PHOENIX - The Hispanic population is booming in the United States, and nowhere is the community's hope for newfound political strength more apparent this year than in Arizona. There are two new congressional seats being added in the state, for a total of eight, and Democrats believe that the Hispanic candidates they are backing have a realistic chance of winning four of them on Election Day.
That perhaps explained why Senator John F. Kerry spent the past two days in Tucson and Phoenix, stumping for local political candidates from governor on down and laying another brick in the foundation for a likely presidential run in 2004.
Standing yesterday in a Mexican restaurant in the oldest barrio in the capital, Kerry accused the Bush administration of using hollow rhetoric to address the concerns of Hispanics.
The Massachusetts Democrat contrasted it with his own devotion to Hispanic causes, which he said started when he returned from Vietnam disillusioned with U.S. policy in Southeast Asia and the disproportionate number of casualties suffered by front-line troops who were mostly black and Latino.
"This president comes along, and he supplants photo opportunities for real policies, and he particularly is trying to do that, may I say respectfully, in the Hispanic community," Kerry told a group of about 20 Hispanic leaders at the El Portal Restaurant. "A couple of appointments here, a few conservative people here and there. But immigration policy? No. Education policy? No. Voting rights? No.
"All the things that are really important and make a difference to people, they are taking a walk on," he said.
The message was much the same in Washington last week when Kerry addressed the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, an umbrella group for a variety of Hispanic support groups.
"Every single time there's something that really makes a difference -- immigration, profiling, capacity to have the minimum wage raised, health care, children's health care, housing, transportation -- they move in the other direction and take away the opportunity," Kerry said. "Photo opportunities are not enough, my friends. We need real opportunities."
The 2000 U.S. Census data show that the U.S. Hispanic population is expanding.
In the past decade, when the U.S population grew by 13 percent, there was 60 percent growth in the number of people identifying themselves as Hispanic or Latino, which the government declares to be an interchangeable term. The population increased to 281 million, while the Hispanic population grew by 13 million to 35.3 million.
In Massachusetts, a state of 6.5 million people, the Census found a Hispanic population of 429,000, or about 7 percent. In Arizona, a state with only 5.1 million, the Hispanic population numbered 1.3 million, or 25 percent of the total. Hispanics were also found in large numbers in states with the largest number of Electoral College votes: 11 million in California, 6.7 million in Texas, 2.9 million in New York, and 2.7 million in Florida.
Within the Hispanic community, several issues reign supreme: a disproportionately high dropout rate for Latino teens; difficulty receiving private health insurance, prompting a reliance on hospitals and other emergency-service providers; and a range of immigration policies.
While many Hispanics are not U.S. citizens, and many of those who are endure criticism for not voting, George W. Bush signaled the political potency of the voting bloc in the 2000 presidential campaign when he regularly spoke Spanish phrases to his audiences. There is also rampant speculation in Washington that the president will fill any vacancy on the Supreme Court with the nation's first Hispanic justice.
For his part, Kerry is a regular Spanish speaker, an offshoot of the Italian he learned as a child. His wife, Teresa Heinz, is a native of Mozambique, where the local language is Portuguese. Hispanic audiences are particularly fond of hearing from her.
As he does before nearly every audience these days, Kerry speaks of his combat experience in Vietnam, but before Hispanic audiences, he makes particular note that one of his crew members was a gunner from California named Michael Mendoza.
In his speech to the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, Kerry recalled his time in Vietnam and the many minority front-line fighters.
"Why?" he asked. "Because the draft unfairly, discriminatorily, without regard for the fairness we talk about in America, grabbed the kids out of the barrios and rural and urban centers of America and put them into uniform and mostly they wound up in the 82nd Airborne or the 103rd and 1st Cavalry on the front lines being the grunts."
He said that when he returned and led protests against the war, he also worked to provide better veterans services and health care for those troops. He is the chairman of the Hispanic Senate Democratic Task Force and was the host of two recent meetings for lawmakers and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and a meeting with Latino elected officials.
Before Hispanic audiences, he urges political activism, which may pay dividends for him in the future.
"This country has changed enormously in the last 10 or 15 years," he said at the leadership agenda meeting. "You have the power to make these changes happen that you really haven't fully exercised and which you haven't had before. The numbers are growing. The participation in the system is growing. The sophistication is growing. The opportunity to be able to have an impact is growing."
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