Wed October 26, 2011

President Courts Latinos, Swing Voters in Denver

Western swing-states with growing Latino populations were instrumental in sending President Obama to the White House in 2008.  Now as he faces what’s expected to be a close contest for re-election in 2012, the President is counting on Latino voters in battleground states like Colorado again.  Many Latinos as a voting block have long sided with Democrats.  But the party isn’t taking anything for granted this go around, and neither are Republicans.

President Obama makes his second public appearance in Denver in a month later this morning when he stumps for his student loan plan and re-election to an audience of mostly college students on the Auraria Campus.  It was also students, albeit a bit younger, who he spoke to when he was here last at Lincoln High School, in heavily Latino southwest Denver.

Waiting for 'Change'

Café Chihuahua is one of many Latino-owned businesses along bustling Federal Blvd.  And on a recent evening, some Lincoln High students who attended the President’s September speech are seated at a corner table munching on chips and guacamole and talking politics. 

They were invited here by Colorado’s new Latino Democratic Party Chair Rick Palacio and one of this neighborhood’s city council members, Paul Lopez, a former union organizer and one of the youngest Hispanics ever elected to the Denver council.  The two were trying to gage whether Latino voters can once again be counted on by Democrats in 2012.  One of the most vocal students is Pearl Loya, who said she has yet to see the “change” Mr. Obama promised in 2008.

"I won’t believe it until I see it, until I see action," Loya said.

Loya said immigrant families in this neighborhood are being torn apart due to a lack of action on immigration. 

Mr. Obama’s failure to yet deliver on that campaign promise is a complaint heard more and more often in Latino neighborhoods. 

Councilman Lopez acknowledged this is a concern for Democrats.

"There’s a lot of frustration," he said. "But I think a lot of that has to do with Congress’s inability to actually bring something to the president."

Lopez said the president has still done a lot on issues that Latinos also care about; advocating for the DREAM Act that would have allowed some children of illegal immigrants in-state college tuition, as well as his education and economic proposals. 

Seizing the Moment

But the economy and the president’s stalled jobs bill that he’ll again stump for later this morning has activists on the other side of the spectrum seeing opportunity. 

Madeline Rohan started the grassroots group Colorado Hispanic Republicans a couple of months ago and has been launching get-out-the-vote efforts and other recruitment with the help of the Colorado Republican Party.

"The GOP’s not getting their message across," Rohan said.

She believes many Latinos already identify with core Republican issues, which for her include faith, family values and freedom.

"There’s a disconnect between the way Hispanics live and think, because they live by those principals of the Republican Party, and the way they vote," Rohan said.

Some political analysts aren't so sure.

"Latinos are still overwhelmingly inclined to vote for the Democrat and particularly President Obama even in generic match-ups," said Rob Preuhs, an expert in western Latino politics at Metro State College.

The big question though, said Preuhs, is whether Latinos in Colorado will mobilize for Obama like they did in 2008.  

He said at least right now, that looks doubtful.

"Getting folks to vote for something and turning out to vote is going to be a tougher challenge, particularly with the lack of real immigration reform, concerns about increases in deportations," Preuhs said.

'Emotional' Issue

At Café Chihuahua, 19 year old Lincoln High student Rachel Mackay said the immigration issue hit home for her a few months ago, when her young son’s father was pulled over near here during a routine traffic stop.  He had a Mexican driver's license, which she said is legal, but he was detained and deported to Mexico anyway.

"There’s Mexicans that are criminals doing stuff and they get away with it, when there’s other Mexicans that are not doing nothing at all," Mackay said. "(They're) hard workers, and getting deported for no reason, at least give them a second chance."

Still, Mackay said she doesn’t fault the president for not acting on the thorny illegal immigration issue and said that if she has time, she’ll even volunteer for Obama’s re-election campaign in this neighborhood.

Paul Lopez, the city councilman, used her story as a flash point for the larger 2012 campaign.

"Guess what happened to the baby’s dad," Lopez said. "He was deported, just for driving, you can bet everything that this girl’s going to remember that when it comes to the polls."

Most of the Republican presidential hopefuls have taken hard-line stances against illegal immigration in recent debates.  And Colorado Hispanic Republicans chair Madeline Rohan, acknowledged it’s one of the biggest challenges her new group faces when she pitches Latino voters disgruntled with Democrats.

"Immigration is an emotional issue for Hispanics and they will use it to judge their candidates," Rohan said. "But ultimately, I think the economy is going to trump the immigration issue."

Nevertheless, Rohan said the GOP could take a page from the Democrats in softening some of their rhetoric on the lighting rod issue of immigration, something she predicts will happen once a nominee is chosen.