New Hispanic Voters in Iowa Push Democrats Into Balancing Act

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Oct 29 18:22:33 UTC 2007

October 29, 2007

New Hispanic Voters in Iowa Push Democrats Into Balancing Act


DES MOINES At La Favorita, a Mexican grocery store here, there is plenty
of food for sale and also a new brand of politics. A handwritten sign,
hanging over the door, proclaims in Spanish: Wake up!  Register to vote!
It is the hour to unite and change our future, the future of our children
and the future of this country! And every weekend, at a small table behind
the newspapers and a case of cold sodas, a trickle of newly minted
citizens are doing just that not in numbers large enough to constitute a
voting bloc, but enough to make politicians take notice.

The effort reflects the growing presence of Hispanics here in Iowa, posing
a challenge to Democrats who are eager to court a new interest group but
wary of offending conservative white voters concerned about immigrants
flowing into their state.

At campaign stops, Democratic candidates are frequently asked, often in
hostile tones, what they are going to do about the influx of immigrants,
mainly from Mexico and Central America, that are streaming into Iowa and
changing the culture, and potentially, the political landscape of this
early nominating state.

For Democrats, the situation in Iowa could be a harbinger for other
states, as rural America deals with a flow of immigrants that other
places, like Florida, New York and California, have already experienced.

Democratic strategists know that the Latino vote is their future, said
Hector Avalos, a professor and founder of the U.S. Latino Studies program
at Iowa State University. But they are having to handle this with kid
gloves. They dont want to anger native Iowans. But they know that there
could potentially be millions of new voters nationwide. Democrats are sort
of treading lightly, and trying to appease both sides.

To varying degrees, Democratic presidential candidates are reaching out to
Latino voters here. Many have set up Hispanic steering committees, sent
bilingual workers to Hispanic events and sponsored visits from Hispanic
politicians. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois brought Federico Pea, the
former Denver mayor and national Obama campaign co-chairman, to Iowa,
while the Clinton campaign played host to a visit from Senator Robert
Menendez of New Jersey, who is Cuban-American.

But no campaign is reaching out too far. Most Democrats steer clear of the
immigration issue unless it is raised by voters at campaign events. Most
Democratic candidates supported the failed Kennedy-McCain bill in
Congress, which would have provided a path to citizenship for illegal
immigrants.. Yet they talk tough on border security.

Democrats running for office could take leadership on the issue of
immigration reform, said Alex Orozco, an organizer with United for the
Dignity and Safety of Immigrants. But they are not. I dont sense that the
Democrats think immigration is a priority for them, not even close. When
they do talk, they are often very good at talking more about enforcement
because if they talk positively, they open themselves up to attack. The
Republicans care more about this issue  but in a negative way.

Iowa, like other parts of the nation, is in the midst of change as more
Spanish-speaking immigrants move into the state, taking jobs in
meatpacking, corn and egg processing plants. Evidence of their growing
presence comes in the form of new Spanish-language newspapers, radio shows
and mom-and-pop stores in fading downtown areas.

At the moment, an estimated 114,700 Latinos are in Iowa, a 28 percent
increase since 2000, according to the Iowa Division of Latino Affairs. In
some small towns, nearly a third of the citizens are Hispanic, although
about half the Hispanic population is concentrated in five Iowa cities,
including Des Moines.

Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group, but still represent just
3.8 percent of Iowas population. By most calculations, there are some
37,000 registered Hispanic voters in the state.

Yet, as the population has grown, so have concerns. A Hawkeye poll
conducted by the University of Iowa in August showed that immigration was
a very important issue to 43 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of
Republicans. Those polled had a broad range of ideas about what should be
done, from those who supported efforts to make illegal immigrants citizens
to those who favored mass deportations. On top of that, a series of highly
publicized workplace raids at meatpacking and other plants here have
heightened emotions on all sides.

Latino leaders like Bernard Ortiz, who came to Iowa 30 years ago and is
the Latino outreach organizer for the Service Employees International
Union, has made it a mission to register Hispanic voters. Each weekend, he
goes to La Favorita, Mexican rodeos or local soccer games that attract
immigrant families to sign up new voters and explain the caucus process.

Republicans in Iowa have made a big effort to use us as a scare tactic,
Mr. Ortiz said in an interview. And that works well for a good percentage
of Iowans. The Democratic contenders are doing a good job of addressing
Latino issues outside of Iowa but are fearful of losing voters here. Both
think we are irrelevant to the process. But we are in the process of
registering to show that we are not irrelevant.

Many new citizens avoid anything to do with the government, given the
recent workplace raids. Others come from countries with a history of
corruption and fear their vote is irrelevant.

Lots of new citizens come here with an old country mentality, Mr. Ortiz
said. They feel their vote doesnt matter and the rich always win.

Gricelda Ramirez, whose father, Ignacio, owns La Favorita, said a
combination of fear and apathy was hurting voter registration efforts. In
addition, the caucus process, in which voters must appear before their
neighbors and speak up about their political choices, can be intimidating
for those for whom English is a second language.

A lot of people are scared to get involved because they think that
immigration will come for them, Ms. Ramirez said. Even though they have
become citizens, they dont know where to vote or what it is all about.

By most accounts, Hispanic leaders here say that among the Democrats the
Obama campaign has been the most aggressive in reaching out to them.

We are reaching out to nontraditional people, said Joan Kato, head of
Hispanic outreach for the Obama campaign. We cant expect the voters to
come to us, so we are going to them and showing up at events to build

The Obama campaign has sent Ms. Kato and her crew to over 50 Latino events
in the state, is lining up Spanish-speaking supporters to work on caucus
night, has printed literature in Spanish and English explaining the caucus
process and has a Latino steering committee in every region of the state.

Weve been heavily courted by Obama, said Dawn Martinez Oropeza, an
activist with the Iowa Allies for Immigration Reform. Obama has been the
only one there right from the beginning  weve gotten V.I.P. tickets to
events, hes been on conference calls with Latino leaders and theyve always
had booths at Latino events. Hes tried to make a more personal connection
with the community. From the others, weve gotten no invitations to

Jesus Estrada, Latino outreach coordinator for the Iowa Democratic Party,
said Latinos were a natural constituency for the Democrats. But he, too,
is aware of the challenges.

Our biggest problem is to get people to understand the process, said Mr.
Estrada, whose father is from Venezuela. Many dont have a clue, and we
need to relate politics to their everyday lives. Were targeting the
audience, and we are getting the message out.

Democrats Move Up Iowa Date

DES MOINES, Oct. 28 (AP)  Iowa Democrats voted on Sunday to move their
leadoff precinct caucuses to Jan. 3, the same date Republicans picked
earlier this month, said Chris Allen, a party spokesman.

The move allows both parties to continue the tradition of meeting on the
same night.

The precinct caucuses had been scheduled for Jan. 14, but the parties
moved them up as other states rushed to the front of the primary calendar.
The major remaining question is the date of the New Hampshire primary,
originally scheduled for Jan. 22. Secretary of State Bill Gardner of New
Hampshire has said that he will schedule that primary no later than Jan.

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