July 3, 2008

Grassroots Efforts Key to Recruiting Latino Voters in California

By Amanda Martinez
New America Media

SAN FRANCISCO—“The campaign is us,” said Obama’s Latino vote coordinator for California, Juan Contreras, while addressing a group of Latino democrats here at an organizing event held at the home of a fellow Latino Obama supporter. Contreras explained that California won’t see an official Obama campaign presence. “Our efforts here will be very grassroots, just like the primaries,” he said.

Volunteers will be crucial to winning over Latinos, who strongly favored Clinton through the primary process. She held a two-to-one advantage over Latino voters compared to Obama and won California’s largely Latino communities in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego County, and the Central Valley. Latinos make up 14 percent of California voters and 61 percent are Democrats.

The recruitment of Clinton supporters will rely heavily on bilingual volunteers who can take the lead in introducing Latino communities to Obama. While campaigning during the primaries, Contreras found out that it wasn’t that Latinos didn’t like Obama, but that they didn’t know him and most were surprised that the policy differences between Clinton and Obama are not that different. “What we need to do is reach out to our friends and family and introduce Barack.”

This grassroots strategy played a pivotal role in the decrease of Clinton’s original 30-point lead in California to a narrow eight-point win, but left many Latinos critical of Obama for not putting in enough face time within the community or with the Spanish-language press.

However, moving into the general election Latinos will see a very different campaign. “We know this is going to be a courting season with us for the Latino community,” said Vince Casillas, Spanish media coordinator for Obama.

In the last 2 weeks Obama has increased his visibility with Spanish-language media by offering interviews to Univision and Tele-mundo in majority Latino states. Most recently, in an exclusive interview with California’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, La Opinión, Obama stated that he will work hard for Latinos to create a pathway to legalization and improve dropout rates, access to college, and healthcare.

On a national scale the Obama campaign has plans to begin heavy outreach tailored to Spanish speaking communities with an advertising campaign that will blanket Latino markets with radio, television, and print media. “You are also going to see a large wave of endorsements coming from top Latino leaders in support of Obama,” said Casillas. These will include many of Clinton’s supporters, such as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

When asked about the specifics of Latino outreach in California, Casillas responded, “In California we will be fighting hard, but reality is that in other states the race is much closer and there is a need for more resources there.”

Many of those resources will be sent to what Contreras identified as the top four states for Latino outreach—New Mexico, Nevada, Florida and Colorado. He believes that if three of the four are won, Obama will be the next president. He is certain that volunteers will be the heartbeat of the campaign.

One group of Bay Area Latinos for Obama understands the importance of their role in campaigning in the Latino community and creating unity between the divided Democratic Party. They have begun a campaign called OBAMANOS—an effort to foster unity among Latino Democrats and promote organizing to get Obama elect-ed. They have recently launched a website- Obamanos.word press.com that will be a space to share information about the election, Latino voters and blogs about organizing. They hope the Web site will serve as an organizing tool for Latino Obama supporters in any state.

One of the main organizers of the group, Jose Torres, said, “Now that Senator Obama has won the democratic nomination we are encouraging Latinos who worked on the Clinton campaign to help us organize and create a unified front in the community.”

At their first event in San Francisco, they asked former Clinton supporter Juan Salinas, who represents Carpenters Union Number 22, to share why he is now supporting Obama. “At the end of the day, with a fair and equitable primary election, we have come up with a candidate that we can all support. We are here because we are Democrats that have watched the [Republican] administration destroy our country by putting our loved ones in harm’s way in a war that we cannot win and by attacking our hard working immigrant families.”

Frederico Chavez, the nephew of Cesar Chavez, also spoke and urged former Clinton supporters to be active in getting a Democratic candidate elected. He made an example of Dolores Huerta of the Farm Workers Union, who after campaigning strongly for Clinton is now willing do what the campaign asks to get Obama elected.

Myrna Melgar, who hosted the event at her home, did not think promoting the idea of unity would be a hard sell for Latino Democrats. “We know we are not going to get anywhere in any of our progressive agendas with a Republican president in the White House.”

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