The elusive Hispanic voters
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 13, 2006
They're being courted, they hold the power, but when will they show up to use
Jon Talton, Republic columnist
Only five months after Hispanics organized the largest marches in Phoenix
history, Arizona politics seems glacially unchanged.
Most incumbents are cruising to victory. The Legislature seems destined to
remain a cradle of Kookocracy. The vilest anti-immigrant rhetoric is still
That's the way things seem, at least. But the big unknown is whether the
groundswell of support Hispanics mustered in the marches can translate into
political clout. Could the fastest-growing minority group become the
fastest-growing voter block? "Yeah . . . " is how political veteran and migrant
rights activist Alfredo Gutierrez answered when I asked him about this. The word
was less an affirmation than an acknowledgement of the difficulty of the
After a pause, he went on: "Man, do I really not know the answer to that
question. We sure think so. We believe there are some real changes in attitude
that will lead to significant change.
"Equal numbers, including many political observers, believe it won't happen.
They've become cynical in terms of Hispanic voter participation."
Indeed, the great Hispanic voter watershed has been predicted before, ardently
courted by both parties, but failed to materialize. Only 18 percent of Hispanics
voted in the 2004 presidential election.
Still, the marches may have changed the old calculus. They were a direct
response to legislation, now on hold, in the U.S. House of Representatives that
would have levied severe criminal penalties against undocumented migrants.
Migrant rights advocates say rising hostility against Hispanics, including
American citizens facing voter suppression tactics in several states, has caused
Thus, in a Pew Hispanic Center poll taken after the rallies, three-quarters of
those surveyed said the immigration debate would cause more Hispanics to vote in
November. In the same survey, 63 percent said the marches marked the beginning
of a new social movement.
Like many other aspects of Arizona, Hispanic political clout and infrastructure
hasn't kept up with population growth. Phoenix is the nation's fifth
most-populous city and is 34 percent Hispanic. Yet it has no Hispanic City
Council member (it did when I was teenager).
Hispanic members in the Legislature have slowly increased, but it's far from a
situation such as California, where Hispanic members wield significant power,
including a Hispanic speaker of the state Assembly.
That's not surprising considering how much more mature Hispanic politics are in
California. The state was the birthplace of the Chicano movement of
Mexican-Americans as well as the site of the greatest struggles of
(Arizona-born) Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union.
Even so, California Hispanics faced the same apathy, fear, youthfulness and
language barriers that keep voter participation low elsewhere (another
barrier: four in 10 adult Hispanics nationally are a non-citizens).
Two events seem to have changed that: a backlash by Hispanic citizens against
the state's anti-migrant Proposition 187, and the rise of a union-based voter
movement. The latter was instrumental in the election of Los Angeles' rock-star
mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa.
Rising Hispanic electoral power won't necessarily fit into anybody's ideological
box. Its high-profile leaders range from Republican U.S.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to Democratic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
Nationally, the ethnic group is diverse, including Cubans, Central Americans and
Even in heavily Mexican-American Arizona, there's a diversity of opinion, even
on undocumented immigration. There's also quiet tension between citizens and
non-citizens, newcomers and old-line families.
Still, many issues should unite Hispanics in Arizona, especially education,
economic opportunity and discrimination. Hispanic household income lags, and
Hispanics are more likely than Whites to live in poverty.
Arizona's on-the-cheap approach to these issues has been more damaging to
Hispanics than any anti-migrant rhetoric. It can be changed only with more
Hispanics voting their self-interest.
Gutierrez engages in the kind of hard-nosed vote-counting one would expect from
this former majority leader of the state Senate.
"We have around 308,000 (potential Hispanic) voters in Arizona today," he said.
"If 50 percent turn out, it could be enough to determine the election in many
Reach Talton at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read Talton's blog at