Democrats or Republicans, Latinas Are Swaying the Vote

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

They use lipstick as a beauty accessory and a political weapon. At home, they're the boss. They keep in touch via Facebook. When they call to ask for your vote, in English or Spanish, you hear their children in the background. They say what matters this election are education, taxes, health care, immigration reform and "values."

These politically charged Latinas agree on almost everything -- except which presidential candidate will actually deliver what they want.

"Who said you couldn't get Latinas out here in their high heels being political?" says Rep. Loretta Sanchez, the California Democrat, warming up the crowd at a vice presidential debate-watching party in a bar in Arlington.

The women pass around red lipstick to symbolically redeem the accessory after Sarah Palin's quip about lipstick being the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull.

"Latinas for Biden wear lipstick, too!" the women shout. "We are Latinas for Obama!"

* * *

Another night, a smaller crowd of fired-up Latinas in heels, this time at a business club in downtown Washington.

"Latinas for McCain, we go where the voters are," says Tibi Ellis, a business owner from Las Vegas who co-founded the group. She's visiting tonight to inspire the local Latinas. They wear white buttons with a declaration in red: "I use lipstick and I vote."

"I'll see you back here in Washington for the inauguration!" promises Ellis.

* * *

Niche activism is self-validating and effective. "Jews for McCain" and "Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for Obama" can target people with whom they have more in common than mere party affiliation. There are "Women for McCain" for all females who support the GOP nominee. There are "Amigos de Obama" for todos los Latinos who support Obama.

But Latinas for this guy or that guy? That's slicing the demographic pie pretty thin. Political passion is sifted through not one but two filters: gender and ethnicity. Is it the age of micro-targeting and Facebook tribalism run amok?

Not at all, say the women. They were Latinas before they were Democrats or Republicans, and they share a bipartisan insight about their culture: Women are the values-keepers, message-bringers, decision makers. They make the men look good. They're vital to political conversation and conversion.

"In the Hispanic household, the whole household votes the way the woman votes," says Ellis, sporting a sparkling "McCain 2008" pin. "Men are the patriarchs. When it's time to serve dinner, the first steak goes to the head of the table, which is the man. But the steak was bought in the store the woman chose and fixed the way the woman wanted it to be cooked."

"In the Latino community, the woman in the family, the mother, plays a very important role," says Emma Violand-Sánchez, an organizer of Latinas Unidas por Obama, and a candidate for the Arlington school board.

She spent part of a recent Saturday canvassing registered Latino voters in Annandale. The women answering doors in a garden apartment complex invited her into their living rooms, where they would settle in for a chat in Spanish about kids, the future, the Democratic candidate.

"People underestimate the power of mujer-to-mujer, woman-to-woman," Violand-Sánchez says.

* * *

Latinos make up fewer than 5 percent of eligible voters in Virginia, but with the state turning into a battleground, Latinos -- and therefore politically proselytizing Latinas -- could make a difference.

So activistas from Maryland and Washington are crossing the Potomac River to reinforce their sisters in the commonwealth. They are business owners, professionals, holders of graduate degrees -- women of accomplishment for whom political engagement is the luxury of a station in life where they have the understanding and wherewithal to influence events.

Laura Ramírez Drain, 42, grew up in Mexico, where she was a volunteer for the relatively conservative party of former president Vicente Fox. Her mother had a business designing wedding dresses. Her father was an opera tenor. Campesinos heading north spoke highly of a man named Ronald Reagan, who they said was a friend of immigrants and who enabled their self-reliant dreams. Later, she heard of Reagan's famous quip "Hispanics are Republicans, they just don't know it yet."

Drain got a job with Hewlett-Packard, which sent her to the United States to be a sales manager for the Southeast and then for Latin America. She settled in the Washington area, where she founded the Hispanic Professional Women Association and also a nonprofit group to help Latina high school students.

This year she became a citizen. She registered Republican. To her friends in the nonprofit world, most of whom are Democrats, "it was a shock," she says. "I lost a couple friends. I won over two or three Democrats."

One of her first political acts was becoming a delegate from Virginia to the Republican National Convention, and then she helped organize Latinas for McCain.

Drain and Latinas for McCain spent part of one Saturday canvassing in Annandale, too, less than a mile from where the Latinas for Obama were at work. Drain's group included her 7-year-old son and her husband, an engineer and a Republican, so no lobbying has been necessary at home.

Why McCain?

The Latinas for McCain cite moral values. He is antiabortion and for "the sanctity of marriage."

They give McCain enduring credit for being a champion of immigration reform, even if lately he has somewhat modified his approach to the issue. "For the girls in my foundation, the Dream Act is the most important thing," Drain says, referring to a bill that would give high school graduates who arrived illegally as children a chance to acquire legal status and receive college financial aid.

(McCain was an early co-sponsor the Dream Act, but last year he skipped a vote that would have advanced it in the Senate. McCain's spokesmen did not return three phone calls for comment on his current position. Obama supports the act.)

They admire Sarah Palin, a strong woman rising so high. For all the Democrats' snickering about her recently acquired passport, the Latinas for McCain wonder why the supposedly worldly Obama has spent so little time in Latin America, and why he is skeptical of free trade with their countries.

"Another thing you find with Latinas and Hispanics in general is, back home, they had a little shop, a tiendita, and we're carrying those traditions here," says Fabiola Francisco, daughter of a Bolivian immigrant, active in the family enterprises here that include government contracting and an imported-crafts store. "Less taxes goes perfectly with an entrepreneur."

"Obama's plan would kill my business," says Marilyn Ehrhardt, referring to the Democrat's tax plan. "Whether I want to or not, I can't afford to vote for him."

Ehrhardt's family came from Cuba. Her company provides information technology to health clinics serving the poor. She is one worried Latina, and so she is voting for McCain:

"This election triggered me to become politically active. I'm a naturalized U.S. citizen. I came here for the values this country offered, dealing with personal responsibility, market freedom. I see those in jeopardy. The economy is in jeopardy. Security is in jeopardy."

* * *

The De La Inés hair and beauty salon in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Northwest Washington is busy on a recent Sunday afternoon, but the women (and a couple of men) sitting before the tall mirrors or beneath the hair dryers are not being styled.

They hold cellphones to their ears, and in their laps they balance bilingual scripts and lists of registered Latino voters who live around Roanoke. Sundays, the salon becomes a phone bank for Obama.

"¿Fuerte por Obama?" Strong for Obama? "¡Qué bueno!" Great!

Depending on how the voter answers the phone, the caller will speak in Spanish or English.

A handful of children scamper around, including the 11-year-old son of Roxana Cazares Olivas, the salon's co-owner and a founding member of Latinas Unidas por Obama.

Olivas, 35, knows what it's like to be a Latina Republican -- she used to be one.

She grew up in El Paso, the daughter of Mexican immigrants from just across the border in Chihuahua. Her father is a retired real estate broker.

Being Republican is a family tradition, the origins of which she does not recall. Like many Texas Latinos, the members of her family liked their governor, George W. Bush. He seemed to understand and appreciate Latinos, in the manner of that other former Western governor, Reagan. Running for president, Bush spoke Spanish in campaign commercials and declared: "There are people in this country who would like to build walls between Mexico and America. And make no mistake about it: A president George Bush will work to tear those walls down."

Olivas became a member of Amigos de Bush in El Paso, and helped cut a music CD for the campaign that played locally. Fours year later, in 2004, with waning enthusiasm, she voted for him again.

"This is the first time I'll be voting Democratic," she says.

Why Obama?

"Immigration, the war, the economy, Katrina," she says. "We just need a change. . . . He not only captured me in his actions but also captured my heart."

She doubts McCain's continued commitment to immigration reform, and says she has never forgotten Obama addressing a huge march for immigrant rights in Chicago in 2006. She wants the Dream Act enacted as much as Drain does. Obama told Latino audiences in Washington this fall that he supports it.

Values matter, too. Sanctity of marriage? Olivas asks which candidate left his first wife and broke up his family. Abortion is tough. She balances it with immigration reform, which she sees as a moral issue, as well.

"Yes, we're not for abortion, but immigration is a deal-breaker," she says.

The day before the election, she and her business partner in the salon, Dina Busacco, will mark the first anniversary of their business. They don't accept the claim that Republicans are the party of enterprise, the Democrats of interference.

"That's such an old-school mentality," Olivas says.

So she's doing what the Latinas for McCain are doing. Using all her powers of persuasion to make a difference.

Her husband is already a strong Democrat. But many in her extended family back in El Paso lean Republican. They are a project. Her sister became a Democrat this year, was strong for Hillary Clinton, now is coming around to Obama. And her father?

"Even my father's for Obama!" Olivas says. "I definitely credit myself with that one."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company