"DEMOCRATS COURT VOTES OF HISPANICS; PARTY ACTIVISTS, POLITICIANS SAY TRENDS ARE CHANGING, CUTTING REPUBLICAN SUPPORT
Source: South Florida Sun-Sentinel 06/11/2007
No longer willing to write off Hispanics on the assumption that they're automatically Republican voters, Florida Democrats are increasingly courting them as a promising source of support.
"We're not going to cede one Hispanic vote," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, one of dozens of elected officials at a weekend Democratic Party conference at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa.
Invigorating the party's efforts to court Hispanic voters could yield a powerful advantage for Democrats, but Wasserman Schultz said Hispanic voters often get too little attention in South Florida campaigns.
"People automatically think Republican and they're totally wrong," she said. "In election after election in South Florida, Hispanics are the swing vote that makes the difference."
State Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, agreed. "They will go `Viva Bush' one year and they will go viva someone else another year."
Soto was one of two first-term state legislators -- along with state Rep. Luis Garcia Jr., D-Miami Beach -- who energized a gathering of the party's Hispanic Caucus.
Last fall, Garcia won the previously Republican seat that includes the Little Havana section of Miami. Garcia, who was appointed a vice chairman of the state party over the weekend, is starting a Democratic Club in Little Havana.
Soto became the fourth Hispanic Democrat in the House by winning a special election this spring. But the party is still far behind the Republicans, who have a large contingent of Hispanic lawmakers from Miami-Dade County.
Still, Garcia, Soto and Wasserman Schultz said several factors put the Hispanic vote in play. Among them: Non-Cubans aren't as likely to have historical ties to the Republican Party as Cuban-Americans.
"Living in Weston, I see it just walking around the neighborhood. There are people from Colombia, Venezuela and Peru. They don't have the same preconditioning to vote Republican," said Weston resident Andrew Torres, president of the new Broward chapter of the state Democratic Party's Hispanic Caucus.
Garcia said Fidel Castro's grip on power has helped the Republicans, especially with older Cuban-Americans, "because he's the boogeyman." Democrats said younger Cuban-Americans, born in this country, don't have the same intensity of feelings toward Castro and don't have the same ties to the Republican Party as their parents.
Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said once Castro is gone, "you will see Cuban-Americans shift to the Democratic Party."
Nelson said that's happening already, citing his own re-election last year, in which he won more than 40 percent of the vote in Hialeah precincts.
Torres said the increasing numbers of younger voters and people from countries other than Cuba make this a good time to capitalize on trends favoring Democrats.
"There's a fantastic opportunity to attract more Hispanics to the Democratic Party," he said. "We want to provide a vehicle where more Hispanics, especially younger Hispanics, are involved."
Soto warned that such factors wouldn't produce results on their own. Candidates must craft their campaigns carefully.
Overwhelmingly Catholic, Hispanic voters might be more conservative on social issues such as abortion and gay rights than many in the Democratic Party, Soto and Torres said.
Garcia and Soto said their successful campaigns showed that common campaign techniques need to be finessed.
For example, Soto said, many Hispanic people work two or three jobs and are less likely to have the time and energy to pay attention to traditional political advertising. Personal contact is vital.
Soto said it is important to make voting easy. Garcia credits his victory to an effective effort to get voters to use absentee ballots, a strategy long dominated by the Republicans.
And Soto said it is a good idea to reach out to voters with at least some use of Spanish, "even it it's a sentence here or there." That can greatly increase a voter's comfort level with a candidate. "A lot of people who only speak Spanish are still eligible to vote."
Millie Herrera, past president of the state Hispanic Democratic Caucus who has run for office in Miami-Dade County and served as a party official, said Democrats must do a better job than in the past.
"If the Democratic Party has not reached out to the Hispanic community, and the Republican Party has, they will go with the Republican Party or register non-partisan," she said. "