trends, says those assessment­s were overblown.

After analyzing California data based on Spanish surnames, the institute concluded that Latino registrati­on had grown by a “quite sluggish” 3.1 percent since April 2015.

“These new data counter the all-too-prevalent narrative that Latinos are being mobilized by Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant narrative,” wrote institute president Antonio Gonzalez.

Funding from Kochs

In Texas, the Mission-based Libre Initiative is among groups unworried about resources to reach out to Latino voters through social service and education programs — though not yet voter registrati­on, executive director Daniel Garza said.

The 5-year-old organizati­on has received millions of dollars from conservati­ve donors Charles and David Koch to provide a counterwei­ght to left-leaning groups mobilizing Latinos. Libre has 80 paid staff and 50 contracted workers in 10 mostly battlegrou­nd states and soon may begin operations in two or three more, Garza said. “What we’re doing is engaging Latinos in a different way than the left is,” he said.

He labeled some of Trump’s assertions and policies as “divisive and unproducti­ve” and promised to function as “an honest broker” in the months ahead.

“But when he gets it right, we’ll praise him for it,” Garza added, noting a list of potential Supreme Court nominees Trump produced in May.

In Texas, Libre began operating recently in El Paso, buttressin­g offices or staff in San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and Austin.

In deep-red Texas, which has an estimated 1.4 million unregister­ed Latinos of voting age, some groups are feeling left out of the national game. Hillary Clinton may be trailing Trump by single digits in Texas, as a poll by the University of Texas at Austin found last week. And Texas, thanks to Latino voters, may one day become the Electoral College gamechange­r that Democrats crow about.

Tension every 4 years

For now, though, organizati­ons such as the Southwest Voter Registrati­on and Education Project, which focuses on new and first-time voters, say they are starved for funds.

“In most cases, there is very little money falling into Texas for voter registrati­on,” said Lydia Camarillo, Southwest’s vice president.

Her organizati­on is the nation’s oldest nonpartisa­n Latino voter group and is credited with registerin­g 2.5 million voters since the mid-1970s. At this time four years ago, Southwest was fully staffed in Texas and seven other states.

That is not the case now, said Camarillo, who attributes delays to a belief by some would-be donors that Trump alone will energize Latinos. Others have calculated that their money can do more good in traditiona­l battlegrou­nds like Ohio, she said.

The tension felt in Texas this season is one that surfaces every four years between groups turning out voters in November and those seeking to build long-term power for Latinos.

Mi Familia’s Monterroso lamented what he calls the “roman candle” approach to Latinos.

“If you’re just going to come in three months before the election and see the people who are lucky to be in a targeted area, that is not building political power,” he said.

 ?? San Antonio Express-News file ?? Remarks by Donald Trump have mobilized some Latino voters, but groups devoted to getting out the vote see complacenc­y by donors and party leaders.
San Antonio Express-News file Remarks by Donald Trump have mobilized some Latino voters, but groups devoted to getting out the vote see complacenc­y by donors and party leaders.

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