Sunday, March 2, 2008
What's Up with Latinos and Clinton?
Much has been commented on the Latino voter preference for Senator Hillary Clinton, particularly in the California primary elections, and now potentially in Texas – the make-or-break election on March 4th for the New York senator.
It is estimated that Latinos pulled the ballot box lever for her candidacy to the tune of 67 percent. Much has been made of her California triumph over Senator Barack Obama by ten percent, not a large margin in reality, but an important victory none-the-less. And, Latinos were said to have been the determinant. Can she score a similar win in the Lone Star state where Latinos constitute 25 percent of the electorate? Will Latino voters bring it home for her again?
I have heard and read probably most (enough) of the analysts and newfound experts on the Latino vote and their superficial interpretations. And, quite frankly, all have missed the mark. Some talk about racial prejudice holding Latinos back from showering an African American with their votes. Others reflect on the “good” done by President Bill Clinton and his Latino appointments (I can only remember three of national prominence – Cisneros, Peña, and Richardson). Hillary’s commitment to healthcare reform and other good deeds benefiting Latinos and a 1972 stint in a voter registration campaign in south Texas amongst Mexican rural colonias, are also mentioned.
While each reason identified above may engender a grain of truth, a snapshot analysis does not suffice for the real thing. The truth lies elsewhere. The story goes back to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, better known as the amnesty bill signed into law by the then President Ronald Reagan.
Well over 3 million individuals qualified to legalize their immigration status beginning in May 1987, and they came of electoral age in January 1996 upon obtaining U.S. citizenship that same year. The November 1996 presidential election was their first voting experience as new citizens, and Bill Clinton was the man, notwithstanding that he had previously signed into law numerous onerous measures detrimental to immigrants generally, but particularly harsh on Latinos.
The border wall with Mexico and the border deaths phenomena made their first appearance under Clinton. Immigration laws punishing unlawful entrants with few prospects for waivers and harsher bars to legalize their status through family petitions, the elimination of legal provisions to permit adjustment to legal status without first being forced to leave the country, and streamlined removal of denied asylum applicants, the denial of benefits to legal permanent residents, the removal of legal residents for certain criminal offenses, and other similar measures led to a ballooning undocumented population only too soon after the 1986 landmark law. However, immigrants only began to feel the full weight of this right-wing turn in the law and its application by the final year of the Clinton tenure.
Nevertheless, millions of new Latino citizens had acquired the vote and made their presence felt in numbers not previously experienced in the U.S. The biggest electoral gains by Latino candidates to political office began in earnest from 1996 forward. In fact, three factors propelled greater citizenship acquisition during this period – one, the passage of the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in California, two, the passage of Clinton immigration legislation to deny federal social benefits to legal permanent residents, and three, the newly legalized immigrants became eligible for citizenship and proceeded to file millions of petitions to legally immigrate other family members, and to register to vote.
The political landscape for Latinos in heavy legalization states would never be the same – California, Texas, Illinois, and New York – to name the top four. While the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) could provide the figures with exactitude, my anecdotal observations are that the greatest number ever of Latinos elected to public office at the local, state, and federal level occurred during President Clinton’s second term with the advent of millions of new Latino voters. During this same period we also observed the fastest increase of Spanish language media and small business development.
Latinos, then, came of age politically under Clinton’s second term and patronage, and this included its political positioning within the Democratic Party on a regional and national level.
This in the main accounts for the endorsement of Hillary Clinton by higher than 80 percent of Latino elected officials, particularly those of the older generation. The Clinton name is that which appeared on the first ballot cast by the millions of new citizens. He (and his first lady) was president when the new immigrant citizen enjoyed immediate social integration and acceptance, and an improvement in their economic income and social wage. This is the first generation voting citizen of immigrant stock – the least formal education, lowest income, slightest political experience, but loyal to a fault. As a result of their legalized status they claimed the opportunity to immigrate millions of their loved ones and raise their children, both native born and undocumented, from under the shadow of dubious legal status.
Is gender politics a factor amongst Latina voters? Certainly, no different than how women throughout the country size up the prospect of electing the first women president.
Does racial prejudice motivate some Latino voters contrary to the Obama candidacy? Undoubtedly, not dissimilar to how racial prejudice shapes the opinions of other racial or national origin constituencies. Nevertheless, the historical experience indicates that Latinos have consistently voted in favor of African American candidates. The names of Tom Bradley, Harold Washington, and David Dinkins are notable examples.
Did Latinos fair well economically under the Clinton reign? Invariably a minority prospered well similar to the African American middle class experience. The Latino political elite was the most natural beneficiary. However, the mass of workers saw their wages stagnate, and eventually decline, and manufacturing jobs began a brisk disappearance from the American landscape directly attributable to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) consummated by free trader Bill. Some prominent political appointments do not a broad social advance for the mass of Latino workers make.
Lastly, Hillary Clinton has been campaigning for the past fifteen years, most especially in California. She has assiduously called in all the political chits common to any system of political patronage. Her fundraising prowess was unparalleled – that is until the young senator from the Land of Lincoln arrived on the scene. Name identification means everything in politics and is the first advantage staked out by a candidate. Clinton certainly had the initial edge. These are additional factors that explain the Latino electorate inclination towards the former first lady.
On the other hand, Senator Obama has slight but growing name recognition amongst Latinos, few but growing prominent Latino endorsers, a scant but strengthening political organization within these communities, and meager information about his political record, accomplishments, and platform. What he lacks in these areas, though, he makes up for with personal magnetism, a similar background story, the image of an outsider, and persuasive oratorical flair.
The Texas primary will once again test the pundits’ ability to interpret the Latino vote.