Here Come The Politicos

August 7, 2005

PHILADELPHIA — In the heart of Philadelphia, powerful political leaders brought boxes of chocolate and flowers to court the Latino vote.

In reality, the chocolate was their sweet talk and the flowers their accomplishments.

To the 2,500 attendees at the annual National Council of La Raza conference, it was a date with destiny.

The mainstream has recognized that Latinos are mainstream. The U.S. Census estimates that Hispanics will be the largest ethnic group in just 50 years, with more than 100 million people. Parties that want to have fun have to invite Latinos to the dance.

The future arrived a long time ago for Hispanics, who with every election occupy more seats of government. U.S. Sens. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and Ken Salazar, D-Colo., are newcomers in Congress, joining almost two dozen Latino representatives already there.

It was fitting that this year’s conference was held in the city where the Constitution was signed.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., was the sole American speaker to be received like a hero. From immigration reform to health care for everyone, she touched all the right chords.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings boasted that her brainchild, the No Child Left Behind Act, was helping Hispanics get ahead.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez exulted CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, as a stabilizing force in a region wracked by dictatorships and civil wars.

Gutierrez bragged that the GOP doesn’t talk about how diverse it is, it just is. President Bush’s administration certainly is the most diverse in history. Latinos, Asians and African-Americans hold high offices on his watch.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was received like a brother, while Ken Mehlman, chair of the Republican National Committee, bravely endured the weird cousin reception.

Had the conference taken place in Miami, the inverse would have occurred. There, Hispanics tend to be GOP conservatives. In reality, the Latino voting bloc is more like an American pie, with every slice representing a range of liberalism and conservatism.

In 2004, 7.6 million Latinos voted. More than 16 million were eligible to vote and every month about 9,000 Latinos turn 18. The parties are vying to win over these voters.

In 2004, the Democratic Party thought it had the Latino vote in its hands. It did, but it was really sand running through its fingers. The Republicans, through truly bilingual Web sites and outreach, built impenetrable sand castles which fortified their effort.

Dean said 2008 will be different. “We’ve realigned the DNC so the leadership looks like the rest of the country,” Dean said. “We’re hiring people from all over the country.”

He warned the audience that Bush’s next target will be immigrants. Anti-immigration movements are gaining more publicity. The Minute Men, a self-described armed citizens group that patrols the Arizona border, was praised recently by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, an Austrian who became an American citizen in 1983. Bush, however, has called the group nothing more than vigilantes.

Mehlman took on those issues as well. He said Bush’s commitment to education surpassed former President Clinton’s, a man Republicans pummeled in the 1990s and today evoke repeatedly to win over undecided voters.

On Social Security, he again said the magic word, quoting Clinton from a 1998 speech in which he said that the crisis in social safety net would affect every American. But Clinton said that before leaving office with a $5 trillion surplus, which under Bush became a $2 trillion deficit.

Double-speak on both sides is the language of politics. Good thing most Latinos are bilingual. Learning a third is a piece of cake.