ORLANDO, Fla. -- Four years ago, Trini Lopez voted for Barack Obama. Now the mayor of Socorro, near El Paso, Lopez says he’s undecided in the 2012 election -- and was pleasantly surprised by some of what Mitt Romney said in his speech Thursday afternoon to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials annual conference.
“He surprised me today a lot with all those offers he had, because in the past he has been against immigration reform. ... With his offers that he did today, it looks like he’s looking for the Latino vote,” Lopez, a self-described political independent, said in an interview after Romney addressed the ballroom of more than 1,000 Hispanic leaders. “I hope that if he gets to the White House, that he will accomplish what he is promising today.”
Attendees who listened to Romney’s highly-anticipated Thursday afternoon speech at Disney’s Contemporary Resort gave the presumptive GOP nominee a mixed reaction as he spoke, highlighting the diverse views among Hispanic voters when it comes to the November election.
Some booed Romney, and others applauded, when he pledged to repeal the national health care law; and Romney’s remarks on immigration reform in particular drew a broad range of reactions.
Some, like Lopez, expressed cautious optimism.
Lopez said that among the “enticing offers” to the Latino community laid out by Romney on Thursday was his proposal to reform the work visa system. Even so, Lopez said, before he makes a decision on who to vote for on Election Day, he needs to hear personally from President Obama, who addresses the summit on Friday.
“I know he’s a great speaker, and I hope he will give us better offers than what Mr. Romney gave us,” Lopez said. “So, whichever is the best. ... As an elected official, I know how many obstacles we find in our way to do whatever we want, and if he has the majority of Republicans against him, I know it’s hard for him to do what ever he’s planning to.”
Others, such as Phoenix City Councilman Daniel Valenzuela, voiced skepticism.
“If that message was heard a few months ago, it would mean more today,” Valenzuela said of Romney’s advocacy for broader immigration reform. “But if that message was heard a few months ago, he probably would not be the Republican nominee.”
Valenzuela, who won election to a four-year term in January after running a campaign that succeeded in increasing Latino turnout by nearly five-fold, said that while jobs and the economy remain the No. 1 issue, immigration reform remains an issue of great importance to Hispanics.
“The elephant in the room is immigration, especially in a room that’s filled with Latino elected and appointed officials,” he said. “And I was wondering if he would address that, and he did. ... The confusion came in -- for me -- because just a few months ago, during the GOP debates, it was an entirely different message.”
Romney’s message back then, he continued, was “to veto anything that would have to do with the DREAM Act, and he mentioned that he would look to reform the DREAM Act. So, the message is there. I think what is damaging is the previous message of just a few months ago, and wondering which of these men we’re going to get as president should he win. There’s no consistency within the message.”
The DREAM Act is legislation that would put many more young illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship.
Dr. Irella Perez, a 41-year-old school administrator and self-described Democrat from Whittier, Calif., said that she was pleased Romney addressed the influential Hispanic group and spoke on the issues of both immigration and education.
But she added that she was “very concerned that when he speaks of immigration, he generalizes. I think that being at a Latino conference, he didn’t specify what he would do for Latino immigrants, and I’m concerned with his overall generalization of his comments.”
“I think it was good, but it was not good enough,” she said of Romney’s speech. “We really need help and changes now, and just touching it on the surface is not good enough.”
While many of those in the room and nationally were listening closely for Romney’s proposals on immigration, some attendees made an argument similar to the one the presumptive GOP nominee has made all along -- that among Hispanics and all other voters, economic issues trump all.
Ines S., a 65-year-old government employee and self-described Republican from Miami who declined to give her last name, said that she believes Romney is best-poised to get the country’s economy back on its feet.
“I think that he has a lot of potential to become president -- especially not only on immigration, but the United States of America needs jobs, and he’s a great man when it comes to creating jobs and new corporations, and he actually believes in private corporations,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how big or how small it is, there’s always a chance for people to work in those places.”