by Raúl Reyes
From César Chávez’s 1960s boycotts to the immigrants rights movements of today, Sí se puede has long been a stock phrase in Hispanic politics. While it translates as “Yes, we can,” the real message has always been greater. Sí se puede means we’ll fight the good fight, we’ll persevere, we’ll never give up.
These three words are routinely invoked everywhere from high school assemblies to presidential campaigns. It’s the Latino call to action.
Yet lately I’m wondering if the GOP has decided on a strategy of No se puede — No, we can’t — when it comes to Hispanic voters.
At the June 28-30 convention of the National Association of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials, Republicans opted out of the forum for presidential candidates. All of the GOPers except for Rep. Duncan Hunter of California sent their regrets to the nonpartisan group, and the forum was canceled. In contrast, all of the major Democratic hopefuls appeared at a separate forum at the NALEO event.
The GOP no-shows are surprising considering Florida is home to the USA’s most conservative Hispanics. The state’s three Hispanic House members are Republican, as is Sen. Mel Martínez, chairman of the Republican National Committee. Some state leaders did not even try to put a positive spin on the lack of interest from their candidates.
“Republicans have blown off the state of Florida,” said Republican State Rep. Juan Zapata. “Turning their back on this event is kind of shameful.”
Coming in the wake of the harsh rhetoric from conservatives who contributed to the collapse of the Senate’s immigration proposal, does this mean that Republicans are giving up on Latinos?
If so, they have a lot to lose. Until recently, the GOP had been making inroads among the Hispanic electorate, which traditionally has leaned Democratic. George W. Bush made a concerted outreach to Latinos and in 2004 drew a record 40 percent of the Hispanic vote.
A new USA Today/Gallup poll shows those gains have eroded. By a three-to-one margin, Hispanics say they are Democrats or lean that way. Only 11 percent of Hispanics called themselves Republicans, down from 19 percent in 2005. Meanwhile, the number calling themselves Democrats rose from 33 percent to 42 percent.
Although Latinos are still underrepresented at the polls, our political influence is rising. Under the 2008 primary schedule, more than three-quarters of the Hispanic electorate will have a chance to vote for a presidential nominee before Feb. 5, giving us a historic chance to influence who will be the next occupant of the White House.
Florida’s Jan. 29 primary offers nearly another million Latino voters an opportunity to weigh in early on presidential nominations.
Several states voting on Super-Duper Tuesday Feb. 5 — Arizona, California, Colorado, New Jersey, New York, Illinois and New Mexico — and March 4, when Texans chime in, have significant Latino populations.
I can understand why Tom Tancredo, who once derided Miami as “a Third World country,” might not want to attend a gathering of influential Hispanics. Ditto for Fred Thompson, the potential candidate who recently linked Cuban immigrants to “suitcase bombers.” Yet it’s hard to see why McCain, architect of the failed Senate proposal, would not make time for NALEO. And aren’t Romney and Giuliani, both of whom have Spanish-language web sites, interested in meeting the leaders of our community?
The Republicans damaged their standing among Latinos by allowing the tone of the immigration debate to become offensive to most Hispanics. So the NALEO convention would have been a prime opportunity for them to demonstrate they are still committed to the nation’s largest minority group. Instead, by snubbing NALEO, the Republicans sent the misguided message that Latinos are not important to the GOP. In the future, even more Hispanics just might say Sí se puede – to Democratic candidates.
(Raúl Reyes practices law in New York City. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)