Battle Emerges Over Latino Votes
Democrats, GOP Woo New Citizens
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 10, 2002; Page A06
LAS VEGAS -- Myra Salguero had been a U.S. citizen for about five minutes when GOP volunteer Maxine Clark nabbed her. As Salguero made her way from the Lloyd D. George Federal Building in Las Vegas after taking her citizenship oath, Clark pulled her aside, deftly switched to Spanish and suggested she register to vote. Salguero, a Guatemala native who later told a reporter she had "never been involved in political stuff," promptly signed up as a Republican.
"We have a good example with the president now," said Salguero, who prepares a daily buffet for hungry gamblers at one of the city's major hotels. "He's doing a lot of things right."
Each Friday afternoon, the George Federal Building becomes a battleground for this city's Latino vote -- and a symbol of the broader nationwide fight for the booming Hispanic electorate. Volunteers from both parties man tables, jockeying for the newly minted citizens as they emerge from the weekly swearing-in ceremony.
Latinos account for 12.5 percent of the nation's population, compared with 9 percent a decade ago. With control of the House and Senate up for grabs this fall, they compose a vital voting bloc in many competitive races.
Due in part to the anti-immigration rhetoric of former California governor Pete Wilson and several other Republicans in the 1990s, the Democratic Party has enjoyed solid majorities of Hispanic support in most areas outside Miami's Cuban community. Latino voters in 2000 backed Al Gore over George W. Bush, 62 percent to 35 percent.
But President Bush -- a former Texas governor who embraced Mexican immigrants in a manner sharply different from Wilson's approach -- gets high approval ratings from many Hispanics. That has prompted both parties to launch unprecedented efforts for Latino votes.
Some of these moves have attracted widespread attention, such as the Republican National Committee's recent decision to launch a million-dollar public affairs program on Spanish-language television, or the offer of free Spanish classes to any interested party leader. But most of the organizing takes place at the political grass roots, far from the national spotlight.
In January, the Democratic National Committee sent a full-time staffer to work with Latino politicians and voters in North Carolina, a state that hosts pivotal races in the House and Senate this fall -- and whose Latino population grew 400 percent over the past decade. DNC officials also dispatched an organizer to help set up the Arkansas legislature's first Hispanic Caucus, and they sent two aides to promote Oregon's election of its first statewide Latina officeholder. By this fall, Democrats plan to have Latino-oriented programs in at least 15 states.
Republicans, meanwhile, have pledged to register half a million new voters in California by Election Day, many of whom will be Hispanic. They have begun a broader "New Citizens Initiative," targeting naturalization ceremonies in Las Vegas and elsewhere.
The RNC is staging numerous Hispanic "Team Leader" events, two-hour sessions in which officials convey the GOP agenda to community leaders and ordinary citizens. Such events are planned for Miami this month and for 10 other cities -- stretching from Atlanta to Portland, Ore. -- by November.
The party has retained GOP consultant Ada Diaz Kirby in Colorado to appeal to Hispanics, who make up nearly 18 percent of the state's population. Kirby helped run the party's booth at Denver's recent Cinco de Mayo celebration, handing out a thousand copies of a glossy photo of Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox.
"The picture was a real hit," said Kirby, who said she danced to mariachi music as she distributed GOP leaflets to the crowd. "That is the way we were able to attract attention."
The 2001-02 reapportionment process, in which state lawmakers have redrawn congressional lines to reflect new census figures, has underscored Latinos' importance in the battle for Congress. Their votes could be critical in at least nine competitive House seats in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina and Texas.
"The road to a Democratic majority clearly comes through the Latino community," said Rep. Robert Menendez (N.J.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company