As the Latino population becomes an increasingly significant portion of the American electorate, candidates for public office are working to boost their turnout in elections from the presidential race to city council contests.
But, as Nicholas Salazar points out, Latinos are far from a homogenous group. Even in Iowa — a state about 6% Latino — communities range from first generation Mexican immigrants to families from South America who have been here for decades.
“I think if we’re going to call it the ‘Latino Vote,’ I think we need to break it down a little bit more,” said Salazar, state director for LULAC [League of United Latin American Citizens]. “It’s a big chunk of people that encompasses many different races and nationalities.”
Salazar is a lifelong resident of Muscatine, a city of more than 23,000 with 19.4% of its population Latino, according to 2017 Census data.
“After an election, like the last couple of elections, we’ll see stuff like, ‘Latinos have to do better at the polls,'” he said. “And I support that sentiment, but we’re not all in the same community with each other … it’s a community with massive disparities between some groups.”
Focus On Voter Registration
In an effort to boost turnout in 2020, Salazar said LULAC has made voter registration its “No. 1 thing” this year.
According to Joe Henry, advisor to the president for civic engagement and elections at LULAC, of the 73,000 Latinos eligible to vote in Iowa, about 53,000 currently are registered.
Through a painstaking data collection process, Henry said LULAC has worked diligently since 2007 to identify every eligible Latino voter in the state.
A January Pew Research Center report shows Latino voters will account for about 13% of eligible voters in 2020 nationally. A decade ago, they made up about 9% of the electorate.
Not since former president Barack Obama campaigned here in 2008 and 2012 has a presidential candidate so successfully mobilized Latino voters, said Christian Ucles, a LULAC member in Des Moines.
“We want the campaigns to reach out to us, we want them to talk to our communities about why their candidate is the best candidate,” said Ucles, a Democratic activist. “The fact is that the Latino community in general, we’re tired of being promised things.”
Salazar agreed, urging the 20-some Democratic presidential candidates to talk about more than just immigration policy when trying to woo the “Latino Vote.” While immigration is an important issue, Salazar said, it’s not the only topic on the minds of voters.
What Drives People To The Polls?
“The issues that I’m seeing from people, what they’re talking about, their main issues are jobs, the economy, education and health care,” Salazar said. “Those are really, really big issues for Latinos and in Iowa in general. I think if campaigns focus more on these issues, including the immigration debate as well, I think they’ll get more success with their outreach with the community.”
Jazmin Newton-Butt, a Davenport attorney and president of her local LULAC chapter, referencing a debate line from California Sen. Kamala Harris, said voters “want to know how we’re going to put food on the table.”
“We hear that the economy is doing well, that’s true,” said Newton-Butt. “But when we’re talking about economy in stocks, well guess what? Not everybody owns stocks. Those issues are important.”
From climate change and education to health care and LGBTQ equality, the voting interests of Latinos are as diverse as those of women, African-Americans or white men.
Immigration reform is top of mind, too, Newton-Butt said, because “here we are in 2019 and it still hasn’t happened.”
“I think the pressure is on for the Democratic presidential candidates,” she said. “They know that it’s something they’re going to have to deliver. It’s one of the issues they’re definitely looking for.”
Newton-Butt has an active base of members and volunteers from which to register people to vote on both the Iowa and Illinois side of the Quad Cities. She said voters she knows are excited about the diversity of 2020 candidates, but also are anxious to see the large field winnowed so they can focus on the top contenders.
“For Iowa, caucuses are right around the corner,” she said. “February is not that far away. We really need to get down to that soon so people know who they’re going to go and caucus for.”
Presidential Candidates Reach Out
This week, presidential candidate Julian Castro, Obama’s secretary of housing and urban development, held a town hall forum in Mount Pleasant centered specifically on immigration policy. The small Southeast Iowa community was raided by ICE officers in May 2018.
“Secretary Castro really wanted to, rather than just talk about the issue in Iowa, wanted to go straight to the community and have a conversation there about why we need immigration reform and what his plan is,” said Cynthia Sebian-Lander, Castro’s Iowa state director.
Castro’s proposed policy to end ICE raids “at or near sensitive locations” like schools, hospitals, churches and courthouses would have had a direct impact in Mount Pleasant, which had its raid occur at a local factory.
“People are still afraid and unsure of what’s going to happen in the future,” Sebian-Lander said. “And so that’s something he addressed in his [immigration] plan and will talk about on Sunday.”
In response to a local Puerto Rican woman who told Castro her daughter was bullied for standing up for the immigrant students taunted by their peers, Castro drew on the need for a nationwide responsibility to model “appreciation for differences and celebration of our differences and understanding of how our differences make the nation stronger.”
Several of the more than 150 people gathered at First Presbyterian Church were interested in Castro’s “21st Century Marshall Plan” for Central America, aimed at supporting troubled nations in the region so citizens there don’t make the dangerous trip to the United States out of desperation.
“We want to make sure people can find safety and opportunity at home, instead of having to come to the United States to find that,” Castro said.
The former secretary, polling at about 1 percent by most measures, was well-received by the large crowd, with more than a dozen lining up after the forum to talk with him and get their picture taken.
Salazar said he was pleased to see Castro take his message directly to an affected community and the people there living “in the shadows.”
“They don’t necessarily have to be undocumented … just because of the anti-immigrant or anti-Latino sentiment, a lot of people don’t like to even participate because they feel intimidated,” Salazar said. “And when they see presidential candidates like Julian Castro, it can inspire and empower them to be more active in their community.”
John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, visited Mount Pleasant the next morning to hear the story of Iowa WINS and how the community is recovering from the ICE raid.
“The absolutely essential first thing is to deal with the humanitarian crisis at the border today,” said Hickenlooper. “This country is hurting itself when children are taken from their families, their parents, and put in cages. That’s not who we are and certainly not how we want to present ourselves to the world.”
Hickenlooper also brought up the idea of a Marshall Plan to “restore some of the funding for economic development” in places like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
“I think we’d spend a fraction of what we’re spending now on the border, and we’d have a longer term solution,” he said.
Tammy Shull of Mount Pleasant, a founding member of Iowa WINS, said she was “really happy to have immigration brought forward at the presidential level and to have candidates that are interested in talking about that.
“It is such a crucial issue,” she said. “Especially for Iowa, where we are really needing these working families to support our state and fill our jobs.”
In addition to LULAC, the Des Moines-based Asian & Latino Coalition also works in Iowa to advance Latinos and support them in politics.
Communications director Mitch Henry said the Political Action Committee already had met with more than a dozen presidential candidates since last spring, and will announce its endorsement next month.
“I think people are optimistic,” said Henry, of the 2020 field, noting he was “a little bit tired” after meeting with so many candidates. “We’ve had a good time over the last 15 months.”
By Elizabeth Meyer