Clinton gets warm welcome from Latinos

Times Staff Writer

The next showdown in the Democratic presidential contest may be in South Carolina on Saturday, but Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton showed her determination to look further down the campaign calendar Tuesday with a whirlwind visit to California’s Salinas Valley and to a high school in Phoenix.

With polls showing Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, her chief rival, benefiting from the support of African American voters in South Carolina, Clinton’s coast-to-coast excursion played to a different audience with whom she has held the upper hand -- Latinos.

The New York senator won Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, besting Obama by 2 to 1 among Latinos. And a Field Poll released Tuesday showed her with an even bigger advantage -- 59% to 19% -- among Latinos likely to vote in the Feb. 5 California primary.


Clinton greeted an overflow crowd of more than 2,000 at the gymnasium of Hartnell College in this agricultural city, where she received the endorsement of the United Farm Workers of America.

Arturo Rodriguez, president of the union, told an audience that included a contingent of red-shirted farm workers from across California that the UFW’s leadership had reached a “unanimous” decision to endorse Clinton.

“We know that Sen. Clinton . . . will ensure that Americans get health insurance throughout the United States,” Rodriguez told the crowd. “She will ensure that the economic issues that face working families in America will be dealt with in her administration. She will repair the relationships with countries throughout the world.”

When Clinton took the gymnasium stage, the crowd shouted greetings and chanted her name. During her speech and a brief question-and-answer session, Clinton hewed mainly to economic themes that have dominated the campaign in recent days.

The crowd greeted her most warmly when she talked about reforming education -- making preschool available to all children and scrapping President Bush’s No Child Left Behind program to put more decision-making in the hands of teachers.

“I want education to be available to every single child in America in a way that gives you a chance to live up to your God-given potential,” Clinton said.

That launched the crowd into the traditional farm workers union chant, “Si, se puede!” The candidate smiled broadly and basked in the moment before slightly botching her own “Si, se puede.” (“Si, se pue-dah,” she offered.) She added the translation, “That’s right: ‘Yes, we can!’ ”

Clinton repeated her call for comprehensive immigration reform and belittled the suggestion “that you lock up and deport 12 [million] to 14 million people” who have entered the U.S. illegally. She said such an effort would cost more than $200 billion, require some 100,000 federal law-enforcement officials and force intrusive searches of homes and businesses.

“I don’t think most Americans would welcome that,” she said.

Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo said Clinton has consistently been well received in the Latino community. “Obama has not been able to dent her advantage,” he said.

Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC, said Obama remains an unknown quantity to many Latinos.

A Spanish-language news report from the Nevada caucuses described some voters as unclear even as to the name of Clinton’s prime challenger. “They were looking for an Omega, not an Obama,” Pachon said. “So his name is just not recognized yet.”

Clinton has been served well by her multiple endorsements from Latino elected officials, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Pachon said. Social worker Nora Lopez took her 9-year-old daughter, Kylee, out of school Tuesday and drove from Santa Cruz to see Clinton.

“Women are having an opportunity to be educated and to have a voice,” Lopez said. “Having a chance to have a woman in the White House, that’s monumental. It’s history in the making. And we wanted to be here to see it.”

The effect of the UFW endorsement is hard to assess. The union and particularly its founders, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, maintain a storied place in the Latino community for strikes and boycotts of the 1960s and 1970s that helped form a political consciousness. Rodriguez said union members are prepared to travel to key precincts to rally for Clinton.

But the union has struggled to bolster its membership in recent years. Although a Clinton news release claimed the union has 27,000 members, a union leader conceded that was a cumulative enrollment over a year’s time. A report to the federal government last year showed the UFW with fewer than 6,000 members.