August 10, 2007

Between Worlds: President Richardson or Latino President Richardson?

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
New America Media

Part II

In a wide ranging interview in the Arizona Republic, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson was asked about his accomplishments as governor, and what that meant for the rest of the country. That was yet another way of putting Richardson to another acid test of whether his appeal and public policy accomplishments were inclusive enough for “other” Americans.

Richardson took the cue and talked about the standard issues of health care, education reform, the budget, and business growth and development, and how that would translate out into positive gains nationally. That was aimed to ease the general public’s doubts that a Richardson White House would be an inclusive White House.

That wasn’t the end to Richardson’s quandary. In a poll in the spring and made public by Hispanic Vista, even when Richardson stepped back across the ethnic divide, and eagerly touted that he was a Mexican-American, the majority of Latinos were skeptical and indifferent, if not downright resistant to his candidacy. His favorable rating among Latinos was thirty percent less than his Democratic presidential nominee rival Hillary Clinton’s, and ten percent less than Barack Obama’s.

The numbers didn’t jump much even after Latino respondents said they knew who he was and that he was Latino.

Richardson in a sense faced the same problem that Obama faced in the early stages of his campaign in which he too was an unknown quantity and had the uphill task of convincing black voters that he was not a flash in the pan, media photo-op candidate, who would flame out when the presidential race heated up. He also had to convince black voters that he could win. Race loyalty only goes so far.

Richardson had the same uphill battle with Latino voters. La Raza pride only went so far. Latinos are almost as fed up as blacks with Bush policies on domestic issues, the war, and even immigration. They want someone who can win.

If Latinos perceive that Rich-ardson has little or no traction among the majority of non-Hispanic voters they might puff their chest out at him being in the race, but on primary election day they’ll dash to Clinton, Obama, and John Edwards, and even GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. A tip that Richardson would have a tough uphill battle to break the doubt barriers among Latinos was the failure of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to endorse him. The mayor cheered Clinton at a UCLA rally in May, and California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez also endorsed Clinton.

Richardson downplayed the endorsements of the two top gun California Latino Democrats as not the only game in town. He insisted that the number of Latino votes he got counted far more than getting endorsements. That was brave talk, and put a good face on their snub. Richardson had a point that getting as many Latino voters as he could to punch the card for him was all that really counted.

However, nearly four months into his campaign and thousands of miles of crisscrossing the country speaking to Latino groups and elected officials in August still hasn’t netted much for him for the effort.

It was getting harder to lay the lack of endorsements and his low ratings in the polls still in the single digits in July among Latinos on the better name recognition of Clinton and Obama whose Latino support dwarfed his. It was a candidate’s style, charisma, grasp of the issues, and name recognition that still mattered most to voters. Latino politicians were no different than other politicians; they wanted to back a winner.

Politics is also a business. Many of the Latino Democrats have long, deep, entrenched party ties. They depend on the party for patronage, support, money, and endorsements in their election and reelection bids. They especially depend on the party regulars to help them advance up the ladder of politics to bigger and more influential state and national offices. When their tenures in office are over they expect them to help them bag lucrative appointments and business contacts.

Richardson’s dig that Villaraigosa’s and other high profile endorsements don’t mean much to most voters missed another crucial point. A well-timed pitch from a top official such as Villaraigosa can do much in a tight race to help sway the vote. In California, that could be especially crucial to a Democratic presidential nominee, especially among Latino voters. A California Department of Finance survey noted that Hispanics will make up more than a third of the state’s population by 2010. In voter-rich Los Angeles County, Latino voters make up one out of three voters, and that figure is climbing.

Richardson’s presidential quest symbolizes the pitfalls and promise for Latino politicians. It also is a big step toward narrowing the distance between the two worlds that he and other Latino politicians straddle.

New America Media Associate Editor Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book, The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

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