July 1, 2005

Commentary:

Latino population grows, as does political clout

By Janet Murguia

The rapid growth of the Latino community is good news. It strengthens the clout of working people, and it stresses the importance of broad-based coalitions.

The Census recently noted that there are now nearly 42 million Hispanics on the U.S. mainland, representing 14 percent of the total U.S. population. Earlier in the year, the Census also showed that Latinos added nearly 2 million more voters in the 2004 election, an astonishing increase of 27 percent from 2000.

The 9.5 million Latinos registered to vote in the United States today represent a doubling of that electorate just since 1988. Additionally, there are 6.7 million Latino citizens who are not yet registered to vote, and millions more over the age of 18 who may become citizens.

Integrating these potential voters into the political process could result in a tripling of the current Latino vote. This brings additional muscle for groups of voters interested in building stronger communities.

Latinos are concerned about creating better jobs, giving greater access to preschools, increasing high school graduation rates and making health care more accessible and affordable. They also want to increase the opportunities for homeownership, save for retirement and build wealth. These are issues that other Americans also say should be at the top of the nation’s agenda.

As the Latino population has grown, success has come at the voting booth. The landslide mayoral victory of Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles — the second largest city in the country — was just the most recent. In 2004, Colorado’s Ken Salazar, a Democrat, and Florida’s Mel Martinez, a Republican, became the first Latinos in almost 30 years to be elected to the U.S. Senate. All three represent important gains for Latino representation in the nation’s political system.

Their victories add another, often missing, perspective to policy-making. But they are also significant because they demonstrate the political sophistication, not only of the Latino community, but also of our country.

In both cases, the candidates formed broad-based coalitions reflecting the interests of all their constituencies, and voters responded by debunking the narrow-minded notion that these are candidates of the Latino community alone.

Latinos made up 25 percent of the electorate in the L.A. mayoral race, after having been just 10 percent in 1993, and 84 percent of those voters supported Villaraigosa. But his landslide victory was cinched by strong margins of support from almost every racial and ethnic group in the city.

Increasing the political clout of the Latino community is a plus for all of us.

It means more attention for the issues the majority of working Americans care about.

It means that elected officials may have to not only talk more, but also do more, to address these issues.

And it also means that we, as an electorate, need to get better at working together to find joint solutions to our complex problems.

Janet Murguia is president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza (www.nclr.org). She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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