What Role Will Latinos Play In Virginia Election? | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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What Role Will Latinos Play In Virginia Election?

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Carlos Castro, owner of Todos Supermarkets in Prince William County. One of his stores recently hosted Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who applauded Castros' growing business, saying "That is the American success story."
Carlos Castro, owner of Todos Supermarkets in Prince William County. One of his stores recently hosted Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who applauded Castros' growing business, saying "That is the American success story."

The Latino population is booming in Virginia — it's doubled in the past decade or so — and it's growing especially quickly in the D.C. suburbs. This change is part of what has turned Virginia purple on electoral maps. In the Commonwealth, and nationwide, 70 percent of Latinos voted Democrat last year.

This November's gubernatorial race is the first big election since then, and it's a sort of test of Republican attempts to broaden the party's appeal.

On a recent Saturday morning, in the rolling cul-de-sacs of Fairfax County, Lee Avila and Theresa Speake are part of a small army of Republican Latinos knocking on doors, asking voters to support Ken Cuccinelli and the rest of the Republican ticket.

"The values and traditions that we as Hispanics and Latinos have been brought up with are conservative, are family-oriented, and that's what our candidate stands for," says Avila.

Avila joined the GOP in the very first election she could vote in, back in college in Southern California.

"When I was of voting age, 18 years old, I was approached by the Democrat party and told that I should have the candidate's sign in my window."

It was a race for California's 27th Congressional District, and the Democrats, she says, took her vote for granted.

"I just resented that I was being branded. And when I said, 'I want to talk to the candidate,' they said, 'You don't have to.'"

But when she sheepishly went to the Republicans, they had open arms. She got to meet the Republican candidate, and learn what he stood for.

Theresa Speake is also a longtime Republican.

"Under Reagan, we welcomed people," says Speake. George W. Bush was popular with Latino voters as well, winning an unprecedented 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004.

"Now we're coming back," says Speake. "We need to open those doors, and we need to include everybody in the party."

After Mitt Romney won a meager 27 percent of the Latino vote last year, the Republican National Committee launched a project to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it in future elections. The report, released earlier this year, notes that by 2050, non-Hispanic whites are projected to be a minority in the United States. Hispanics will make up nearly a third of the population. "If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn't want them in the United States, they won't pay attention to our next sentence," says the report.

Party Chairman Reince Priebus says part of the problem is not having a sustained outreach program in Latino communities. "We show up once every four years, five months before an election and expect to have success."

Another problem, he says, is tone. "I think saying things like 'self-deportation' is a pretty big issue," says Priebus, referring to Mitt Romney's suggestion that the nation's 12 million undocumented immigrants voluntarily return to their home countries.

"I think watching your mouth on things like that are important. And I think it was very hurtful to us in the Hispanic community."

Cuccinelli on immigration

In Virginia, Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli has a long history of tough talk on immigration. In the Virginia General Assembly, he introduced a string of bills targeting immigrants: One would urge Congress to change the constitution so children of immigrants wouldn't gain automatic "birthright" citizenship, another would make it easier for employers to fire someone for speaking a language other than English on the job. As Attorney General, he filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Arizona's controversial anti-immigrant law SB1070, and issued an official opionion that police in Virginia had similar powers to inquire about immigration status. On CNN, he brushed aside concerns those powers could lead to racial profiling.

"Almost 3,000 people have been deported with the help of Prince William County in the last three or four years," he told Anderson Cooper in 2010. "Just in one county, that's how many illegals there were — and we have not had any problems with profiling. None."

Since jumping into the race for governor, Cuccinelli has toned down his talk about immigration. Through a spokesperson, he declined an interview for this story, but in a gubernatorial debate earlier this summer, he said he supports federal immigration reform.

"You know, I'm Italian, you can tell that from Cuccinelli. I'm also Irish. You can tell that from how feisty I am. And we're a nation of immigrants. This is an important issue to so many Americans. It's part of our history. And we have embraced people who have come to this country who have embraced us, and it's something we should continue to do."

Reaching out to the Latino community

Leni Gonzalez is a Democratic activist in Arlington, and a member of the Democratic Latino Organization of Virginia. She rolls her eyes at the idea that Republicans can win over Latinos by supporting immigration reform.

"The damage has been done. The damage has been done," she says. "It's just hypothetical. If they start talking about immigration reform. But they haven't for I don't know how many years now. So I'm not sure they will gain any Latinos."

Carlos Castro, a businessman and local leader in Woodbridge, says lately Republicans have been making efforts to reach out to the large Latino community there.

"In order for the Republican Party to regain the trust of the Hispanic community, I think they need to do something meaningful, that they mean business, that's not just rhetoric."

Castro came to the United States illegally in 1980, fleeing war in El Salvador. He worked his way up from janitorial work, to now employing more than 100 people in a local supermarket chain he built from the ground up. He says, while he agrees with the GOP on some issues, the party needs to stop making immigrants feel unwelcome, if it wants his support.

"We are here, we're part of the community. We are citizens. A lot of our children -- my children -- were born here, and this is the new face of America."

Winning over Virginia's Latinos

Polls by the group Latino Decisions show immigration isn't the top issue for Latino voters, but it's a close second, after the economy. Polls show too, that Latino voters, who, by definition are legal residents, are turned off by candidates who attack undocumented immigrants. And they're attracted to candidates who support passing the Dream Act, which would allow in-state college tuition for some young undocumented immigrants.

Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe has made passing a Virginia Dream Act a central part of his platform. It's something Cuccinelli opposes.

"We've got to make sure we're open and welcoming. We want everyone coming to Virginia," says McAuliffe. "My opponent has had a rigid ideological agenda. He runs for office, saying he's going to focus on jobs and transportation, but once he gets into office, he brings a social-ideological agenda to the table, which divides Virginians. It puts walls up around Virginia."

But how much does it matter, whether Republicans win over Latinos in Virginia this November?

Not all that much, according to Michael McDonald, a politics professor at George Mason University.

"Roughly, about 8 percent of the Virginia population is Latino. That includes people who are under 18, and people who are not citizens of the United States."

In his office, he pulls up the U.S. Census Bureau website, and grabs the most recent Virginia numbers. When you do the math, subtracting non-citizens and kids, Latinos comprise only about 4 percent of potential voters.

In this off-year election, McDonald says turnout amongst Latinos is likely to be lower than among the population at large. He estimates Latinos will make up around 3 percent of the electorate in November.

So, in 2013 it's entirely possible for a candidate to win without Latino support. But that is going to change. According to one projection, Latinos will make up almost 20 percent of the state population by 2040.

[Music: "Showroom Dummies" by Senor Coconut from El Baile Alemán]

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