Obama Confronts Ethnic Tensions In Bid for Votes
Familiarity May Give Clinton an Edge

By Karl Vick and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 1, 2008

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 31 -- In a sun-drenched community college courtyard in the heart of East Los Angeles on Thursday, Sen. Barack Obama tried to confront one of his greatest obstacles to doing well on Super Tuesday next week: winning over Latino voters.

About 1,200 people -- a mix mostly of Hispanics and African Americans -- listened as local Latino elected officials urged them to support Obama. Several made explicit comparisons between the senator from Illinois and 1968 Democratic presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy, who along with President John F. Kennedy had strong backing among Latinos, and whose brother Edward M. Kennedy, a senator from Massachusetts, endorsed Obama this week.

Then Obama took the lectern and plunged into his familiar theme of national reconciliation, applying it specifically to the history of tensions between Hispanics and African Americans. He started by telling his audience that he has allied himself with Latinos from his days as a community organizer in Chicago.

"It's so important to come together," he said. "We've heard the cynical talk about how black folks, white folks, Latinos will not come together; we've heard talk about the so-called black-brown divide; and whenever I hear this, I take it seriously, because I'm reminded of the Latino brothers and sisters I worked alongside on the streets of Chicago two decades ago."

Hispanic voters here say Obama has a lot of ground to make up before Tuesday, when Democrats in California and 21 other states will vote. Obama is contending not only with the legacy of friction between blacks and Hispanics -- a relationship that is particularly complex in Los Angeles -- but also with a more basic problem: Many Los Angeles Latinos just don't know much about him and feel more comfortable with his opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).

"It's the marquee value. They still remember [President Bill] Clinton and those whole eight years. Obama comes out of nowhere, and Latinos are like, 'What? An African American?' " said Herbert Siguenza, a Latino theater troupe member who came to see the candidate. "He's won over liberal Latinos like me, but for more recent immigrants, he's unknown. They recognize the Clintons and are comfortable with them."

The stakes for Obama are high. He lost the Nevada caucuses in large part because of his steep deficit among that state's Hispanic voters, and Clinton's lead among Hispanics in California -- 40 percent of the population and maybe 20 percent of the Democratic electorate -- is the main reason she has an edge in the ultimate Super Tuesday prize.

Yet recent polls show the race in California tightening, and Obama got a big boost this week among Hispanic voters with the endorsement of Edward Kennedy and his niece Caroline Kennedy, John Kennedy's daughter, with ads now already up on television here with Caroline Kennedy comparing Obama to her father.

The Obama campaign attributes his weakness with Hispanic voters to a general unawareness of his strong ties with Latinos in Illinois or of his role in pushing comprehensive immigration policy revisions in the Senate. Obama is an outspoken supporter of the Dream Act, which would allow high school students who are illegal immigrants and want to attend college or enlist in the military a route to eligibility for legal status and to obtaining loans. He also favors giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, which Clinton opposes after initially hedging on the issue.

"I know I can get Latino voters if they know my track record," Obama said in a recent interview with reporters. "The challenge we've got is we've got to do it very quickly. We have such a short span of time."

Members of the Hispanic community say, though, that the Obama campaign would be further along in educating voters about his background had it made a more visible attempt to win Latino support earlier. Voters such as Victor Castellanos are not good news for the campaign.

"I haven't heard anything about Obama. I haven't heard him talking to us, so my vote is with Clinton," said Castellanos, at the butcher counter in an East Los Angeles market this week. "I've heard of him, but not enough."

The Obama campaign said it has been pursuing the Latino vote for months, citing an October town hall meeting with the candidate at a local high school. This week a television ad featuring Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) began airing on Spanish-language TV, with Edward Kennedy pictured beside Obama.

But the pace of the official effort last week moved six activists in South-Central Los Angeles to organize a rally of their own at Jefferson High School, a formerly all-black, now Hispanic landmark at the meeting point of historically black South-Central and the Latino east side. They tried to get across a crucial point that they worried many voters are not grasping: that Obama, like many of them, has fought his way up against tough odds.

"He's the son of an immigrant, and we're Latinos. We're injecting that [point] because he's not doing it," said Alberto Renata, shaking his head at Clinton's savvy Jan. 11 visit to the iconic fast-food joint King Taco. A community organizer in South-Central, Renata spent Saturday going door to door for the Obama campaign. He was cheered on the 3900 block when Norma Hernandez said, "My daughters have been supporting him."

Obama's appeal to young voters may translate to undetected strength in Latino households where children interpret the unfamiliar new world to immigrant parents, and often guide decisions.

"My children already speak English pretty well, and they translate in the media," said Salvador Flores, 36, a butcher from Mexico who has been in the United States for three years and supports Obama. "Mrs. Clinton has experience because of her husband, but Obama is like us. He's starting from zero." But it's hard to compete with the head start that Clinton has because of the memories of the eight years of economic prosperity under her husband.

Over the past month, every day Clinton spent in California involved at least one Latino event. The state's highest-profile Hispanic politicians, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and state Assembly Speaker Fabian N¿¿ez, were lined up early.

Then there are the obstacles lurking in the dynamics of minority politics here. "It's race, man," said Giovanni Zavalza, 35, a tattoo artist on C¿sar Ch¿vez Avenue. "People think it's all over, but it's not. Race is always there."

The nature of the divide between black and Latino voters is a subject of robust debate in Los Angeles, where gang violence along ethnic lines has given the issue an edge that leaders on both sides say is exaggerated.

African Americans in 2005 voted in large numbers for Villaraigosa, who is Mexican, while Latino support helped Tom Bradley, an African American, win five terms. But analysts point out that both candidates lost their first attempts at the mayor's office, and needed years to build trust between two groups divided by culture and competing for resources, especially entry-level jobs.

"Obama, he's helping more his people," said Carlos Toledo, 20, a construction worker in East Los Angeles, the day after Obama won South Carolina with 80 percent of the black vote. "If you think about it, Obama's race is voting for him, not Latinos."

In his hour-long appearance in East Los Angeles, Obama made clear attempts to connect with the Latinos in the audience, focusing on bread-and-butter issues such as his plans to address foreclosures and affordable housing, health disparities in the inner city and the failures of urban schools.

At one point, he made what appeared to be abid at a cross-racial bond with his audience, saying that "too many Americans feel like the system is not designed for people like us." And he stated his support for immigration policy revisions in stronger terms than he often does.

"What I don't like are people focusing on just south-of-the-border immigrants," he said. "I don't hear about immigrants from Ireland or Poland. "It's very important that we have an intelligent debate about immigration not tinged with attitudes about what people should look like." He went on to note that when his own father arrived in the United States from Kenya, "he didn't look like he stepped off the Mayflower," and that plenty of the earlier European immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island were also not documented.

"Not everyone had their papers all in order. I'm just telling the truth now; not everyone had their stuff together."

Political scientists say Obama can take solace in other characteristics of Latino voters in California: They are known for changing their minds quickly. Harry P. Pachon, head of the University of Southern California's Tom¿s Rivera Policy Institute, recalled 70 percent swings between polls and election results on initiative measures that affected the community.

"If this was like a six-week campaign and Obama started running his ads on Univision and Telemundo, given the volatility of the Latino vote, that might have given him a chance," Pachon said. "As it is, it's probably a little bit too late and not enough."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company