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One soccer goal: recruiting Democrats

Times Staff Writer

Nevada state Assemblyman Ruben Kihuen, clad in a brand-new royal blue jersey with matching shorts, stepped onto a neighborhood soccer field here Thursday evening and launched a new front in the battle for the political loyalties of this city’s rapidly growing Latino community.

Meet Los Democratas.

Sponsored by the Nevada Democratic Party and co-captained by Kihuen -- a 27-year-old former standout youth player who once harbored professional ambitions -- Los Democratas includes some of the top amateur soccer players in Las Vegas. The plan: to dominate the Azteca soccer league, the elite division of the city’s 10,000-player Ligas Unidas.

But the real goal is to market, and party officials here are hoping Latino soccer fans will forge a connection not only with a soccer team but with a political agenda.

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It’s a rapidly expanding pool of potential voters. An influx of Latinos over the last 15 years has helped make Las Vegas one of the fastest-growing regions in the country; they account for about 25% of the state’s residents. But for two key demographic reasons -- age and citizenship status -- Latinos account for 12.5% of Nevada’s eligible voters, according to a Pew Hispanic Center analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey.

Yet that percentage is significant: The state has only 137 more “active” Republican voters than Democratic voters, according to a March tally by the Nevada secretary of state’s office. And with Latino voters registered at a rate that lags behind that of the electorate in general, state Democrats hope a soccer team flying the party colors will help the party make inroads -- particularly with new citizens and people just reaching voting age.

“We want the community to hear the name of the party,” said Andres Ramirez, the Democrats’ state outreach director. “It’s branding. We want to brand the party name.”

Success on the field -- and developing a reputation for fair and competitive play -- could help bolster the party’s image among Latino fans, said Marie Lena Tupot, research director for ScenarioDNA Inc., a New York firm that specializes in branding.

“It’s not whether they win or lose. The Democrats have more to prove in showing how they care about the sport and ultimately the community,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for them to take a leadership role. Sports are unpredictable. The Democrats need to demonstrate how they can ride its unpredictable nature.”

As Los Democratas took the field Thursday against Los Escorpiones, party activists and workers from nearly all the Democratic presidential campaigns meandered through the crowd of more than 200 people. They handed out registration forms and campaign fliers to eligible voters, and bilingual sheets directing noncitizens to the nonprofit Citizenship Project.

Maria Elena Mendoza, who works for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s presidential campaign, said she found the fans receptive and willing to listen -- something that might have more to do with heightened interest in politics generally, with the war in Iraq, immigration and healthcare issues.

“I feel it’s very different than other elections,” Mendoza said, but she added that she and other organizers still had to overcome what she described as a tradition of political distance. “Hispanic people are more involved in their families” than in politics, she said.

At the corner of the field, Pedro Martinez, 18, sat with two younger friends, their backs to a chain-link fence and a taco wagon in the parking lot. A bruise of a thunderhead flashed ominously over the mountains to the west. A party volunteer approached the trio, gave his pitch about registering to vote and offered a flier. One of the teens asked for one in English.

“I only have Spanish right now,” the volunteer said, then added, as if by explanation: “It’s a soccer game, dude.”

Martinez took a flier more out of politeness than curiosity -- demonstrating the hurdles political organizers face. Martinez’s brother plays for Los Democratas, yet Martinez remains uninterested in politics. And he was skeptical that a name on a jersey and a flier in the hand would lead many young Latinos to register. “It’s just a name,” he said. “And this is just soccer.”

But movements aren’t necessarily built in major steps. Give it time, said Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics, a Las Vegas advocacy group.

“Initially, perhaps, the Democratas are going to be viewed as just another team. But eventually the message of why it was formed and what it’s about will filter through,” Romero said. “It’s not going to be an overnight thing. But it shows that there’s an outreach effort.”

And any innovation can only be good, he said.

“We tried so many of the old orthodox manner of doing things that we do year in and year out. We treat everybody as a name on a piece of paper with a phone number that we can call or send a mailing to,” Romero said. “Like it or not, we’re a different culture that acts more with the heart than with just the mind.”

Soccer and politics, though, seemed a stretch to Manuel Flores, 39, who runs the competing Guanacos team.

“This is just the wrong place to promote somebody,” Flores said as he scouted the game from the end line. And the team name itself, he said, needs some explaining. “To a lot of people, ‘Democratas’ means ‘anybody can play, anyone is welcome on the team,’ ” Flores said.

The idea of sponsoring a team had been bubbling since 2004, but the convergence of the early calendar caucuses -- Nevada’s are scheduled for Jan. 19 -- and the growing Latino population brought it to life. In March, Ramirez began sounding out Kihuen, a freshman legislator whose dream of playing pro soccer ended four years ago with a badly dislocated ankle.

They wanted to enter a team in the Azteca league, the most competitive division in Ligas Unidas. Ramirez and Kihuen approached Celaya, a team that had lost players and was on the verge of disbanding. With the Democratic Party’s money -- Ramirez estimated the party was investing $5,000 in the team -- and additional players rounded up by Kihuen, the team was revived. Two of the players are African immigrants; the rest are Latinos. Only 10 of the 16 players on the roster are eligible to vote, Ramirez said. All told him they were in the country legally.

After nine games of play as Celaya, the team stood in ninth place in the 18-team league, said co-captain Eduardo Arredondo.

And Thursday, they trotted onto the pitch for the first time as Los Democratas.

“This is the Democratic Party actually taking the time to step into the community,” Alan Giron, 28, one of the players recruited by Kihuen, said just before Thursday’s game. “Everybody is working-class who comes out here. [Soccer] is a big part of what the working class is. This shows that the party is not just interested in their vote, but in what people actually do.”

The game kicked off a few minutes before 7 p.m., and about eight minutes later an Escorpion player scored after being left alone in front of the goal -- Los Democratas showing, at least for the moment, that they were weak on defense. But four minutes later, three quick passes at the other end of the field led to an easy Democratas goal to tie the game.

And that’s how it ended: a 1-1 stalemate. As the players plopped on the ground at the sidelines for a postgame talk with the coach, Ramirez was asked if the score was a metaphor for the political balance in the state.

“The only important thing,” he said, “is we didn’t lose.”

scott.martelle@latimes.com


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