January 17, 2003

Hispanics Make Political History

By Guillermo I. Martínez

They are the bookends of Hispanic politics across the nation; symbols of the success of the Democratic Party in the West and the growing number of Hispanics turning to Republican candidates in the East.

Linda and Loretta Sánchez made history in the recent mid-term elections. They are the first sisters to be elected to Congress in the same election. They come from Southern California and are perfect examples of the solid and stable preeminence of the Democratic Party among Mexican Americans in the West and Southwest.

There are many more. New Mexico elected Bill Richardson governor. Hispanics returned to the Democratic fold in Texas to vote for Tony Sánchez, one of their own. It is not essential to the story that Sánchez lost. What is revealing is that Hispanics returned to the Democratic Party after having voted in overwhelming numbers for George W. Bush in prior elections.

On the East Coast, things are changing. In South Florida, Miami-Dade, to be more precise, is still a bastion of Republican Party Hispanics, mainly Cuban Americans who back the party and their own with equal fervor. The Díaz-Balart brothers—Lincoln and Mario—are the bookends on the East Coast. Lincoln had no opposition to his re-election. Mario beat his Democratic rival by a comfortable 2-1 margin. Still this is not a simple story of Mexican Americans supporting Democratic candidates and Cuban Americans, in much small numbers, doing the same for Republicans. On the East Coast the sands are shifting with each election. Puerto Rican and Dominican voters, once supporters of Democratic candidates in numbers comparable to that of African Americans, are beginning to pick and choose between candidates. In New York, Gov. George Pataki has worked hard at attracting Hispanic voters. It paid off. In November, Gov. Pataki increased the percentage of Hispanics who chose to cast their ballot for him from 25 percent four years ago to 38 percent. And these votes come from a community rich in Puerto Rican, Dominican and South American voters.

The change is worthy of note. It is important because of the weight New York carries in the electoral-college vote, second only to California. It comes hand-in-hand with a push from the GOP designed to raise the number of Hispanics who will vote for President Bush to 40 percent by the year 2004. This is a number that Republican political strategists consider crucial if the President is to win a second term. In Florida, things are changing also. In the middle of the state, in counties close to Orlando, Hispanics are a rapidly growing minority. In Seminole County, where one of three voters is Hispanic, Gov. Jeb Bush obtained almost two-thirds of the vote of the predominantly Puerto Rican Latino electorate. This a clear indication that Hispanic voters in Florida, who voted massively for Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election, once again voted for the governor as they had done in 1998.

South Florida also had another first. Juan Carlos Zapata became the first Hispanic of South American origin—he comes from Colombia—elected to the State House of Representatives. His party affiliation: Republican. This augurs poorly for Democrats. They lost their only South Florida Hispanic seat to a Republican, and can no longer automatically believe that the recent South American migration to the area will be more receptive to their candidates than the Cuban Americans have been.

The difference between the Democratic success in California and its failure in Florida can be traced to the attractiveness of its candidates and to the money the parties spent in luring the Hispanic vote. In California, Gray Davis earned a 5 percent victory over his Republican opponent, in part due to a campaign that was well-orchestrated and financed with the clear objective of attracting the Hispanic voter. It had ads in Spanish and English. And it made sure that Hispanic issues were addressed. In California Hispanics marked the difference for Davis.

In Florida, however, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate had little time or money to attract the Hispanic vote. He never found the resources to launch a Spanish-language campaign—although the Party made a feeble attempt in the last week—or even to attend the opening of his Hialeah headquarters. As a result Gov. Bush won easily and got a big push from Hispanics in the state.

The results of the November election are good for the Democrats in the West and for Republicans in the East. But nationally they are good for Hispanics. Our vote is important. And it cannot be taken for granted.

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