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 it?

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 popular.

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 question.

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 a backlash.

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 Latin Americans.

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 races."

Reach Talton at Read Talton's blog at www.taltonblog.azcentral .com.