Latinos may hold key to Super Tuesday for Democrats

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 2, 2008 

WASHINGTON — An independent group that supports Democrat Barack Obama late last year began showing a provocative ad over the Internet and to Latino organizations around Southern California.

The three-installment political soap opera chronicled a fictional Latino family that becomes politically active and supports Obama after an undocumented cousin is deported. A young black man named Rayshawn confronts a black Obama organizer for welcoming the Latinos. "What I don't understand is why you have to congratulate them," he says. "Whose side are you on, man? Every day there's fewer of us and more of them, and there's only so many jobs."

The fictional organizer reasons that blacks and Latinos are struggling with the same problems, such as poor schools and health care, and says, "The only way we will solve them is if we band together."

That kind of Kumbaya moment may be more elusive in real life.

If the racial politics between Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton seemed striking in South Carolina's Jan. 26 Democratic presidential primary, wait until Super Tuesday.

The Latino vote is bigger than the black vote, especially in delegate-rich California, where Clinton benefits from her reputation as an advocate for expanding health care and from her husband's record. President Clinton won 71 percent of California's Latino vote in 1992 and 85 percent in 1996, according to the William C. Velasquez Institute, a policy organization in San Antonio.

Latino voters could be key in several of the 24 states that will be in play on Tuesday. They are about a fourth of the eligible voters in California, 37 percent in New Mexico, 17 percent in Arizona, 12 percent in Colorado, 11 percent in New York, 10 percent in New Jersey and 8 percent in Illinois. Nationally, there are about 18 million eligible Hispanic voters, or one in nine voters overall.

Meanwhile, primaries in some major cities, including Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, could test longstanding cultural and economic tensions between blacks and Latinos — a reality that the Obama ad addressed.

"Part of the tension we see, especially in Los Angeles, whether in gangs or prisons, in housing markets or competing for jobs, spills over when there are African-American and Latino candidates vying against each other, or even in a race like this, where there's an African-American against a name who conjures up good times," said Jaime Regalado, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

Clinton has Latinos' support in national polls — 59 percent of Latino Democratic voters in a Pew Hispanic Center survey last fall and about the same amount in exit polls from the Nevada caucuses and the Florida primary. She also has the endorsements of many important Latino leaders and of the United Farm Workers.

If Latinos turn out in large numbers, Super Tuesday could give Clinton the edge she's seeking against Obama in the race for the Democratic nomination.

But Obama, an African-American who pulled about 80 percent of the black vote in South Carolina, also is fighting for Latino support.

The Illinois senator aims to build on his rout of Clinton in South Carolina and his endorsement by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and a beloved figure among many Latinos for his support of organized labor, social programs and liberal immigration policies. Kennedy is campaigning for Obama in New Mexico and California, and he's featured in campaign ads.

In addition, for weeks Obama has been using the slogan, "Yes, we can," a translation of "Si, se puede!," the rallying cry for farmworkers' organizing efforts that's become a motto of Latino political rallies. He's also running ads targeting Latinos and has won some Latino congressional endorsements.

Obama also has been citing his experience as a former community organizer in Chicago.

After winning South Carolina, he said, "When I hear the cynical talk that blacks and whites and Latinos can't join together and work together, I'm reminded of the Latino brothers and sisters I organized with and stood with and fought with side-by-side for jobs and justice on the streets of Chicago."

At Thursday night's debate in California, Obama denounced a suggestion that Latinos are taking jobs from African-Americans as "scapegoating that I do not believe in."

Clinton said that an African-American had told her the night before that he no longer could find construction jobs because illegal Latinos got them all, and she voiced sympathy, blaming unscrupulous employers, and said the answer is comprehensive immigration changes. Each candidate, in short, reached to the other's base in this ethnic divide with his or her answer.

Obama also backs driver's licenses for illegal immigrants, which Clinton doesn't. And he's vowed in his first year in office to pursue immigration changes that would ease the path to legalization for illegal immigrants.

Elsa Gomez, 38, a Santa Ana, Calif., tax accountant whose father once worked as a seasonal guest worker, voted for President Clinton, but she said she plans to back Obama in the primary because, "He is a minority. He understands issues important to minorities."

But Albert M. Camarillo, a Stanford University professor and expert on Mexican American history, said that Hillary Clinton taps into Latinos' nostalgia for the 1990s, a prosperous period for California Latinos when they were galvanized politically against Republicans' anti-immigrant policies.

"You have a younger generation that is less tied to the Clinton legacy, but for their parents, I think it's really hard for Obama to make inroads," he said.

Even among younger Latino voters, Clinton "has a whole legacy," said Angelica Reyes, a 30-year-old financial educator from Santa Cruz, Calif. "A lot of people don't know Barack. She has that legacy with the Latino community. She has the legacy of the Clintons and the name recognition, and that is really hard to compete with."

(Yamamura reports in California for The Sacramento Bee.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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