How will growing U.S. Hispanic affluence change the political landscape?
By Jonathan J. Higuera
HISPANIC BUSINESS® magazine, Dec. 2001 As U.S. Hispanics, collectively, have begun to join the middle class, their political agenda has broadened and their political activism has grown. But Hispanic political biases defy easy characterization. Many upwardly mobile Hispanics have moved away from their traditional Democratic political base, but they aren't necessarily flocking to the Republican Party. Many consider themselves Independents, and most say they base their electoral decisions on specific issues. "They tend to vote along issue lines," confirms Andy Hernandez, author of a recent study, "The Latino Vote in 2000." "That's a point often missed by people who analyze and discuss the Latino vote. [Voters] want to know what the candidates did or didn't do, not whether they speak Spanish." Among Hispanics, the report notes, George W. Bush was leading Al Gore by wide margins in public opinion polls taken from November 1999 through March/April of the following year. But from then on, voter preference swung back to Mr. Gore's favor. Mr. Hernandez attributes that change to media coverage drawing attention to the candidates' contrasting stance on particular issues. In the final presidential tally, the Hispanic vote was 61 percent to 37 percent in favor of Mr. Gore, according to exit polls. Some analysts view the results of the 2000 election as reflective of income and education variances among Hispanics. Mr. Gore won 65 percent of the vote among Hispanics who earned $30,000 to $50,000 a year, while Mr. Bush tallied 33 percent. Among those whose annual income exceeded $100,000, however, the gap nearly vanished (48 percent vs. 47 percent). "The higher your income, the more likely you were to vote for Mr. Bush in this particular election," says Mr. Hernandez, a senior adviser to the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute in Chicago and a visiting lecturer at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. But Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, views political divisions among Hispanics as relatively insignificant. "At this point, their electoral interests flow more from their values than from their class," he maintains. Mr. Gonzalez, whose organization registered about 65,000 Hispanics last year, believes middle- and upper-class Hispanics remain connected to the working class through family ties, culture, history, and geography, and that affinity affects voting trends and party affiliation. "They haven't been middle class for very long," he says. John Garcia, a political scientist at the University of Arizona, agrees. "You see some shift in ideology, but not a dramatic shift to the GOP," he says. "Democrats are still the major party of preference, and Independents are the second category after Democrats." Hispanic economic empowerment is perhaps more apparent in the number of Hispanic candidates for political office. According to National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), the number of Hispanic elected officials grew 7.3 percent, to 5,138, between 1996 and 2000. NALEO executive director Arturo Vargas observes that Hispanic candidates have begun to issue from higher socioeconomic strata. "The previous model of a Latino candidate was a grassroots community organizer," he says. "Now we're seeing folks running who are from the Latino middle class, with MBAs or law degrees." The 2002 elections will serve as a strong indicator of political winds in the Hispanic community. The U.S. Congress included 19 Hispanics last year, up from 10 a decade earlier. Under the congressional redistricting plans mandated by 2000 Census figures, Hispanics are expected to gain at least four congressional seats and may challenge for a U.S. Senate seat. Currently there are no Hispanic senators. Hispanics also will play a vital role in gubernatorial races in several key states, including Texas and California. Mr. Hernandez believes that if the White House and Congress remain under Republican control, a stronger Hispanic Republican base could emerge. Others contend that an ongoing political consciousness campaign targeting blue-collar and service workers will offset any GOP or third-party gains. "It's reinvigorated the union movement," says Mr. Garcia. "It's also politicized a segment that traditionally hasn't been as active." In a Harvard/Kaiser poll of 2,600 Hispanics, respondents named discrimination their top issue, and 60 percent of them said government should do more to solve social problems. "Latinos are disposed to more government activism, especially in health care and education," concludes Mr. Hernandez.
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