By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
Conventional wisdom holds that while Latinos now convincingly outrank African Americans as the nation’s largest minority group 38.8 million to 36.6 million, according to the Census Bureau they are still light years behind blacks politically. This is a myth. In fact, Latinos’ rising political star is giving some black politicians and leaders the jitters.
Latinos now make up about 6 percent of the vote nationally, a number that grows by the day. More significantly, those votes are concentrated in California, Florida, Texas and New York, key electoral states that virtually determine who sits in the White House and who controls Congress.
The spectacular rise in Latino political power is nowhere more evident than in California. There are now more than 2 million Latino voters in the state. With no sign of an ebb in Latino immigration, and as more Latinos become citizens and attain voter-age eligibility, the number of Latino voters could surpass 3 million by the 2004 election. They will then make up about 40 percent of California voters, and more than one-third of voters in Los Angeles County, the nation’s biggest county.
The rise in Latino political power comes as some blacks are vanishing from the political radarscope. In California during the past decade, for example, the number of blacks in the state legislature has been cut in half. Latinos, on the other hand, continue to barrel ahead in California politics, holding a sizeable number of seats in the state legislature and some of the most visible positions in state government.
Nationally, both political parties now vigorously court the Latino vote. With much fanfare, the Republican National Committee earlier this year announced that it would dump millions into advertising and voter registration campaigns to attract more Latino voters. Congressional Republicans, taking a cue from President Bush, are taking crash courses in Spanish.
Still, Democrats have a big edge over Republicans among Latinos. The majority of Latinos are Democrats, and so are their elected officials. The Democratic National Committee will push them hard to exhort Latino voters to punch the Democratic ticket in 2004. President Bush and Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore fought hard over the swing states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Illinois in 2000. Republicans expect these states to be hotly contested again in 2004, and they hope to provide a margin for a Bush victory by getting Latinos to defect from the Democrats.
Meanwhile, black leaders and politicians murmur loudly that so far, the seven white, male Democratic presidential contenders have been stone silent on miserably failing inner city schools, soaring black unemployment and prison incarceration and the HIV/AIDS crisis that has torn apart black communities. The recent threat by Democratic National Committee head Terry McAuliffe to lay off 10 staffers, all of whom were black, at DNC headquarters in Washington, D.C., was withdrawn after howls of protest from the Congressional Black Caucus and did not exactly endear Democrats to blacks.
The blame for the black political malaise lies with black politicians and voters. They have tied their string so tightly to the Democratic Party that they make it easy for the Democrats to take their vote for granted. This has created apathy, indifference and cynicism among black voters, who feel that many black political leaders have betrayed their political interests. They are unwilling to expend any time or energy to pressure the Democrats, let alone the Republicans, to take them and their agenda seriously.
The irony is that the only recent major political gains blacks have made namely, winning the Lieutenant governorships in Ohio and Maryland have been as Republicans. Despite this, many black politicians and voters remain blind to the rapidly changing political and ethnic realities nationally and have failed to forge coalitions with other ethnic groups all the while continuing to swear unwavering allegiance to the Democrats.
Many Latino leaders and elected officials and voters aren’t hamstrung by this self-defeating burden. In California and Texas, there are politically active and influential Latino Republican Legislative Caucuses. Latinos are willing to parcel out a few more of their votes to the Republicans. This forced Bush to take a softer approach than conservatives wanted in his Supreme Court brief against the University of Michigan’s race-based affirmative action program, and to take a stab at support of immigration reform rights and bilingual education programs.
The Republicans and Democrats count votes, not just population numbers. And that’s why they now say “si” to Latino voters. And to black voters?
Hutchinson (Ehutchi344@aol.com) is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “The Crisis in Black and Black” (Middle Passage Press).