John F. Kerry pitched himself to the Latino community -- one of the nation's fastest-growing voting blocs -- as an alternative to President Bush by promising jobs and better education, and he accused the president yesterday of ignoring Latin America.
"Instead of being a good neighbor, the president has ignored a wide range of ills -- including political and financial crises, runaway unemployment and drug trafficking," Kerry told a meeting on Capitol Hill of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). "And his one-note policy toward Latin America of one-size-fits-all trade agreements have stripped the respect and partnership that marked the Clinton years."
Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said that as president he would work to bring the United States closer to its Latin American neighbors by developing a "community of the Americas" that would work together to protect the nations' security and laws.
Kerry also pledged to create a "North American security perimeter" to "coordinate Customs, immigration and law enforcement" to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks in the region. He said he would renegotiate the Central American Free Trade Agreement to include protections for workers.
He did not address his immigration plan, but he promised respect for immigrants and a chance at a better life. "Every year, hundreds seeking only a better life die in the desert," he said. "Millions labor in the shadows of our country, in fear and often abused and exploited.
"It doesn't reflect our values as a country built by immigrants. It is time to fulfill the promise of America so that those who work hard and take responsibility can build a better life for themselves and their families."
NALEO Executive Director Arturo Vargas said this week that during town hall forums across the nation, Latino voters said they did not think either Kerry or Bush was hearing their concerns. But after Kerry spoke, Vargas said Kerry had addressed those concerns.
"He actually gave a speech that talked about the broad American agenda, which is the Latino agenda. He talked about a broad range of issues. He connected today," Vargas said. "He needs to continue to go out into the communities to understand their concerns . . . so their voices are heard."
Kerry was well received at the event, despite recent concerns from some that he has not done enough outreach in minority communities. Democrats thought he hit all the high points of Latinos' concerns and believe he is on the right track to connect better with the community. "It's promising," said Rocky Delgadillo, the Los Angeles city attorney, and the highest-ranking Latino in that city's government. "I think he is genuinely concerned for the individual who has been on the downside side of economics for years."
But others who came to hear Kerry for the first time were skeptical. Michael and Sylvia Torrez are registered Republicans from Taos, N.M., who have voted for Democrats. Both said Kerry did little to sway them.
"He was good, but he promised too much," said Sylvia Torrez, a homemaker. "For decades, they have been trying to fix education, and Mrs. Clinton promised to fix health care and then she dropped it."
Her husband's concerns about Kerry were different. "My thing is the protection of the nation," said Michael Torrez, a school board member. "I think George Bush has probably deterred a lot. That would be my reason for sticking with him."
The Bush-Cheney campaign distributed a statement by five members of Congress charging that Kerry is not connecting with Hispanics and accusing the Massachusetts senator of spreading a message of pessimism to Latinos.
Kerry returned to Boston after the speech, ending a 48-hour cross-country campaign and fundraising trip that netted Democrats $10 million.