A Vital Bloc, Realizing Its Power, Measures Its Suitors
THE HISPANIC VOTE
By SARAH KERSHAW
PHOENIX, Feb. 1 — The Arizona primary was less than 48 hours away, and
John Ramos, a 38-year-old Mexican-American Democrat who voted for the first
in 2000, had still not made up his mind.
"As a Democrat, I really am not thrilled," said Mr. Ramos, who runs a small construction company in South Phoenix with his wife. "I think a lot of us are the same way. I just don't see a real front-runner that I'm totally happy with."
With time running out, the Democratic presidential candidates are heavily
courting the surging number of Hispanics in Arizona and New Mexico who
are about to go to
the polls in what some have labeled Latino Super Tuesday.
The potential power of the Hispanic vote is clear: In Arizona, 25 percent of residents are now Hispanic; in New Mexico, 42 percent are Hispanic.
And, like Mr. Ramos, many are tempted by Senator John Kerry's momentum
and standing in the polls — he is ahead in both states — as well as his
some of the most influential Hispanic politicians here. But a lot of Mr. Ramos's Hispanic friends were leaning toward Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who has made a big push
here over the last few days and who, like Mr. Kerry, holds appeal for the large number of Hispanic veterans in Arizona.
Other Hispanics favored Howard Dean, who campaigned hard here early but then seemed to drop off the radar. Then again, a lot of other Hispanics Mr. Ramos has met as he registers them to vote were favoring Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, who had even gone down to Nogales, on the Mexican border, and who seemed to be the most aggressive in courting Hispanics here, Mr. Ramos said.
How Hispanics will vote remains unclear. Polls in Arizona and New Mexico show a large number of undecided voters.
Mr. Ramos said he hoped he would be swayed by one of the candidates
on Monday night, when all except Senator John Edwards and the Rev. Al Sharpton
scheduled to appear at a "meet and greet" forum in Phoenix organized by a prominent Hispanic civic group.
Mr. Ramos and many other Hispanic voters and political observers said
the appearance of the candidates at the event on the eve of Arizona's moved-up
primary would be hugely significant.
"I totally appreciate the fact that they are courting Latino voters," he said. "Because it's about time."
The primary fervor here is new: this is the first time these two Southwestern
states have had the chance to weigh in so early on the choice for a Democratic
Some say the contests have thrust the concerns of Hispanic voters to
the forefront of the national political dialogue. But several Hispanic
voters interviewed in Arizona
and New Mexico over the last few days were critical of the candidates, saying they had not reached out enough to Hispanics, the nation's largest and fastest-growing
minority group, numbering roughly 34.7 million people, according to the latest census figures.
"The old days of candidates just showing up and doing a Spanish duet
are over," said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, the nation's only Hispanic
governor. "It's a
new generation of Hispanic voters that need appealing to."
Voters, state and Democratic Party officials and political observers
say the New Mexico and Arizona contests could set the stage for battle
in several potential swing
states in November, including Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida.
In those states, Hispanic voters, who have historically supported Democrats, are now considered up for grabs by both parties. Voter turnout, historically fairly low among Hispanics, will be crucial.
And both Republicans and Democrats have made clear that they plan to
court those voters aggressively, said Joe Velasquez, a deputy political
director in the Clinton
White House who is now a political consultant.
"The Southwest clearly is going to be the place to be looking at," Mr. Velasquez said.
Sam Esquivel, who works at a hospital in Phoenix, has voted for Democrats and Republicans. Retired from the Air Force after 24 years, he voted for Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and, in 2000, George W. Bush, but this year he is supporting Mr. Kerry.
Still, it was not an obvious choice. Like Mr. Ramos, Mr. Esquivel, the
Arizona director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the group
holding the Monday
night candidates' forum in Phoenix, said he was wary of the candidates' promises on the issues most important to him: health care, rescuing failing schools, creating jobs
and adopting an immigration policy that rewards the contribution of Hispanic workers to the economy with citizenship.
"We're skeptical," he said. "We're hearing every candidate, to the point
that many of them learned to speak Spanish to attract the Latino vote.
But many of us see it as a
smoke screen. We appreciate that your efforts are there, but are you really being upfront with us? And are you really going to deliver what you say you are going to
In Arizona and New Mexico, the number of registered Hispanic voters
and voter turnout increased sharply between the 1996 and 2000 presidential
elections, according to the Southwest Voter Education project, a Hispanic
voter rights group based in San Antonio. In Arizona, the 304,000 registered
Hispanic voters in 2000 represented an
increase from 1996 of almost 30 percent, while voter turnout among Hispanics rose by 37 percent, according to the group.
President Bush won Arizona in 2000 by about 100,000 votes; Al Gore took New Mexico by only 365 votes.
Hispanic voters are increasingly aware of their growing importance,
but several interviewed say politicians often mistakenly lump together
all of the nation's Hispanics,
who they say have varying views on a host of issues.
Several Hispanic voters also said they found the candidates' attempts
to speak Spanish at campaign events annoying, especially when Hispanics
eligible to vote were
likely to have been born in the United States or to have lived here long enough to speak fluent English.
Mr. Ramos, who is a third-generation Mexican-American and is bilingual,
said he had heard various politicians speaking what he called "burrito
and taquito" Spanish and
had found it insulting.
"I've seen them put on a sombrero and try to speak Spanish," Mr. Ramos said. "I don't care who it is — Democrat or Republican — they put on a sombrero, they say, `Mi casa es tu casa,' and it just doesn't sell."
There is also a deep divide among Hispanics over immigration.
Some support President Bush's recently proposed plan to grant temporary legal status to illegal immigrant workers. Others criticize it as inadequate or say it goes too far.
Alfredo Gutierrez, a prominent Phoenix businessman, is a Democrat who
is supporting Dr. Dean and is the host of a popular daily radio show here,
("Here We Are"). He said the talk on his show and among his friends had focused much more on immigration than on the primary.
"From the moment Bush made that speech, the community was electrified," Mr. Gutierrez said. "It's all we could talk about, what did it mean?"
"By two days later," he added, "this terrific expectation turned into anger, when people realized that it did not provide an avenue to becoming a citizen."
But several Hispanic voters said the president's plan was too generous and that they were frustrated by what they perceived as special treatment for newer immigrants.
Others, like Al Quihuis, a Phoenix financial planner who is a registered independent, took a more neutral position.
"I think this is a way for Bush to try to attract the Hispanic community," Mr. Quihuis said. "But I felt that it was a step in the right direction, recognizing the undocumented worker."
Mr. Quihuis said he would vote on Tuesday but was still undecided.
"More than any other time, the Hispanic vote is really being looked
at," he said. "I really hope we come out showing some strength in the community
so people in the
future will realize, `Hey, yes, we need to recognize this community and make it part of this society.' "
Janet Perez contributed reporting for this article.