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More Latino voters are coming of age

In many ways, Jesus Martinez Jr. could be a teenager out of Republican central casting. The drawling 17-year-old doesn’t believe in abortion, supports gun rights and favors a strict reading of the Constitution.

He is also, perhaps most important, not a big fan of President Obama. American-born and a son of Mexican immigrants, Jesus reaches voting age one month before this year’s presidential election.

His sister Viridiana, 26, is a Raleigh-based activist on behalf of young illegal immigrants. Undocumented like another sister and her parents, she can’t vote.

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Viridiana struggles to understand why Jesus is bent on joining the military, and he rolls his eyes at her leftward lean, comparing her to a female Che Guevara. But come November, Jesus will cast the only ballot in his family, unenthusiastically but unequivocally, to reelect Obama -- in no small part because of his sister.

“I’m more Republican in my beliefs, but I feel like by voting, I’ll speak not only for myself but for my family,” Jesus said in the tidy, wood-framed home he shares with his parents, girlfriend and 1-year-old daughter amid towering pines in rural Lee County.

If Viridiana Martinez is typical of many Latinos in North Carolina, so, increasingly, is her brother. Most of the state’s roughly 800,000 Latinos can’t vote because of their legal status or their age. But it’s a young population in which approximately 90% of Latinos under 18 are U.S. citizens, and so every year, more can cast ballots.

North Carolina, the site of this week’s Democratic National Convention, has a relatively small but fast-growing Latino population. And while Obama has lost ground since 2008 in several states that he won, he has maintained mostly steady support in North Carolina and Virginia, said Tom Jensen, director of Public Polling Policy in Raleigh -- with a growing nonwhite population a major reason.

Immigrants have demographically transformed urban areas but also rural communities like Lee County, which is now almost 20% Latino. The shift could increasingly bode ill for Republican presidential candidates in this state and others, Jensen said.

“The Latino vote is one major factor for why North Carolina will maintain this newfound swing status moving forward,” he said.

Most polls for North Carolina and neighboring Virginia show Obama and Mitt Romney in a dead heat. This week’s convention in Charlotte, the capital, underscores the state’s importance as a battleground.

North Carolina has an estimated 100,000 registered Latino voters, according to census data, though other groups say the number could be almost twice that. It’s a small percentage of the state’s 6 million registered voters, but in an election that could hinge on razor-thin margins, a high Latino turnout could matter.

Four years ago, Obama beat John McCain by a mere 14,000 votes in North Carolina, where in the last four years alone Latino voter registration has grown by as much as 40,000, Jensen said.

“If Obama wins by 10,000 votes, which could happen, you could argue that those 40,000 new Latino voters will be what brings him over the top,” he said.

Inside the Republican headquarters of Lee County in Sanford, party Chairman Charles C. Staley said the growing Latino community could represent a boon to his party.

“They have the same viewpoint and the same outlook that the Republican Party has,” Staley said. “The Latino population that is here did not come here -- even though you hear people say it -- they did not come here to get on welfare. They came here to work.”

The party chairman said he learned some Spanish to better help Latinos he encountered before he retired after 30 years as a probation officer.

He blames the national media for portraying Republicans as anti-Latino. But as he sees it: “Latinos are natural Republicans.” And at least in Lee County, Staley said, the message to Latinos, which he’s game to deliver, should be focused on universal concerns, like jobs.

“We’re not going to discuss social issues until we have jobs for the people who need them,” he said. “The biggest social issue we have is unemployment, pure and simple.”

Numerous polls say that jobs, the economy and education are greater priorities for most Latinos than illegal immigration. But the issue is a tone-setter for many who feel the sometimes vitriolic rhetoric aimed at illegal immigrants, mostly from the right, barely conceals an underlying contempt for Latinos as a whole.

Romney initially took a hard stance on illegal immigration, including pushing the idea of “self-deportation.” He has softened his tone while criticizing Obama for enacting policies he declares are temporary half-measures, suggesting he would do more. But polls suggest Romney will struggle to get 30% of the Latino vote.

Still, Obama faces an enthusiasm deficit. It’s the economy, but also the administration’s record-high deportations. Latinos will mostly vote for Obama, experts say. The question is how many will be motivated to hit the polls.

Jesus Martinez Sr. came to Sanford as an undocumented immigrant from Monterrey, Mexico, in the late 1980s. He worked in the fields, picking tobacco and sweet potatoes, and is now a mechanic. The 50-year-old Southern Baptist considers himself a conservative. If he could vote, Martinez said, he’d probably vote Republican.

While aware that Republican legislators have passed strict laws in states such as Arizona, Alabama and Georgia, Martinez says he thinks a Republican president would chart a moderate course because it doesn’t make economic or political sense to do otherwise.

“It’s not in their interest to get all the [illegal] immigrants out of the U.S. because the companies will be left without workers,” he said. “They can’t ignore the Latino vote. It would be stupid of the Republican Party to think they can win only with the white vote.”

Viridiana was one of only a handful of Latino children when she started school in Sanford in 1994. She assimilated quickly, she said, declaring herself an “undocumented Southern belle.” She got accepted to North Carolina State, but after high school realized that even if she could afford college and earned a degree, she wouldn’t be able to get a good job because of her legal status.

Viridiana moved to Raleigh, where after meeting activists and hearing Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) talk about immigration reform, she co-founded NC Dream Team to advocate for young undocumented immigrants. In the last few years, she’s grown frustrated over the Obama administration’s failure to pass the Dream Act and comprehensive reform.

Born in America, Jesus Jr. said he couldn’t ever really put himself in his sister’s shoes. Lee County’s Latino student population had boomed by the time he started school. He plans to join the Army and dreams of becoming a Ranger.

Politically, the siblings couldn’t be much more different -- “I think Viri is headed more on the path to socialism,” he says with a laugh -- but Jesus said as he’s gotten older, he’s come to appreciate his sister’s struggles. The phrase “illegal alien” makes his blood boil.

“I agree, get rid of the criminals. Deport them back. I don’t care. I don’t want my tax dollars going to waste on someone like that,” he said. “But how can you just kick out people who are contributing to society?”

In June, Obama unveiled a plan that could grant temporary legal status to millions of illegal immigrant students and military veterans who were brought to the country as children. Viridiana couldn’t help seeing it as a play for votes. Her younger brother -- who will vote mostly with a shrug to reelect the president -- told her to “calm down.”

“Consider this a victory,” Jesus told her. “Consider this a small step moving forward.”

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hector.becerra @latimes.com


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