Latino Voter Influence Reaching New Levels

Hispanic voter rolls up 28 percent since '92. New registration drive now under way.

Hispanics, long considered the "sleeping giant" of the American electorate, may finally be waking up.

After years of predictions that the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group would become a significant force in politics, Latinos are starting to exercise more influence at the ballot box and on key issues.

Their rise is evident in the number of Hispanics being elected to local, state, and federal offices. It is visible in the amount of attention other politicians are giving Latino voters in key cities and states. And there is a new nationwide effort to get more Hispanics to vote.

While "brown power" is still more potential than reality, analysts say politicians of both parties can no longer take Hispanic influence for granted. "Signs are everywhere that the giant is waking from its slumbers," says Alan Heslop, a demographer at the Rose Institute in Claremont, Calif. "Candidates who ignore them do so at very great peril."

The new activism is visible at 6 a.m. at the St. Mary Immaculate Church in San Fernando, a Los Angeles suburb. Just before the church service begins, Alma Martinez takes the pulpit to address those gathered to worship.

The official from the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project (SVREP) tells them, in Spanish, of the "importance of participating in democracy." Her plea is one that will be repeated in public venues from California to Florida between now and the spring of 1998 as part of a new effort to register Latinos.

The drive is being pushed both by a growing awareness among Hispanics of their potential strength as well as key national debates in recent years - most notably immigration reform, welfare reform, affirmative action, and bilingual education. Latinos are being forced to draw together to influence issues that affect them most.

Already, in the nine most populous immigrant states - including California, New York, Florida, and Texas - the bulging Latino voting bloc is showing the power to shape political agendas, alter party platforms, and sway elections. Hispanics, for instance, were considered key voting blocs in the April mayoral victory of Richard Riordan (R) in Los Angeles and last month's win of Rudolph Giuliani (R) in New York.

Their power was perhaps notably evident in the win by Loretta Sanchez over 25-year incumbent Robert Dornan in the 1996 race for Congress in the once white, conservative bastion of Orange County, Calif. Although the razor-thin election margin is still in dispute, the underlying change in Latino influence is not.

Expanding on those victories and aided by a major push last year that garnered 1 million new Latino registrants, organizers of the latest effort are aiming for 3 million more by election 2000. The joint effort is being sponsored by two nonprofit groups, the Chicago-based US Hispanic Leadership Institute and Houston-based SVREP.

"At the same time that Latinos have been making great strides in their efforts to gain seats at all political levels, they feel their quality of life is being attacked from all sides," says Silvia Fuentes, researcher at the Latino Institute of Chicago.

Perhaps the largest and latest case in point is California, home to half the nation's Latinos. In 1994, state voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 187, which outlawed health and education services for illegals. Last year, Proposition 209 dismantled affirmative action in state hiring and higher education. Next spring voters will consider whether to end bilingual education. "More than anything, these initiatives have made Latinos realize they'd better take a stand for what they believe in," says Ruben Villareal of SVREP.

The wakeup calls already show signs of working. The get-out-the-Latino-vote was seen as key to Houston's defeat of an anti-affirmative-action measure. They also gave Miami its first Latino mayor, Javier Suarez, who will be sworn in next month.

The "Latino impact will not be suddenly felt at the national level, but will gradually expand in tight electoral races," says Louis Disipio, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Behind these gradual changes are sheer numbers. Latinos now represent 11 percent of the US population, or about 30 million, of which some 10 million are eligible to vote. Of those, 6.5 million are registered and 5.2 million vote. The number of Latino voters jumped 28 percent from 1992 to 1996 - the largest four-year leap in history.

"What is perhaps even more significant than the increased elections of Latinos is that Anglo politicians are having to seek the approval of Latino voters," says Rodolfo de la Garza, professor of government at the University of Texas, Austin.

The growing influence of Hispanics means a new battleground for the major parties. In delegate-rich California, one of the Republican Party's most revered strategists recently went public with a three-page memorandum described as a "wakeup call for the GOP."

Stuart Spencer, a long-time member of Ronald Reagan's inner circle, said the state GOP would be committing "political suicide ... impacting California and the country for the next 10-20 years" if party leaders fail to reach out more to Latino voters.

But analysts cite several caveats to the rising tide of Latino power: lower voting percentages of voters than whites even among registered voters, lack both of wealth and inclination to support their own candidates' campaigns monetarily, and lack of cohesiveness between those candidates and constituencies of different nationalities. These problems contributed to the defeat of US Senate candidate Victor Morales in November in Texas against the richer campaign of Sen. Phil Gramm (R).

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