Mayoral Candidates Reach Out to Latinos
By Pamela Constable
Only a fraction of the city's potential voters are Latino -- an unofficial study puts their numbers at 7,800 as of 1996 -- but they are the fastest growing ethnic group in the District. And suddenly, Latinos are being viewed as a serious constituency that could swing a mayoral primary with multiple candidates, and even affect a general race.
"This is the first time I've noticed a dramatic increase in the effort by all mayoral candidates to reach out to the Latino community. It's a milestone," said Roberto Frisancho, a political activist and former D.C. Council aide who is campaigning for Ward 1 council candidate Jim Graham.
So far, Latino activists said, none of the major candidates has made sweeping promises to help their community. But most have attended public events and private political discussions with Latino groups, an outreach the activists said is a welcome departure from the past.
"Just the fact that they are showing up is a big improvement. They don't know the issues, but they are coming to ask about them," said Abel Nuñez, a staff member at the Latino Civil Rights Center in Adams-Morgan, which has registered 700 voters during the last several years. "They see we are getting organized and talking about concerns like bilingual education and neighborhood safety, not just immigration."
So far, D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) has made the most formal effort to garner Latino support, and is the only mayoral candidate to win endorsements from community leaders. They include educator Sonia Gutierrez, Peruvian American businessman Pedro Lujan and Pedro Aviles, a Salvadoran American and former director of the Latino Civil Rights Task Force. These supporters are setting up a campaign committee for him.
A lot has changed in the four years since the District's last mayoral election. Only about 5,000 voters with Hispanic surnames were registered, and few Latino residents were eligible to vote.
The community was heavily dependent on city services, and many of its traditional leaders -- largely of Caribbean and South American descent -- were District government employees or longtime supporters of Mayor Marion Barry.
This time, the rolls of voters with Hispanic surnames have swelled by several thousand as more Latino residents have become U.S. citizens, in part as a reaction to strict new immigration and welfare laws. With such a large field of mayoral candidates, their votes carry extra weight.
"The numbers are now enough to make a real difference in this race," said Max Salas, a local Latino businessman who has researched D.C. voter rolls and is arranging candidates' meetings with the community.
In late 1996, Salas said he found there were 7,800 registered voters with Hispanic surnames. By now, he and others calculate, there could easily be another 1,000; total registration for the District is 339,951. District election officials said they do not keep voter records by race or ethnicity.
Many new citizens who have registered to vote are immigrants from El Salvador. Over time, a first generation of poorly educated refugees from a country that repressed democracy has started giving way to a second generation that speaks English fluently and is familiar with American politics. Many have never voted before, and they are open to fresh impressions of all the candidates.
"There is a whole new generation of us who are citizens and want to get involved," said Patricia Campos, 26, who works for a labor union and is active in the local Association of Salvadoran Americans. "This is our city. We are here to stay, and we want to have influence."
In recent months, Campos and her fellow OSA members have held citizenship drives, grass-roots workshops and meetings with candidates. They have not yet decided whom to support for mayor. Campos said the group is "still looking to see who is the most honest, the most responsive to our concerns."
With Barry out of the running, veterans of Latino politics are also giving the field a serious look. At least three of the candidates -- council members Chavous, Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) -- have talked with Latino groups in the past about issues such as adult education and police abuse.
Alberto Gomez, a construction company owner and longtime member of the D.C. Commission on Latino Community Development, said the candidates "all look half-good. No one looks 100 percent good to me." Gutierrez said she is supporting Chavous, who helped her establish a charter school for adult immigrants, but feels "torn, because there are so many of them running who have done a lot for our community."
Chavous said: "The Spanish-speaking population is growing significantly. It is a vibrant part of the community, and it has a lot of political potential. That's why I am reaching out aggressively to them and plan to make them a big part of my administration."
But other mayoral candidates are also seeking to become better known in the Latino community. Most attended the Mount Pleasant Day festival last month, greeting crowds and handing out fliers.
One Latino member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Mount Pleasant, Omar Zavala, said that "every major candidate has asked me for an endorsement. They never would have bothered before." He said he has not decided whom to support.
Evans, a favorite with some Latino business leaders, has appeared at several high-profile events, including the annual Latino Congress held at the D.C. Convention Center in May and the Latino Civil Rights Center awards dinner last month. He said he is committed to improving police relations with the Latino community and increasing bilingual city services.
Anthony A. Williams, the city's former chief financial officer and the least familiar of the candidates among local Latinos, has tried to raise his profile by publishing a campaign ad in "La Nacion," a local Spanish-language newspaper. The ad pledged to restore services for children and neighborhoods and reform city government. Four years ago, Schwartz was the only candidate to place ads in the paper, recalled Jose Sueiro, its publisher.
"For me, it's not a tactical consideration, it's the right thing to do," said Williams, who has also promised to learn Spanish if elected. Having grown up in California, he added, "I have a sensitivity to Hispanic Americans, and I understand the important contributions they are making."
Despite such statements, some Latino leaders remain skeptical of all the candidates, suggesting that their recent show of interest in Latino support is a tactical move rather than proof of long-term commitment.
"My question to every one of them has been, 'Where were you before June 1998? With what depth have you looked at issues affecting this community?' " said Beatriz Otero, an educator and political activist who held a series of meetings for candidates this spring in her Mount Pleasant home.
"That's the bar I want to raise, not whether they are going to street festivals two months before the primary," she said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company