By Roberto Lovato
New America Media
MIAMI Spanish-speaking Latino candidate Bill Richardson looked like he’d swallowed a big burrito when asked en Español: “Would you be willing to promote Spanish as the second official language of the United States?” His fellow presidential candidates, who joined him in dodging this and other questions unprecedented in the annals of U.S. political history, also looked like nervous immigrants being interrogated by ICE agents. Seeing the candidates sweat under the fire of such audacious questioning signified, more than anything, the role reversal of power.
Joe Garcia, a vice president at the New Democrat Network (NDN) and head of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party, handily summed up the significance of Univision’s broadcast of the first-ever Spanish language presidential debate.
“The real winner this evening is Latino power,” he told me in Cubano-inflected English from the University of Miami campus, where the debate (officially called a “foro”) was held. Garcia was instrumental in putting together the historic event, which he calls “a Super Bowl of Latino participation.”
Yet, the Latino force is still a mystery to even the most seasoned political consultants just look at their meager Spanish language ad budgets and English language ads like Dem darling Harold Ford’s anti-immigrant TV messaging in ’06. The Latino power displayed at the debate moves along three separate but intertwined vectors: media power, (swing) voting power and immigrant power. This same confluence drove last year’s massive immigrant rights marches and the Latino backlash against Republicans last November. The GOP went from getting an unprecedented 40 to 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004 to less than 29 percent in 2006.
More than just symbolic pandering aimed at a single-issue voter block long-ignored in presidential politics, the Univision debate marks a coming-of-age of the very politically engaged Latino community. The reasons candidates exposed themselves to the discomfort of being asked by Univision anchor Maria Elena Salinas, “Why not build a wall at the (U.S.) Canada border?” have as much to do with immigration politics as they do with the fact that Latinos are no longer that little-known 2.5 million person voter block concentrated largely in California and Texas in 1980.
Today, the more than 14 million Latinos expected to vote in 2008 are sought out by the candidates because of the unique position they occupy on key parts of the electoral college map, a map that’s also dotted with more than 18 full-power Univision TV stations and more than 1800 of its cable affiliatesalong with hundreds of radio stations.
Sunday’s debate was the first of what will likely be many strategic political moves in Latino America because the Democrats know that their presidential candidates have won 248 or more electoral college votes in the last four presidential elections. This means that swing states and their voters will wield power far beyond their numbers in 2008. If trends seen in 2006 continue, the Democrats can secure the 277 votes they need to win the presidency next year by winning Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada all sites of major Latino voting blocks. By simply adding Florida to the historic Democratic core, they get 275 votes.
Viewed from the perspective of these ascendant voters, even the Democrats’ nervous, measured responses to the questions struck a definite contrast with the histrionics still heard from a Republican leadership that crafted and pushed the most punitive immigration policies in U.S. history. Overwhelming numbers of Latinos, including many Republicanos, viewed this as tantamount to a political and personal betrayal.
After last year’s GOP Latino debacle, Lionel Sosa a close ally of Karl Rove, widely credited with reversing Republican Latino fortunes in the 2000 race said: “I don’t think everything I worked for is lost.” But when so many Republicans continued the “awful” championing of the anti-immigrant politic, he started having second thoughts. So, last night, Sosa continued his involvement in melding Latino power with mainstream politics by cheering for his new candidate, Bill Richardson. “Blood is thicker than party,” said Sosa when asked by a reporter why he went from advising and backing Republicans like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to backing the New Mexico governor.
Sosa and others see in the tea leaves of last night’s Democratic event even deeper troubles for the GOP. All Republican candidates, with the exception of John McCain, declined to participate in a similar Univision GOP candidate event. Meanwhile, the Democrats have been busily brushing up on their Spanish and making further inroads into this increasingly important segment of the electorate. While the GOP looks to many Latinos as if it’s stepping back in time.
“While we’re looking more and more like the rest of the country, they still look like a gated white men’s club,” said NDN’s Garcia, a rising star in Democrat circles who once occupied the star chamber of Miami power as leader of the storied and extremely conservative Cuban American National Foundation. Reflecting on what he had accomplished with tonight’s historic debate, Garcia reminded me about the importance of the media, migration and voting power nexus. “The rise in Cuban American immigrant power came in no small part because of radio,” said Garcia. “We couldn’t afford television back then. Now we hold power in key positions in every sector of Miami society.”
After glad-handing with the departing candidates, a tired but happy Garcia watched the English and Spanish language network TV crews dismantle their equipment. And then, he breathed a sigh of relief before inhaling like a boxer on his way to winning another round and said, “We’re just getting started. Pretty soon the rest of the country will start looking like Miami. And just imagine what will happen in 2050, when six of the 10 largest U.S. cities start with “Los” or “San”? Like us or not, here we come.”
Roberto Lovato is a New America Media contributing editor based in New York. He consulted for Univision some years ago.