The 2002 Midterm Elections
Races to WatchThis year is not expected to be a noteworthy year for the Latino American electorate. There are not any panic button issues on the national agenda, like Proposition 187 was in 1994 or welfare and immigration reform were in 1996 — but the election cycle won’t be a snoozer either. Democrats and Republicans are battling for more than just bragging rights in November. Key seats are up for grabs at the national, state and local level. The Latino electorate has a role to play in more than a few of these races, and “nobody knows what’s going to happen,” says Dr. Rodolfo de la Garza of Columbia University.
“The point to remember is that there is no national Latino opinion; it varies by state. So while California is strongly Democratic because of (former Republican Gov.) Pete Wilson, Latinos in New York are much more inclined to be neutral because Gov. George Pataki has been so effective in working with major leaders.
“In Texas, they are nowhere near as Republican as the press likes to portray them, and in Florida they are much more divided than is the image. Cubans are Republican and will remain so for the foreseeable future, but they are no longer the majority population. There are new immigrants from the Caribbean and Mexico, and they are not aligning with the Cubans.”
What follows is a quick snapshot of five key races. Florida
One week before the Sept. 10 primary, former attorney general Janet Reno and Tampa-area lawyer Bill McBride were in a statistical dead heat for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, with state Sen. Daryl Jones running far behind them in the polls.
However, Florida newspapers have taken to calling Gov. Jeb Bush “nervous” and “vulnerable”— even with the backing of his presidential brother and a $20 million campaign war chest. De la Garza agrees. “Bush is vulnerable and if (non-Cuban) Latinos turn out in large numbers, they can knock him off.” Memories of the Florida recount debacle are still fresh in voters’ minds. And while state GOP officials are denying it, some political observers will certainly see a negative result for Jeb Bush as an evil harbinger for George W. Bush in 2004. Nevada
Democrat Dario Herrera, 29, chairman of the Clark County Commission, and Republican Jon Porter, 47, a former state senator, both easily won their primaries Sept. 3 and will face off in the race for the newly created 3rd Congressional District seat.
The new district encompasses Las Vegas, the fastest growing city in the fastest growing state in the nation. According to the 2002 Census, Nevada grew by 66 percent between 1990 and 2000.
The significance of the race, according to Dr. Louis DeSipio, professor of political science at the University of California-Irvine, is that Herrera has a serious shot at winning this congressional district, and there have not been any Latinos to win in a 10 percent or 15 percent Latino district.
“If Latinos can start winning in these kinds of races,” DeSipio says, “you’ll start to see a very different kind of picture nationally.New Mexico
In New Mexico, “It’s a win-win situation. No matter who ends up winning, the end result will be a Latino governor,” DeSipio says. The race pits Bill Richardson, former congressman and Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations, against John Sanchez, a first-term Republican legislator and business owner from his home district. This won’t be the first time New Mexico has had a Latino governor. New Mexico is a majority-minority state. Minorities are 55 percent of the electorate, with Hispanics representing 39 percent of the electorate, and there have been four other Hispanic governors in the state’s history. But this is the first time the GOP has fielded a Hispanic candidate.
According to news reports, the campaign is about to get ugly. The GOP has been circulating e-mails and faxes accusing Richardson of wrongdoing in the failure of a San Diego-based software company run by his brother-in-law. Richardson, meanwhile, has focused on a spotty voting record to paint Sanchez as indifferent to crime victims’ rights.
Earlier this month Andrew Cuomo, Clinton’s Housing and Urban Development secretary and son of the legendary New York governor, dropped out of contention in the gubernatorial race, leaving state Comptroller H. Carl McCall, an African American, to face Republican Gov. George Pataki in the general election. But what looks to be a traditional kind of race may be decided by a decidedly nontraditional sector of the electorate. “Puerto Ricans, particularly, are playing a prominent role despite the fact that they don’t have much electoral clout,” says Dr. Jose Cruz, an associate professor of political science at the State University of New York-Albany, who specializes in identity politics. “Puerto Ricans and Latinos have been courted by Pataki like no governor — and certainly no Republican governor — in the past. He has really gone out of his way to make all the right moves. He came out against the Navy (bombing range) in Vieques (a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico), and he’s traveled to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.”
The result has been a key endorsement — that of Dennis Rivera, a labor leader who was a key ally of failed New York mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer (see sidebar, “A Tale of Three Cities”). “Pataki’s done an incredible job,” says de la Garza. Despite the lingering bad feelings from the Ferrer campaign, he says of New York Latinos, “they’ll be voting for Pataki.”Texas
The pundits are calling the Texas Democratic slate a “dream team,” featuring an African American running for retiring GOP stalwart Phil Gramm’s old Senate seat, a banker and oilman who is the first Hispanic gubernatorial candidate in modern Texas history, and a Caucasian party oldtimer running for lieutenant governor. Each race is close or getting closer. Ron Kirk, the former Dallas mayor who is battling Republican state Attorney General John Cornyn for the U.S. Senate seat, is only trailing his opponent by 32 percent to 37 percent, with 30 percent of the voters undecided. John Sharp, the former state comptroller who is running for lieutenant governor, is pulling similar numbers against his opponent.
But Tony Sanchez, the gubernatorial candidate, is struggling. He has cut GOP Gov. Rick Perry’s lead from 20 points in June to 14 points in early September, but political observers are saying he needs to improve his standing with Hispanics. “Tony Sanchez is pumping a lot of his own money. That’s what you do these days if you’re affluent,” says DeSipio. “But he’s showing his greenness. “He’s alienating some of the older Latino leaders. He hasn’t brought them in — you know, shown that he understands, or put his arm around someone to show them, ‘I really care about what you think,’ instead of, ‘I’ve pumped in $5 million dollars — so long.'” Neither DeSipio nor de la Garza thinks that Sanchez will win, though if he boosts Latino turnout, it will certainly help lift senate candidate Kirk’s boat. The man who can’t lose is Sharpe, whom many credit with putting the Texas “dream team” together. No matter what happens to Kirk and Sanchez, Sharpe will certainly win, say DeSipio and de la Garza. — By Kendra Hamilton
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