Kennedy Support Helps Obama with Hispanics

South Florida Sun-Sentinel


By Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto

What could the endorsement of Ted Kennedy, a white, liberal, Northeasterner, possibly have to do with the Barack Obama campaign's Latino strategy? At first glance, it appears that the campaign is trying to squeeze water out of a rock by touting Kennedy as a mobilizing Latino force, especially when you consider Hillary Clinton's strong advantage in Latino electoral outreach.

Clinton's name recognition, particularly in contrast to Obama's, is high among the Latino community. Her Latino mobilization infrastructure is one that has been years in the making. She has a number of endorsements from prominent national-level Latino leaders, including Bob Menendez, Henry Cisneros, and UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta. Another issue – whether it is real or not -- is Black and Latino tensions, which some argue will keep Latinos from embracing Obama.

With regards to Latinos, Obama falls short on name recognition, infrastructure for electoral mobilization and "big" Latino endorsements. Those are the three areas where Kennedy's endorsement can make a difference for both old and young Latino voters.

A peek into the living rooms of many Mexican-American grandparents in Corpus Christi, South Tucson, East Los Angeles and other Southwestern Latino communities would give you a hint of why that is. A picture of John F. Kennedy, whose name resonates strongly among older Mexican Americans, would not be uncommon in those living rooms.

During his presidential run in 1960, JFK was the first to develop a Latino outreach campaign. Never before had this constituency been taken into account, much less actively courted on the national front. The campaign established Viva Kennedy clubs, grass-roots organizations across the Southwest and Midwest. For older Latinos, and in particular Mexican-Americans who were the main Latino sub-group in the United States at that time, the establishment of these organizations forged a deep bond and affinity to the first Catholic president, his wife, and later to his brother, and then the Kennedy family more generally.

During the 1960 Latino outreach campaign, the first-ever Spanish language television ad was produced. Jacqueline Kennedy spoke in Spanish to the Latino electorate for well over a minute asking for the support of her husband, concluding with an emphatic "Viva Kennedy!" The ad was a huge deal. At the time, speaking Spanish was looked down upon by many non-Latinos, and there was Jacqueline speaking on behalf of the next president in Latinos' native tongue.

Consider also the association of the Kennedy name, Ted's in particular, with immigration reform. Young Latinos, especially those that were mobilized during the recent immigration rallies and marches, are well aware of the Kennedy-McCain immigration reform bill, a topic whose grassroots rallying call dominated the airwaves.

Speaking of airwaves, on Thursday morning Ted Kennedy was a guest on Eddie "Piolin" Sotelo's morning radio show. The most popular Spanish language radio show, El Piolin reaches millions of Latinos in every corner of the country. Maybe Piolin rings a bell. The principal organizer of the immigration marches, he, through his radio show, mobilized Latinos across the country. Though he doesn't hold a formal political office, he is one of the most well known Latinos in the country. Most importantly for Obama, he is a staunch Kennedy supporter given his deep commitment to immigration rights advocacy.

Latinos will be watching closely how Obama negotiates immigration and immigrant related issues, key issues for this electorate. Having Kennedy's endorsement and his immigrant rights contacts put into motion are integral to a successful Latino outreach strategy. But endorsements alone cannot carry the day. With that in mind, Obama's position on the driver's license provision should prove an ideal complement to Kennedy's immigration work among those concerned with immigrant rights.

In other words, when you scratch the surface and look a little harder at the Latino community's connection to this white, liberal Northeastern, Ted Kennedy's endorsement makes perfect sense for Obama's Latino strategy.

Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University,

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