By Sylvia Moreno, Steve Hendrix and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are aggressively targeting Latino and immigrant voters in the Washington area, especially Northern Virginia, for Tuesday's Potomac Primary, as the region's foreign-born communities have grown so rapidly that their ballots could be decisive in a close electoral contest.
The two have brought their historic battle to the region, with Clinton determined to reap the benefits of her long-term popularity among Latino voters and Obama fighting to chip away at that support.
Clinton campaign workers will canvass Spanish-language church services in Northern Virginia today, and the candidate is scheduled to appear in Manassas. Tomorrow night, the campaign is sponsoring a "Latinos for Clinton" rally in Falls Church.
Among Obama's stops in Virginia today will be a town hall meeting at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. In addition to Obama's appearances in Maryland tomorrow, campaign volunteers are speaking at church services today, going door-to-door in Alexandria and Silver Spring. They are organizing phone banks in Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese languages in the District, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City this weekend. All the calls will target Virginia voters.
"Every single one of those votes will count," said Annabel Park, 39, a Silver Spring filmmaker and Obama phone bank organizer. "The impact the Latino vote had in California should be the signal to them that it can happen here as well."
Clinton communications director Fabiola Rodriguez-Ciampoli said Super Tuesday wins and strong national support from Latinos don't mean that the campaign isn't "going to fight for" Hispanic votes in the Washington area primaries.
The Obama campaign is certainly on its heels, hoping to find a generational crack in Clinton's usual rock-solid support among Hispanic voters, which runs as high as 65 percent nationally and provided her margin of victory in California on Super Tuesday.
Hispanic voters in the area are a fraction of the huge Latino blocs in California, Nevada, Florida and New York. In the District, 4 percent of voters are Hispanic; 3 percent of voters in Maryland and Virginia are Latino.
The Latino vote here skews young. In Virginia and Maryland, almost a third of Latino voters are 18 to 29; overall in the nation, 21 percent of Latino voters are in that age bracket. In the District, younger Latinos account for 36 percent of Hispanic voters, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.
Because the election boards in the District, Maryland and Virginia do not include ethnicity on registration applications, tracking Latino voting habits is difficult. Only once have Latinos made up more than 3 or 4 percent of the electorate in any area jurisdiction. In the 2004 general election, Hispanics accounted for 7 percent of the vote in Northern Virginia, according to exit poll data.
But election officials know that the Latino vote in Maryland is heavily concentrated in the D.C. suburbs.
No matter the population size, however, Latino voters throughout the region are learning what it's like to be coveted in a fiercely contested political race.
The D.C. Latino Political Action Committee, a 300-member group created a few years ago, had three candidate surrogates -- two for Clinton, one for Obama -- at its endorsement meeting Friday night.
"When they want to come talk to a small group like ours, that shows me how important the Latino vote is and how important every vote is," said committee co-founder Ted Loza. His group endorsed Obama.
The week before, Obama supporters swept through the heavily populated Latino neighborhoods of Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights in a caravan with a live salsa band performing from the back of a truck and distributed bilingual campaign materials.
Temo Figueroa, the national Hispanic field director for the Obama campaign, said no group of voters is insignificant in such a tight race for the presidential nomination. "For Barack Obama to win, he has to get these communities that are considered small," he said.
Clinton's campaign efforts among Hispanics generally began a year ago and specifically in the Washington area in September, organizers said.
"This campaign has been very aware of the importance of the Latino vote, and Hillary Clinton herself has had a long relationship with the Latino community dating back 35 years, when she was in south Texas registering voters," Rodriguez-Ciampoli said.
Friday's editions of three major Spanish-language newspapers contained full-page ads from the Clinton campaign declaring "Con Hillary, Nuestras Familias Tendr¿n una Vida Mejor" ("With Hillary, Our Families Will Have a Better Life"). Clinton was endorsed by El Comercio, a Manassas-based paper, and her campaign started ads on Spanish-language radio Friday.
Catherine M. Pino and Ingrid M. Duran, who run a small consulting company from their Falls Church home and were making calls to voters, said they had been hoping for years that Clinton would run. "She has not taken us for granted. . . . The fact that she had a Hispanic outreach team in place from Day One speaks volumes," said Duran, 42.
In Maryland, the Obama campaign is working with the Service Employees International Union on a phone bank to reach Latinos, said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA of Maryland and an Obama state coordinator.
Two local Maryland elected officials were scheduled to speak today at churches in Montgomery and Prince George's counties for Obama. Of Obama's three scheduled appearances in Maryland tomorrow, one is to be at a Latino restaurant in Montgomery with Hispanic officials and activists "for him to discuss his real-life experience with the community," said Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D), a co-chairman of the state Obama campaign.
"We want to highlight his appeal in the Latino community, because we think there's a lot of room to grow there," Gansler said.
Eduardo Lopez, producer of "Linea Directa," a weekly Spanish-language public affairs TV show that has been on the air for 18 years, agreed.
"This presidential election is very important to the Latino community in the Washington metropolitan area because it's part of the maturation process we've seen in our community in the last 10 years," he said. "We now have elected Latino officials in important posts. And these elections will definitely change the course we've seen in the last few years of an increasingly negative tone not only against immigrants but Latinos in particular."
Although Clinton won two-thirds of the Hispanic vote in California and 73 percent of Latinos in New York on Super Tuesday, there were signs that Obama has made inroads, with near-even showings among Hispanics in Connecticut, Arizona and Illinois.
"What's new is that we're looking at sharper variations in Latino support than we were earlier in the process," said Luis Clemmens, editor of CandidatoUSA. "It's an uphill climb, but in some places he has . . . managed to narrow the gap."
There was evidence of that divide last week when Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery), Maryland's first Latino elected official and a Clinton supporter, was preparing an endorsement letter, adding the names of other Hispanic officials, only to run into a mini-rebellion.
"Ana Sol Gutierrez is sort of the grand dame of Latino elected officials here," said Montgomery Board of Education President Nancy Navarro, the only other signer. "The younger generation is not as predictable."
Indeed, Dels. Joseline A. Pe¿a-Melnyk and Victor R. Ramirez of Prince George's and Edmonston Mayor Adam Ortiz went public as founding members of "Maryland Latinos for Obama."