Examing Latino impact on elections - East Valley Tribune: Columnists

Examing Latino impact on elections

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Posted: Sunday, November 14, 2010 5:00 am

Last week's mid-term elections were benchmark elections -- but not how most people are inclined to think about them.

They raised the question as to whether President Obama's self-acknowledged setback was also one for Latinos, who have consistently supported the President.

To understand the implications for this country's 50 million Hispanics, some historical perspective helps.

As early as the 1960s, large swatches of the Hispanic population, back then demographically small, helped elect John Kennedy. Even with Lyndon Johnson, who claimed to be a friend of Hispanics in Texas, on the ticket, Latinos got little recognition or benefit for it. Johnson made the point to some community leaders that government had to be pushed and pressured to act.

In a nutshell, Hispanic civic and community improvement efforts became a movement for political intercession. Much of this history, leading up to George W. Bush's first year as president, was covered in my 2003 book, The Rise of Hispanic Political Power.

From the 1960s to the '90s, neighborhood-level organizing in support of local candidates drew attention to issues concerning public works, education and unfair practices that held back Latino economic development. The reality was that personal efforts went unrewarded unless the group was given the social respect that usually came following political gains. Personal betterment is more easily recognized after a community has political standing.

Congressional pioneers up to the 1970s were Rep. Manuel Luján, R-New Mexico, and three Democrats, Edward Roybal of California, Henry B. González of Texas, and in the Senate another New Mexican, Joseph Montoya.

The emerging Hispanic political culture has been especially consequential since the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976. In turn, the attention that Hispanics drew translated, at first slowly and then at a healthy pace, to economic improvements for their communities.

The Democratic Party sought to capitalize on a mass following of Latino working people; Republicans defined middle-class professionals and entrepreneurs as their best prospects. These were especially noteworthy during the Nixon, Reagan and both George Bush campaigns and administrations. The political movement was one for inclusion and not for alignment within any party.

It culminated the 1990s during the Clinton administration with the synchronization of a political economy leading to the largest ever Latino expansion into the middle class.

It coincided with the surge of Hispanic elected and appointed officials, who by 2010 had increased to more than 6,000. Such officials are the ones responsible for aiding state and national candidates, who depend on Latino help and expertise in voter registration drives and campaign infrastructure. The reciprocity has stirred a national consciousness on Latino issues.

Still, sloppy analysis and stereotyping have persisted since the '70s over whether Hispanics even show up to vote at all -- or are they fickle or Pavlovian voters?

The 2008 election of Barack Obama made it crystal clear that the Hispanic influence is abundant and here to stay as part of the national political culture, and will vote consistent with how it perceives its community interests.

By then, only the U.S. Supreme Court remained a government pillar lacking Hispanic inclusion. That was overcome with Obama's nomination and subsequent Senate confirmation of Judge Sonya Sotomayor to the Court.

With that, the beginning of the quest for responsive government through inclusion was completed in the civic life of U.S. Latinos was complete.

The 2010 mid-term elections established the first benchmark in the new phase, one that harmonizes Latino interests with national ones. Scholar Ilan Stavans once defined it as the "Hispanicization of the United States and the Anglocization of Hispanics."

The elections came at a time when U.S. society was seeking its own political responsiveness for its recovery from the financial crisis, recession and widespread unemployment. The national parties and Tea Party offshoot had been at loggerheads for more than a year.

The trademark attitudes for the 2010 redress have been reactionary and angry. They could -- or better said, should -- have borrowed a chapter from the Latino playbook by seeking progress instead of making yesterday sound like tomorrow.

They had the opportunity to approach candidates and issues constructively, with optimism instead of enmity, alienation and bad blood.

That is the essential yardstick for measuring who won and who lost.

NEXT WEEK: What the midterm elections forebode for Hispanics - in nuts and bolts of lightening.

Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail him at joseisla3@yahoo.com.

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