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Latino Vote Still Lags Its Potential

Times Staff Writers

Block by block, house by house, Cesar Auyb and Irene Rodriguez are literally changing the complexion of politics in Nevada. But the change is coming slowly.

Since May, the two have been on leave from their jobs in Las Vegas casinos to work as organizers for a union-sponsored, nonprofit organization trying to increase voter registration among the state’s exploding Latino population. On a bright and breezy morning last weekend, each was diligent and cheerful as they pursued potential voters in a heavily Latino neighborhood west of the downtown strip.

But in an hour of door knocking, each registered just one new voter. Everyone else they encountered was ineligible to register, many because they had not taken the steps to become U.S. citizens, even though they met the legal requirements.

In miniature, the experience of Auyb and Rodriguez shows how the continuing influx of Latinos is reshaping the partisan balance across the desert Southwest -- and why the transformation may not arrive fast enough to help Sen. John F. Kerry erase President Bush’s advantage in the region this November.

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Slowly but inexorably, activists across the region are moving more Latinos to the polls; even with the difficulties experienced by Auyb, Rodriguez and other canvassers, their group, the Citizenship Project, has registered 3,000 new Latino voters in Las Vegas this year.

Such progress is gradually strengthening Democratic prospects not only in Nevada and New Mexico, swing states in recent presidential elections, but also in Colorado and Arizona, which the GOP has dominated. In all four states, Latinos make up a larger share of voters today than in 1992. And they are a reliably Democratic block.

Experts in both parties agree that eventually, this demographic trend could give the Southwest the largest concentration of tossup states outside of the industrial Midwest.

But Latinos are still not registering and voting in numbers large enough to maximize their influence. As a result, in Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona, Latinos represent a smaller share of the vote -- in some cases much smaller -- than their share of the population, according to exit polls on election days.

Although Latinos are growing more important with each election, they are unlikely to become a decisive factor in these states until they overcome the barriers to political participation that plagued the canvassers in Las Vegas.

“The pool of potential voters lags way behind the growth in the Hispanic population,” said Maria Cardona, director of the Latino outreach project at the New Democratic Network, a centrist Democratic group.

That gap means that Latinos, who could tip any of the Southwest’s four battleground states to Kerry, are more likely to play a supporting rather than starring role in this year’s fight for the region’s 29 electoral votes.

“The longer-term implications for Latino empowerment in what we are seeing are great,” said Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at UC Irvine who specializes in Latino politics. “But they aren’t necessarily in this election.”

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Still, with most Latinos in the Southwest leaning Democratic, local Republicans recognize that if they cannot improve their support within this bloc, their political position likely will grow increasingly insecure in these states.

“We are getting out into the community and going places where the Republican Party never went,” said Jose Esparza, chairman of the Arizona Latino Republican Assn. “For whatever reason, 10 years ago that wasn’t happening.”

The impact of the region’s changing demography is evident in the increased attention from the presidential campaigns. From 1968 through 1988, the Southwest was so reliably Republican in the national vote that it was rarely contested.

But Bill Clinton, in his two White House victories, carried Nevada and New Mexico twice and Arizona and Colorado once each. In 2000, Bush won Nevada, Arizona and Colorado, while Al Gore carried New Mexico. And neither candidate won more than 51% of the vote in any of the four states.

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This year, each state has been closely contested. Both the Bush and Kerry campaigns have purchased English and Spanish-language television ads in all four. Although the Massachusetts senator recently stopped buying TV time -- in either language -- in Arizona and Colorado, the Democratic National Committee has continued to broadcast ads in both.

The New Democratic Network has spent heavily on a Spanish-language television advertising campaign in the region stressing historic ties between Latinos and Democrats. And Republican outreach efforts are burgeoning in all four states.

“It’s probably something that should have happened years ago, but I’m glad the national party is putting a priority on this,” said Lionel Rivera, the Republican mayor of Colorado Springs, Colo.

The latest public polls have shown Bush staking out a solid lead in Arizona, ahead more narrowly in Nevada and in tight races with Kerry in New Mexico and Colorado.

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More than any other single factor, it has been the Latino community’s steady growth that has moved these states from reliably Republican toward the tossup category.

From 1990 through 2002, the Latino population soared by 272% in Nevada, 115% in Arizona, 93% in Colorado and 38% from a larger base in New Mexico, according to census figures. Latinos now constitute about a fifth of the population in Nevada and Colorado, more than a fourth in Arizona and more than two-fifths in New Mexico.

Despite the increasing GOP outreach efforts, polls indicate most Latino voters in these states still prefer Democrats. In 2000, Gore carried about two-thirds of the Latino vote in each, according to the Voter News Service exit polls.

That strong performance, combined with the rapid population growth, fuels the Democratic hope that as these states become more heavily Latino, they also will lean more heavily Democratic.

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The rub has been translating the Latino population increase into election-day clout.

The chasm between the Latino population and the Latino vote frustrates civil rights groups, unions and Democrats. It may be especially galling for Democrats in Nevada, because the state is so small and, in the last three presidential elections, neither party has carried it by more than 21,600 votes.

The large pool of unregistered Latinos shimmers before Democrats like an oasis in the desert. But it’s proved more a mirage.

“So far, they haven’t really turned out to vote,” said David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “Latinos remain the great untapped hope of Democratic Party here.”

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Time with Auyb and Rodriguez shows how hard Nevada activists are working to change that -- and the continuing barriers they face.

The Latino mobilization effort may be organizationally strongest in Nevada because of the heavy union presence in Las Vegas. Auyb and Rodriguez are members of the powerful Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents about 50,000 workers in Las Vegas, almost all of them casino workers and about 40% Latinos.

Three years ago, the union provided key financing to establish the nonprofit Citizenship Project, which promotes citizenship and voter registration among Latinos. The group has sent Auyb, Rodriguez and eight other Local 226 members knocking on doors in more than 100 heavily Latino neighborhoods five days a week since May.

The canvassers have been baked by 115-degree heat, chased out of apartment buildings by landlords and, in Rodriguez’s case, bitten by a Doberman puppy. But they have also signed up those 3,000 new voters, potentially a critical number in a state so evenly divided.

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Yet in that period, the canvassers have also contacted 20,000 Latinos who were not eligible to register, said Pilar Maria Weiss, assistant political director at Local 226.

That ratio was evident as Auyb and Rodriguez canvassed along streets of weathered ranch homes that testified to the economic strains of those living inside. Some of those the two encountered were in the U.S. illegally; most were legal residents who had not taken the steps to become a U.S. citizen.

Over time, Weiss argued, the key to significantly increasing Latino influence in Nevada is the Citizenship Project’s program to encourage more of those eligible to obtain citizenship -- an initiative that sets the group apart from most voter mobilization efforts. “We know we have to plant the seeds for the ’06 or ’08 elections,” she said.

But for 2004, that leaves the group measuring its gains in feet, not yards.

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To the canvassers, each new voter is as precious as a seedling -- and deserving of as much careful nurturing. Auyb, a floor maintenance specialist at the MGM Grand Hotel, spent more than five minutes in animated conversation convincing the one man he signed up to register. And Auyb was already planning his return.

“Right now, he can register, but maybe he’s not going to ... vote,” Auyb said on his way to the next door. “So in October, we’re going to be back here.”

Brownstein reported from Las Vegas, Hennessey from Washington.

* (BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Latino vote

Latinos represent a growing share of the population in the Southwest. But their political participation does not match their numbers.

Percentage of Latinos

Reg 2000 State Pop. voters vote Arizona 27.1% 16.2% 10% Colorado 18.2% 10.2% 14% Nevada 21.3% 7.3% 12%* New Mexico 42.9% 31.9% 32%

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Population percentage as of 2002; share of registered voters as of 2000.

* Many analysts say the 2000 exit poll overstated the Latino vote in Nevada. A UC Irvine political scientist puts the figure closer to 7%.

Sources: National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, 2004 Latino election handbook. Voter News Service exit polls


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