Candidates ignore Hispanics at their peril
The literal translation of the Republican Hispanic voter effort, "Viva Bush," is "long live Bush." But those pols who choose to ignore Hispanic voters this election season may find their own political lives cut short.
Both political parties have launched efforts to reach out to Wisconsin's Hispanic population -- a group that has nearly doubled in the last decade and increased by about 8 percent in the last two years, according to state census figures.
When those in the George W. Bush camp talk of the president's 0.2 percent loss in 2000 in Wisconsin, there often is talk that courting Hispanic voters could make up the difference this time around. Those on the side of presidential candidate John Kerry are confident that the party's efforts to champion immigration reform will continue to garner Democrats the lion's share of the Latino vote as they have in the past.
Some in the public eye get it. Milwaukee Police Chief Nannette Hegerty recently named Sgt. Luis Gonzales as a liaison to the city's Hispanic community -- a first for a department that, under Hegerty, has found itself emerging from a diversity Dark Ages.
Others do not get it at all. The stage at the recent opening ceremonies for Mexican Fiesta in Milwaukee was brimming with politicians -- those elected and those who hope to be. But safe for Republican Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, GOP Congressman Paul Ryan and guest of honor presidential nephew George P. Bush, Republican candidates appeared in short supply.
The state's burgeoning Latino population will notice. Nationally, Hispanics number about 39 million and in many of the country's swing states -- of which Wisconsin is at the front of the pack -- Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group.
By nature, Hispanics are a conservative lot. The family values platform of the GOP plays well among their ranks. But civil rights leaders like Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers Labor Union, stood before a large crowd gathered at Mexican Fiesta last month and decried the Bush administration for the 12.5 percent national poverty rate. And that, too, gets attention in the Hispanic community.
Huerta held the floor and encouraged all Latinos -- whether here legally or not -- to volunteer for the Kerry campaign. Meanwhile, some local Hispanics have formed the Hispanic Heritage Council, a conclave charged with promoting what they see as the conservative agenda of Latinos. The group's president, attorney Jerry Gonzalez, said the organization hopes to take an education and advocacy role. His dream is to see a conservative Hispanic as a political leader.
Gonzalez need have looked no further than the president's nephew, George P. Bush, son of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The young Bush, 28, was in town last month as the keynote speaker at Mexican Fiesta. He asked festival organizers if they would mind if he walked the grounds of Meier Festival Park to work the crowd. He posed for countless pictures, ever the gracious and tireless campaigner for his uncle.
To walk with the young Bush was akin to strolling with Tom Cruise at a Mary Kay convention. Charismatic and engaging, Bush, a Dallas attorney, pressed the flesh like a pro. To watch him was to watch Gonzalez' dream come alive.
State GOP insiders admit to not doing a good enough job in the past reaching out to either black or Hispanic voters, but local Latinos have been vocal at saying they welcome whatever inroads the major parties want to make. And Democratic leaders say they won't be taking the Hispanic vote for granted as they often have in the past.
Local Hispanics have pointed out that the increasing number of young Latinos going on to get professional degrees and who are starting their careers are more open to hearing the broad political spectrum of opinions and not just accepting the traditional views of their old-school parents.
Wisconsin's Latino community is listening, and changing. The politicians who fail to spend time with Hispanic groups anxious to share their concerns do so at their political peril.
Anne E. Schwartz is a Milwaukee-area journalist and author.
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