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Posted: July 01, 2012

Courting the Latino vote in a swing state

Mike Cote

No one thinks Mitt Romney is going to win the majority of the Hispanic vote in Colorado, but capturing one of the country’s swing states in November could rest on the presumptive Republican nominee shaving a few percentage points from President Obama’s commanding lead among Latino voters, which polls indicate is running close to his national 67 percent showing in 2008.

For that to happen, Romney is going to have to do a better job convincing Latinos he cares about them and that he has a more palatable stance on illegal immigration than the hard line he’s been espousing during the campaign, say Republican Latinos and a leading pollster.

In short, that means making people like Bob Martinez not cringe when he hears Romney talk about immigration. The Castle Rock businessman and former state Republican Party chairman says he’ll vote for Romney, but he hardly sounds enthusiastic about it. It’s been a tough election cycle, he says.

"Having been involved with the Republican Party for so many years, it’s hard to see us taunt the Hispanic vote," says Martinez, who used to own a construction company and now works in real estate. "Our presidential candidates have taken too far to the right positions on immigration and haven’t come up with any reasonable solutions. I think it harms us in that community."

Romney has stood to the right of his Republican rivals on immigration. Last year, he said he would veto the DREAM Act – which would create a path for young illegal immigrants to secure citizenship if they attended college or served in the military – were Congress to pass it. He has since softened that stance, saying he would support it if it only covered military service.

During a debate in Tampa in January, Romney said he favored "self-deportation" as a means to control illegal immigrants, suggesting that undocumented immigrants would return home if the government made it too difficult for them to find work here. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, who has been named a possible Republican pick for vice president, criticized Romney’s immigration stance. "Self-deport? What the heck does that mean?" she told Newsweek in June. Romney has thus far not taken a position on a bill pitched by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, another potential VP running mate for Romney, that would legalize the children of some illegal immigrants.

Most businesspeople understand there’s a practical solution for addressing illegal immigration, says Bob Martinez, who was among a small group of high-profile Republican businesspeople who voiced support this year for a failed state bill that would have allowed undocumented students to secure state tuition at lower than out-of-state rates.

"It needs to be recognized that there are a lot of positions in the economy that American people can’t or won’t do. There is a need for some guest worker legislation that would allow some of these jobs to be filled by people who will and can perform them," Martinez said. Industries that need those workers include the livestock trade, packing houses, agriculture, and hotels and restaurants, he said.

President Obama said he would tackle immigration reform within his first year in office and took heat from some Latinos who said he did not make good on the promise. His administration’s policy on deportation further alienated the president among Hispanics. Fifty-nine percent of Latinos surveyed by the Pew Hispanic Center last year said they disapproved of the president’s policy on deportations, which have reached record levels under his administration, averaging nearly 400,000 a year – 30 percent higher than the annual average during the second term of George W. Bush and about double the average during Bush’s first term, according to Pew.

"The Obama administration can’t really claim any real success in the immigration area because they have not even proposed any kind of immigration reform," Martinez said. "Obama has actually established a reputation with the Hispanic community as being tougher on deportations than any previous president. He has not made any friends in the Hispanic community. That’s why I’m so frustrated. I think that Romney could make tons of progress if he just came out with a rational market-based immigration reform proposal."

Martinez sits on the board of the Chamber of the Americas, a Denver-based trade organization that helps U.S. businesses expand their markets in North, Central and South America. Chamber president and CEO Gil Cisneros, who co-founded the nonpartisan nonprofit in 2001, says he also has conflicts with Romney.

Because his organization focuses much of its attention on Latin American markets, Cisneros said he has to be sensitive to Hispanic issues. He wants to vote for a candidate who is a friend of business but is unhappy with Romney’s stance on immigration. "I’m really kind of in a quandary right now in terms of who I vote for in the end. I certainly don’t want a president who comes across as anti-Hispanic," Cisneros said.

Romney still has time to make a difference to trim Obama’s lead among Hispanics if he presents a compelling and clear message, says Denver political analyst and pollster Floyd Ciruli.

"I think there’s a competition between Obama and Mitt Romney over how big that percentage is. Clearly the Democrats will win it (in Colorado.) But there’s a difference," Ciruli says. "The difference between 60 percent and 70 percent is about 20,000 votes. It’s not a small number. Republicans are definitely interested in it."

People of Hispanic origin represent about 20 percent of Colorado’s 5 million residents, compared to about 16 percent nationally, according to U.S Census figures. At 224,000, which would represent an increase of 15 percent over the 2008 election, Latinos are projected to make up 8.7 percent of registered voters in Colorado, according to projections by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Obama’s approval rate among Hispanics dropped from 75 percent in January 2009, after his first full week in office, to 55 percent in March, according to Gallup, which noted that his advantage has been narrowing among Hispanics.

While immigration reform generally ranks third in importance among Hispanics – after jobs and the economy, and education – it’s an issue that remains crucial in the election. Republicans need a solutions-oriented approach, Ciruli says.

"It doesn’t have to be what the activists in the civil rights community want. But there has to be some type of approach there because it really is nearly a litmus test issue," he says. "Before people will pay attention to you, they have to feel that you are at least sympathetic to the plight of millions of people who are undocumented and to the impact it is having on the entire system. That will be Romney’s challenge. What he has going for him is that Hispanic voters, just like and in fact even more so than Anglo voters, are worried about the economy. And he has an economic platform."

Romney only need look back to the last Republican president for a model on securing a greater percentage of the Hispanic vote than John McCain did in 2008. George W. Bush’s position on immigration reform – which included a guest worker plan and a path to citizenship – was the inspiration for the 2007 bill sponsored by Sens. McCain and the late Edward Kennedy. It failed to win Republican support amid cries on the right that it provided amnesty for people who arrived here illegally, but it remains a bipartisan blueprint on how to address the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

"George W. Bush came out of a Texas culture that had a high comfort level with the Hispanic community, which has been in Texas longer than the Anglo community," Ciruli says. "He had a tough immigration position. He also was looking for solutions and reached across the aisle. That’s what it takes. He ran in some of his elections at 50 percent of the Hispanic community. And in the presidential election, he had 40 percent. That shows it can be done."

Cuban immigrant Maria Garcia Berry, a longtime Colorado political and public relations strategist, says she supported Romney’s first presidential bid in 2008 and is backing him this time, too. She says she recently spoke to someone in the campaign about having "a longer discussion about the immigration thought process."

"I am concerned about the immigration stance, but I also believe strongly that Hispanics have to be on both sides of the aisle. We are a very potent force from a population perspective," Garcia says. "Our only two (Hispanic) governors in the United States right now are both Republican (Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada.)"

While most Hispanics are most concerned about whether they have a job and can pay their bills, immigration continues to resonate within the various Latino communities, whether among people who have just arrived in this country or those whose families have deep roots here. State Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, whose family has operated a ranch near Trinidad for six generations, remembers being questioned by curious white boys in the playground of her elementary school after she moved to Arvada in the third grade. They asked if she was Mexican and whether she had a green card. She had to ask her parents what they were talking about.

"Immigration to the Latino community is like the birth control debate to women. It is not the No. 1 issue," says Duran, an attorney. "But just like the birth control debate is very emotional to women, immigration is a very emotional issue for people who know somebody who has been an immigrant, who know somebody who is a student who is here through no fault of their own and who is trying to go to college. Because of that, it is still an issue that is very important."

Duran co-sponsored the tuition bill for undocumented immigrants that despite endorsements from Martinez, Alex Cranberg of Aspect Energy and a few other high-profile Republican businesspeople only secured support from one Republican in the House. The lack of a bipartisan agreement on the bill largely mirrors the national debate, says Duran, who argues that Obama "has done everything in his power" to deliver on immigration reform.

"We need Republican and Democratic support from the Congress at a time when there is actually an opportunity to be able to accomplish something," says Duran, who considers Rubio’s immigration reform plan "disingenuous."

Duran is confident about Obama’s support among Hispanics in Colorado and questions Romney’s ability to gain any ground. "This is a candidate who said he would veto the DREAM Act should it reach his desk. And there are many other issues and rhetoric that he has used when it comes to immigration or economic and health-care issues that affect the Latino community in a way that I don’t think he has the credibility or trust to gain support."

The rapid growth of Hispanic-owned businesses in the U.S. means presidential candidates are forced to pay attention. The number of Hispanic-owned businesses increased by 43.7 percent to 2.3 million, more than twice the national rate of 18 percent between 2002 and 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau announced in May. About 45.8 percent of all Hispanic-owned businesses were owned by people of Mexican origin. The growth rate hasn’t slowed: According to updated estimates, there are more than 3 million Hispanic-owned businesses in the U.S.

"That’s an important economic tie that hasn’t been necessarily been highlighted enough in previous elections. It’s an exciting time for Hispanics and also an exciting time for a president to embrace the diversity of the country," says state Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, who contends that Obama’s tax policies have helped Hispanic small businesses.

Thus, saying a few words in Spanish and talking about immigration does not take into account the growing sophistication of Hispanic voters, he says. "I think it’s important to reach out and be inclusive in the campaign, but I think there’s oversimplification of the Hispanic community."

As Romney tries to woo Hispanics in Colorado, he might do well to choose his outreach advocates carefully. At the annual Lincoln Day dinner in Denver in June, former Congressman Tom Tancredo – whose hard-line stance on illegal immigration has been known to attract protestors during his public appearances – pledged his support.

"I will go door to door on my knees. I will do anything to help Mitt Romney win for president," Tancredo said, according to the Denver Post.

He could do Romney a favor by not saying a word about illegal immigration.

 

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Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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