Spurred by the national and local debate on immigration reform and courted assiduously by the Democratic Party, Latinos in Virginia — the fastest growing minority in the state — are playing a larger than ever role in state political races this fall.
From a private reception in Mechanicsville to a voter registration drive in Woodbridge, Latino activists have organized dozens of activities to support Democratic candidates, recruit volunteers and make residents aware of campaign issues. Some activists are not yet able to vote but are enthusiastically involved all the same.
The state’s Latino population of 630,000 has soared by 92 percent since 2000, and 74 percent of Hispanic U.S. citizens in the state, about 214,000, are registered to vote. Of those, more than two-thirds identify themselves as Democratic — and about 71 percent voted for President Obama last year.
“It’s very exciting. Just a few years ago, you would see maybe one Latino event a month before an election. Now we are having several a week, not just in Northern Virginia but all across the commonwealth,” said Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington), who is running for reelection.
Combined with Asian Americans in Virginia, another rapidly growing group of nearly 440,000 that also tends to vote Democratic, analysts say the “New American” vote is poised to have a significant impact on current state races and an even greater effect in the future as Virginia continues to diversify.
“The demographics of Virginia have changed quite significantly, and we are seeing much more political engagement and organizing by Latinos and Asian American groups in state politics now,” said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University. “Very bluntly, groups that attracted little attention 15 years ago are now an important driving force in elections in the state.”
Latinos are heavily involved in the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Terry McAuliffe, both as campaign staffers and as volunteers in numerous counties and cities. McAuliffe, who supports immigration reform, is running Spanish-language ads on Univision and Telemundo TV and has created a “Latinos con Terry” steering committee with more than 300 members across the state.
McAuliffe’s Republican rival, Ken Cuccinelli II, has done more limited outreach to Latino voters, chiefly through the creation of an advisory group in September called “Nuestro Cuccinelli.” The group has an English-language Web site, and the campaign has sent representatives to several Latino business and cultural events.
A spokesman for Cuccinelli said he had a “serious, substantive plan that would grow Virginia’s economy and expand opportunities for Hispanic families.” But his record as a vocal opponent of immigration reform — well-publicized by Democrats — has left many Latinos with an image of Cuccinelli as not sympathetic to their concerns.
Both campaigns have taken pains to reach out to Asian American voters, visiting South Asian, Vietnamese, Korean and Filipino communities in Northern Virginia. They make up only 3 percent of the state’s registered voters, compared with 6 percent for Latinos, but they have also been a major source of donations to Democratic candidates.
“The Republican brand has been tarnished as unwelcoming to Latinos and immigrants, while the Democrats have been working hard to mobilize them. The changing demographic is moving Virginia from a red state to at least a purple state,” said Frank Sharry, president of a national pro-immigrant group called America’s Voice.
The state’s expanding Latino electorate is a consequence of its fast-rising populace, now 8 percent of all residents — including tens of thousands of U.S.-born children who can vote in future elections.While Latinos are moving out of old suburban strongholds such as Arlington, their numbers are skyrocketing elsewhere — in cities such as Richmond (up 152 percent), rural counties such as Chesterfield (up 200 percent), and scattered towns such as Harrisonburg (up 114 percent).
“All of a sudden we are seeing a critical mass of visibility,” said Roya Maria Rockhold, 54, a school administrator and Democratic activist in Charlottesville. “When I go to vote, I see many more Latinos in line.”
The state’s Democratic Party has been working to draw Latinos for the past decade, and in 2004 it formed a group called Democratic Latinos of Virginia. While Republican delegates have introduced numerous anti-immigrant measures, Democrats such as Lopez have become identified with Dream Act legislation that would give college tuition breaks to students who immigrated illegally as young children.
This fall, with the governorship and other offices up for election, Democratic Latinos of Virginia mobilized volunteers across the state. Its major effort has been a campaign called “Vota Por Tres” — Vote for Three — which supports the ticket of McAuliffe for governor, Ralph S. Northam (D-Norfolk) for lieutenant governor and Mark R. Herring (D-Loudoun) for attorney general.
“We want Latino voters to know that all three Democrats respect our community and the contributions of immigrants in Virginia, and that all three support the Dream Act,” Andres Tobar, the group’s coordinator, said in a last week.
Volunteers in the “Vota Por Tres” campaign said they had to work to familiarize many Latino communities with candidates and issues. In Mechanicsville, Aida Pacheco held a reception for Northam at her home last week, which she said was attended by Latino professionals.
“A lot of people didn’t know anything about Northam, but they came away with a new sense of why the race and the issues matter, ” Pacheco said.
As Latino residents become more established, they are increasingly concerned about issues other than immigration. In Hampton Roads, for example, party workers said Latino maritime business owners are worried about competition from other deep ports. In Prince William, once bitterly divided over the influx of immigrants, bread-and-butter concerns now dominate.
“My issues are mainstream, especially education and transportation,” said Richard Cabellos, 38, a youth program director who is running for delegate from Prince William.
On Friday evening, two dozen volunteers met at a Cabellos campaign office in Fairfax to make phone calls to voters, fortified by chicken nuggets and soda. One was Sindy Benavides, 31, a Honduran immigrant and legal resident who is in line to become a U.S. citizen. Although not yet able to cast a ballot, she is passionately committed to party politics.
“Democracy is about creating change at the voting booth. Even if I can’t vote, I can still create change by informing people and engaging them to go and vote,” said Benavides, who helped recruit the volunteer callers and greeted each one by name and with a hug.
In other cases, immigration issues have defined candidates or injected races with a toxic tone. In the gubernatorial contest, ads for Cuccinelli castigated McAuliffe for saying his “finest hour” as governor would be to sign the Dream Act into law, while pro-McAuliffe ads lambasted Cuccinelli for a statement on rodent control that seemed to compare illegal immigrants to “rat families.”
Latino supporters of Cuccinelli were rankled by the “rat” accusation, which they called a deliberate distortion of his comments. They described him as seeking to improve the legal immigration system and to help small business owners, but they acknowledged that their party had not done enough to get a welcoming message out to Latinos in the state.
“We have not done a very good job of educating our community about the fact that we do care,” said Theresa Speake, a retired federal energy administrator in Alexandria who heads the “Nuestro Cuccinelli” committee.
Although some conservative Virginia politicians have led efforts to curb illegal immigration and immigrant rights in Virginia, there are moderates in the party who feel differently. One is Del. Thomas Rust (R-Loudoun-Fairfax), 72, a perennial sponsor of Virginia Dream Act legislation.
“Some of us have been reaching out for years, and now the party as a whole is reaching out” to immigrant communities, Rust said. “Can the Republican Party do more? Yes. Is it doing more? Yes,” he said. “We need to go back to being the party of the big tent.”