Coalition hopes Latino outreach will broaden Democratic base

February 5, 2013

Lise Haupt, president of the Sussex County Democratic Coalition, wants to prove Vice President Joe Biden wrong.

According to Haupt, Biden said that Sussex is a “throw-away county”; Democrats can’t win there.

Some have, of course, including House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf of the 14th District and Sussex Councilwoman Joan Deaver of the Third District, but the county remains dominated by Republican office-holders.

Haupt wants to help change that, and one of the keys would be to bring more Latino voters to the polls.

Last week the Democratic Coalition held a panel discussion at party headquarters in Georgetown to discuss ways to reach that goal.

Speakers included Margaret Reyes, a community activist from Lewes; Kevin Andrade of Maxima 900, a local Spanish radio station; and Jose Samalo and Virginia Samalo, editors of Hoy en Delaware, a Spanish-language newspaper.

Dennis Berlin, a 14th District committee member, provided some statistics. In Sussex, 75 percent of registered voters turned up at the polls. Among Latinos, that number was 60 percent. More Latino voters, presumably, would mean more Democratic voters. Nationwide, President Obama took 71 percent of the Latino vote, compared to 27 percent for Mitt Romney.

But Democrats, said Reyes, are going to have to do a better job of reaching out, building relationships. And that will take time.

Reyes provided an example of how not to reach out. She said the Friday before Election Day someone called her asking, “Do you have a list of Hispanics?”

“I said, ‘You should have asked me that question two years and three hundred and sixty-four days ago.’”

Jose Samalo had a similar experience with the Indian River School District.

Samalo said the district waited until only two or three weeks before the recent referendum before approaching the Latino community.

“It was not the proper way,” Samalo said. “If you want to engage the Hispanic population, you cannot wait until the last minute.” The result was an insult to the Latino community.

Reyes said there’s no mystery about how to reach out to Latinos.

There’s a feeling, she said, “that their concerns are different from your concerns. They’re not. They have children. They have lives. They work. They pay taxes. They own homes. They cut the grass. We need to stop looking at the Latino community like: them. They’re us.”

The coalition also heard about a national issue that could work well for local Democrats. Last week in Las Vegas, President Obama endorsed the Dream Act, which would provide a way for people who came here illegally to be granted permanent residency, and the wider issue of comprehensive immigration reform. The issues have received bipartisan support.

Local Democrats need to show their support. Reyes said, “You have a golden opportunity right now to demonstrate what voting does. A huge opportunity.”

Reyes described a meeting with a group of middle school children in the Indian River School District.

She said Latino children talked about how other students would drop green construction paper on the floor and tell them, “Pick up your green card,” or “Go back to Mexico; we don’t want you here.”

According to Reyes, one 13-year-old said to her, “I was born here. I know my rights. And when I’m 18 I’m voting.”

The message for Democrats - and Republicans too for that matter - is that a new generation of Latino voters is coming of age. If you want Latinos to vote for your party, you are going to have to engage them.

Here are some interesting facts that came up at the meeting:

• Nationwide, Reyes said, there is a misconception that Latinos are “naturally Republican.” This is largely because Cuban immigrants in Florida are closely identified with the Republican Party. But, she said, Cubans make up only 3 percent of the Latino vote nationwide.

• The Latino community is quite diverse. While many Latinos come from Mexico and Guatemala, the community represents 22 different countries.

• While the Latino population has been growing faster than the population as a whole, Andrade said he thinks the census undercounts the total. The 2010 census showed 16,954 Latinos in Sussex County. Andrade estimates the real number is between 20,000 and 25,000.

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