Ignoring Hispanic vote shortsighted

The Baltimore Sun

What's the sound of one Republican debating?

No, that's not a cocktail party joke. It's a sad reality for Univision, which hopes to host Spanish-language debates for presidential hopefuls in each party. The Spanish-language television network invited Democrats to debate Sept. 9 and the Republicans a week later. So far only a single GOP candidate has agreed.

Good thing "no" means "no" in both Spanish and English. That is the reply most candidates are giving (although, as this column went to press, the darlings of the race were equivocating, and if one agrees, others will surely follow). In fact, even the presidential candidates who are signing up have complaints about the format. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, both Democrats, answered Univision with "Si," as both speak Spanish fluently.

But Mr. Richardson and Mr. Dodd sent a joint letter in protest to Univision when it became clear that the debaters would be allowed to speak only English, not Spanish.

Sen. John McCain was the sole Republican to accept the invitation. It's likely that Mr. McCain figures he could puff up his chest and take a little credit for attempting to get a package on immigration reform passed.

Feeling rebuffed by so many candidates, some Latino advocates are crying foul. They argue that it is a slap to Latinos - and a mistake - to shun a chance to address this growing segment of the U.S. population.

Not so fast, caballeros.

The candidates surely understand that Univision will not plan a "Latino-lite" debate. They can expect tough questions on policies toward Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro, as well as about trade with Mexico, our befuddled immigration processes, and a myriad of domestic social issues. No one wants to be the pinata strung up for some verbal whacks on the country's highest-rated Spanish-language network.

And perhaps the candidates who declined are simply clued in to this truth: Latinos' voting strength is not yet proportionate to their growth as a demographic. A recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center bore this out. In the 2004 presidential election, 7.6 million Hispanics voted, up from 5.9 million four years earlier. But as a percentage of the overall vote, they remained stagnant. In the 2006 midterms, 13 percent of the total Latino population voted, according to Pew - compared to 39 percent of whites and 27 percent for blacks. That made Latinos 5.8 percent of all votes cast, squeaking up from 5.3 percent in 2002. Latinos are 15 percent of the population.

In other words, just because you have a lot of people, it doesn't mean they are all eligible to vote, or inclined to.

For those Latinos who do vote, is a debate in Spanish necessary? Maria Elena Salinas, Univision anchor, has said in interviews about the debate that Spanish is what unites all Latinos. That depends largely on where you fall on the generational continuum. For all the griping about Latinos not learning English fast enough to suit many native-born Americans, the fact is that after about the second generation, most Latinos lose their Spanish, or at least become as fluent in English. That is simply a reality of assimilation.

And embracing English coincides with warming to U.S. ideals of citizenship. That means shifting from seeing themselves as newcomers to believing they have a significant place within the United States, a voice and a vote to make it count. This is a far better marker of assimilation than any linguistic litmus test.

So, no, Latinos do not vote in proportion to their rapidly increasing numbers. But in the future this will change. A growing number of Latinos are becoming citizens, and greater efforts are being made to register them as voters.

But those are only votes on the horizon. Politicians are much more about who can do something for them here and now. They may regret it later, but for now, "Adios" seems to be the word of choice, not "Hola."

Mary Sanchez is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. Her e-mail is msanchez@kcstar.com.

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