Race is on for Latino vote
Seattle Times staff reporter
Before the Republicans walked on stage at Hispanic Seafair, the Democrats had an edge in wooing local Latinos.
Sure, they didn't have balloons or candy. But planning and luck had ushered them into a prime booth spot in the first row. The Republicans? One row behind. Volunteers — wearing matching blue "Nethercutt" shirts in support of Rep. George Nethercutt's U.S. Senate candidacy — were clearly irked.
Then Pedro Celis appeared at the Seward Park Amphitheater, greeting a throng of Latinos. In his native Spanish, then in English, he introduced two Republicans running for office.
That left Antonio Ginatta trying to plan a countermove: Democratic governor candidate Ron Sims wouldn't be around for several hours and who knew whether Christine Gregoire was even available?
"She should really be here," sighed Ginatta, speaking like someone who recognizes a missed opportunity.
Whether through Spanish-language TV ads or appearances at Mexican rodeos, politicking these days includes aggressively courting the country's largest and fastest-growing minority group.
Neither political party can bank on the Latino vote, an estimated 9 million people. While Latinos have generally voted Democrat, that support has slipped in the last two presidential races. According to a recent Pew Hispanic Center and Kaiser Family Foundation national survey, two out of 10 Latinos identify themselves as Republicans and two out of 10 say they are independents.
Pedro Celis and Antonio Ginatta are both well-connected, first-generation Americans pursuing Washington's Latino vote, which accounted for about 6 percent of the state's voting-age population, according to the 2000 census.
Ginatta, 32, on leave from his position as executive director of the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs, directs the Washington Democrats' new Latino Vote Project.
Celis, 45, is a software architect at Microsoft and founder of the state's Republican Hispanic National Assembly.
Both are savvy, behind-the-scenes players trying to persuade Latinos to vote — as a group, they have one of the lowest turnout rates — and then, to vote accordingly.
Furthering Latino interests
"Part of what I try to do is figure out how to further the interests of the Hispanic community," says Celis, the Republican.
Latinos rank the economy, education and terrorism as their top priorities, according to a survey of Latino registered voters by the Washington Post, Univision and the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute.
From Celis' perspective, Latinos are best off with Republicans. Take immigration, for example.
He doesn't see illegal immigrants as scofflaws or welfare abusers. "But if you want to end illegal immigration it doesn't mean round them up, put them on trains and ship them out," he says.
Celis sits in his million-dollar home in a Redmond subdivision. He wears a polo shirt, khakis; no shoes. He looks a little like a shorter, less jowly Bill Richardson, the Latino governor of New Mexico from the other political party.
President Bush's immigration proposal, Celis argues, is reasonable: matching employers with foreign workers when U.S. citizens can't be found; allowing illegal immigrants now employed to temporarily become legal.
"The Democrats though have responded [with] impossible legislation to enact. 'Let's give everyone amnesty, residency.' " Celis praises efficiency and common sense in business and politics. He doesn't get "worked up" over issues, referring to an approach he says some Latino leaders typically adopt.
"Many people have been raised on an activist model. That's not the most effective way to accomplish things. Not only do you raise all the fuss but ... it energizes the guy who opposes you."
A few years ago, local Republicans tapped Celis to help them get to know the Hispanic community.
"I pretty much told them that anything that's important to them is important to Hispanics," Celis recalls. All immigrants believe in two things: family and working hard.
Look at Miguel Estrada, Celis says. Estrada, a Honduran immigrant and Harvard Law grad, was nominated by President Bush and would have been the first Hispanic on the U.S. Court of Appeals. But his judicial nomination was blocked by Democrats.
"[U.S. Sen. Patty Murray] was pretty bad about that. The guy was perfectly qualified and there was no good reason to oppose him."
President Bush, Celis says, has stimulated the economy through tax cuts; he's pushed for accountability in public education; he sees immigrants more like us than them.
When Celis established the state's first Republican National Hispanic Assembly chapter, he says he didn't know 50 Republicans, let alone 50 Hispanic Republicans.
Now "he's on everybody's list," says Lois Gustafson, a Republican Party worker. Over the past four years, Celis and his wife, Laura, have contributed more than $41,000 on behalf of the GOP and its various candidates, records show.
"We're changing how Republicans view Hispanics because lots of times they see us as farmworkers or restaurant owners," says Navor Tercero, 33, a finance broker and member of the Washington RNHA.
On the Fourth of July, Tercero, Celis and other politically like-minded Latinos staffed La Liga Hispaña soccer tournament at Qwest Stadium, registering people to vote.
In the stadium concourse, other stalls promoted an Hispanic real-estate company, a Spanish-language radio station, but not the Democrats, who didn't think to buy a booth.
Contacting key volunteers
Democrat Antonio Ginatta is driving to Lynnwood for a meeting with Maribel Peralez, a volunteer. One month earlier, Ginatta organized a training session in Pasco geared to recruiting Latinos. Some 75 people showed up — educators, activists and Peralez, whose family runs a Latino business center.
The freeway is jammed and Ginatta, in his blue Subaru, groans. He is a slim man who inherited the light-skinned Anglo features of his mother. He is also a minority within a minority: born in Ecuador and raised both there, in Guayaquil, and in Miami. Whenever people describe Latinos as a like-minded group, Ginatta hesitates.
"How do you compare a Mexican worker at Casa Latina [a Seattle day-labor agency] with a Cuban who immigrated in 1955?" Ginatta says.
Four months earlier, he was making $68,000 as a state commissioner, living in a view apartment, with weekends to himself. Then state Democrats tapped him to direct The Latino Vote Project, billed as their largest-ever effort to increase voter turnout.
The Democrats are clearly the more compassionate party, Ginatta says, pointing to the Dream Act, co-sponsored by Murray and endorsed by Sen. John Kerry. The act would make college more accessible to certain illegal immigrants — "undocumented students" in party parlance — as well as adjust their immigration status.
The Republicans, he notes, blocked the AgJOBS Act, which would have legalized thousands of agricultural workers.
"The problem with the Republican Party is that it's anti-immigration, anti-farmworker, it's very unworkable.
A typical example, Ginatta says, is when State Sen. Dino Rossi, a gubernatorial candidate, tried cutting health-care benefits for undocumented pregnant women.
"These were kids who were going to be born citizens," Ginatta says, shaking his head.
He continues, calling Bush's immigration proposal "absurd" and "inane." When the subject turns to Estrada, the judicial nominee, Ginatta says: "Just being Latino doesn't mean you're the best representative."
A better example? Ricardo Martinez, the son of Mexican migrant workers who is now a Seattle federal judge.
"You put in a Latino who has social-justice values, then I'll support that," he says.
At Las Americas Business Center, Ginatta meets with volunteer Peralez and hands her a list of voters with Spanish surnames; asks about the number of students planning to work the phones and offers to drive them here.
More than 60 percent of all U.S. Latinos in 2000 couldn't register to vote because they were either too young or not U.S. citizens, according to The Urban Institute. Democrats are still eager to court them. To that end, Ginatta has written a Spanish-language "What If I Can't Vote?" pamphlet.
"You can motivate eligible family members to vote," the pamphlet reads. "We are all affected by the politics of the U.S. ... citizens, residents, the undocumented."
"At the end of the day, I want Democrats in office," says Ginatta, heading to the Burien Family Fiesta, where he'll position a table next to the always-popular Starbucks booth. "I'll do whatever I have to do."
Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report. Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or email@example.com.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company