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Latino voters want to hear more than 'hola'

Maria Hinojosa

By Maria Hinojosa
CNN Correspondent

June 24, 1999
Web posted at: 11:53 a.m. EDT (1553 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

In this story:

'Vote for me' an international language

'Swinging' a growing minority

Read y in Spanish
Los votantes hispanos quieren oír algo más que "hola"

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Could it be that for the first time in U.S. history, voters will hear a bilingual presidential campaign, in English and Spanish?

Yes, at least sort of, if the presidential campaign announcements of Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush are any indication.

In Tennessee, when Gore was telling voters why he was the best man for the job last week, he suddenly switched into Spanish. A day later, on Wall Street, the Democratic candidate did the same thing.

"Mis amigos, seguiremos trabajando juntos mano a mano, para el futuro de nuestras familias y nuestros niños," said Gore, flanked by American flags. That is: "My friends, we will continue working hand in hand for the future of our families and our children."

Vice President Gore, speaking Spanish during his campaign announcement in Tennessee   

Gore's bilingual gestures may involve political peer pressure; some people at the Wall Street rally said they thought the vice president was speaking Spanish at his campaign appearances because Bush does.

But for many Latinos, speaking Spanish isn't the whole story.

"It's good that [Gore] can speak Spanish," said Illary Quinteros, a Puerto Rican-born New Yorker who's a translator for a Wall Street financial firm. "But I really don't feel like [the presidential candidates] address Latino issues. None of them."

An analyst with the Washington-based National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) suggests the candidates might benefit from thinking hard about Hispanic issues in this presidential campaign.

"Latinos will be the 'soccer moms' for this upcoming race," according to the group's Larry Gonzalez, using political shorthand for a group influential in recent elections, suburban mothers.

'Vote for me' an international language

The trend of reaching out to Latino voters has been percolating at lower political levels for some time.

George W. Bush has been courting Latino voters for years. During both gubernatorial campaigns, Bush advertised on Spanish-language radio and television programs. And in many commercials, it was his own voice, speaking in Spanish, that voters heard.

He was re-elected the governor of Texas in 1998 with strong support from Latino voters who went to the polls. Traditionally Democratic, they supported a Republican who they believed addressed issues that mattered to them.

Texas Gov. George Bush, answering a girl's question in Spanish on the campaign trail in Massachusetts   

"On issues such as immigration and education, he is more open and flexible than other Republicans," said Bob Estrada, a Dallas businessman who supports Bush.

In recent elections across the country, candidates who have reached out to Latino constituents have reaped electoral benefits.

In New York, Democrat Chuck Schumer wrestled away Republican Alfonse D'Amato's U.S. Senate seat with the help of Latino support. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican like his brother, did the same in his state. And Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat, became the first Latino elected to statewide office in California this century.

'Swinging' a growing minority

The politics of paying attention to Latinos took a major turn after the results of the 1998 national midterm elections came in.

Latinos scored their highest national turnout ever, representing 5 percent of the 1998 vote, according to NALEO. Their percentages were even higher in politically important states such as Florida, New York and California.

While these numbers may not seem comparatively high, what makes them important, according to some analysts, is that now Latinos have the potential to constitute one of those all-important groups in elections -- "swing voters."

And while this attention to things Latino in the media and in politics is new to some, for Latinos who are third- or fourth-generation Americans, this is old news.

They have known about pop sensation Ricky Martin, now 27, since he was 12, and they came to love actress Jennifer Lopez when she starred in the 1997 movie "Selena."

While the Hispanic median family income falls below that of white families, it has risen in recent years, according to figures cited by the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group based in Washington.

In 1998, the U.S. Hispanic community spent $356 billion, up from $300 billion in 1997, according to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

And Hispanics are projected to become the nation's largest minority group by 2010, according to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Latinos are as politically complex a group as any other in the United States. Traditionally Democratic, often conservative in their values, Latinos are divided among themselves by many issues that also divide the nation -- bilingual education, immigration and abortion among them.

"Sure, everyone will make jokes about who has a better accent and who can speak the [Spanish] language without notes, but what we want to know are specific plans that each candidate has regarding issues important to Latinos," said NALEO's Gonzalez.

"We want to hear plans from the candidates, in any language, for tackling the high Latino dropout rate and getting Latinos health care coverage. And we've been asking for that for a long time."

Will the Latino contingent of U.S. voters be "swung" by this new campaign of bilingual politics? Gore might have said it best on his visit to New York.

"Sin accion, las palabras no valen nada aunque sean bonitas." That is: "Even pretty words don't mean anything without action."


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