Latinos Urged to Get Out the Vote
Sunday, April 30, 2006
When Jorge Rochac decided to run for Herndon Town Council, he studied voter lists from the last municipal election, in 2004. Of the 500 or so registered voters with Hispanic surnames, he said, he found 24 who went to the polls.
To Rochac, the poor turnout is about more than voter indifference to local elections.
"There's a big fear factor," the 67-year-old businessman and police department translator said. He is trying to become the town's first Hispanic council member Tuesday, when Herndon and 19 other Northern Virginia cities and towns elect local officials.
Herndon's contest for mayor and six at-large council seats will be the first since the council voted to establish a center where immigrant day laborers can connect with employers. The plan was heatedly contested in the town of 22,000 near Dulles International Airport, where Latino immigrants make up about a quarter of the population. It also thrust Herndon to the front of the turbulent national debate on illegal immigration and turned the coming election into what is widely regarded as a referendum on the issue.
Rochac said the debate has had a chilling effect on Hispanics who are legal residents of Herndon and made them reluctant to participate in local politics. "I may be a citizen, but my friends and relatives are not," said Rochac, paraphrasing their sentiments. "So keep a low profile. Don't get involved."
To draw out the reluctant voters, Rochac has enlisted the Alexandria-based Construction and Master Laborers Union Local 11, whose largely Latino membership of 600 is scattered throughout Northern Virginia. Yesterday morning, they concluded an intense outreach effort, knocking on doors and distributing fliers in the Chandon Park neighborhood, not far from the 7-Eleven parking lot that once served as an informal gathering place for day laborers. The sometimes chaotic conditions there created the impetus for an official hiring site.
The field of candidates has essentially broken into two de facto slates on opposing sides of the labor center. There are Rochac and four incumbents who voted to open the center: Mayor Michael L. O'Reilly and council members Carol A. Bruce, Steven D. Mitchell and J. Harlon Reece. And there are incumbent council member Dennis D. Husch, who voted against the measure, and five challengers who want changes in where and how the center operates when its permit comes up for renewal in 2007. They are: mayoral candidate Steve J. DeBenedittis and council candidates William B. Tirrell, Charlie D. Waddell, Connie Haines Hutchinson and David A. Kirby. Some want the site to accommodate only documented workers.
Members of the laborers union, founded in 1903 by Italian and German immigrants, said they became involved after Rochac spoke to them about the new Herndon Official Workers Center and the intervention of the Minuteman Project, a national group organized to fight illegal immigration.
"It's important that we keep the [elected officials] who will be there to help us, not hurt us," said Local 11 business manager Hugo Carballo.
"We're trying to raise a voice," said Oscar Mendes, 49, of Alexandria.
The numbers involved are small enough that even a handful of extra votes could be significant. Slightly more than 2,000 ballots were cast in Herndon in 2004. One candidate, Ann V. Null, won a council seat with 791 votes.
"It's a niche thing," said union political director Clayton Sinyai, who said the effort also was aimed at encouraging Latino immigrants who are ineligible to vote this year but likely to gain citizenship in the future.
Few doors were opened yesterday for union members, who wore greenish-yellow vests with "Action Team" emblazoned across the back. They attributed the spotty response to the large number of Latinos who opted to work yesterday to take Monday off in observance of the planned national boycott for immigrant workers' rights.
Those doors that did open revealed disparate points of view.
"This will give me my wake-up call," said Ali Eyou, 40, a Kenyan immigrant and sleep technician at Fairfax Hospital, as he read the flier enthusiastically.
Miguel Carballo, Hugo's cousin and a union organizer, approached a house on Missouri Avenue when the occupant, a middle-aged woman, pulled up in her car. The former teacher of English as a second language, who declined to give her name, chatted amiably in Spanish with Carballo but made it clear where she stood.
"The ones who are here illegally need to not be welcomed by this town," she said. "Let's help the legal ones get jobs and help the illegal ones find their way back to Mexico."
She finished by telling Carballo in a soothing tone: "I appreciate that you are participating in the process. Have a good day. Adios ."
Carballo said he wasn't fazed. "Fight the ignorance," he said later, "not the immigrants."