In The News
Latino growth could flip state politics – but will it?
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted January 26, 2012
Neatly, Milwaukee maintained its population. Nicely, Waukesha County’s population grew closer to half the size of its dominant neighbor county. But the profound difference in the 2010 US Census was Latino – a 6% growth statewide. Si si pueda is creating the most influential shift in Wisconsin politics, an astonishing 74% increase within the decade.
In Milwaukee it has generated a major new election force representing one-sixth of the population -- more than 100,000.
Latino growth does not automatically mean Latino turnout at the polls. In fact, this is the large unknown of the upcoming elections - will the fact that Latinos in numbers can make a profound difference truly make that difference?
It already has in the Racine area where a strong Hispanic growth seemed part of the 9,000 more signatures than needed in the recall against GOP state Sen. Van Wanggaard. It may be why hires are being told to check hard for any “foreign looking names” among one million signatures against Scott Walker. At least that GOP suspicion should make unions happy, since the signatures are already three times the number of union members in the state, but it sort of makes you wonder what the GOP thinks the typical American looks like.
They look more and more like Milwaukee. To recap the hard numbers, blacks make up 39% of Milwaukee's population, whites 37% and Hispanics 17.3%
You can already hear that particularly bigoted breed of Charlie Sykes and CRG conservatives scoff that all this has to be the "illegals" taking those valuable jobs of cleaning out cesspools or picking corn that whites born here must surely be clamoring for.
But the statistical breakdowns reflect a quite different reality – the variety and vitality of Latinos in this state. What the census analysts describe as those with “Hispanic roots,” society now recognizes as leaders in entrepreneurship, culture expansion and community building -- business owners, plant workers, housewives, production experts, legalized here or born here. Many in Milwaukee are indeed our poorer citizens, in a city that suffers staggering rates of unemployment for minorities. But simultaneously they are filling schools and churches and gaining clout. A great number of their children born in this county have now reached voting age.
The numbers have already turned one school district into a Latino majority, added a second Latino majority county supervisory seat (all these to the enthusiasm of elected officials involved) and added a second Latino Common Council district, to far less enthusiasm -- in fact, disgust -- from incumbent conservative Ald. Bob Donovan. Labor has already endorsed one of his several Latino opponents, Jennifer Morales.
(The other threatened incumbent, Jim Witkowiak, has survived challenges before in a long Hispanic dominated district and is something of a master at playing the politics of the disinterested to his advantage, a reality evidenced by his maneuvers to face two Latinos in the primary. Rumors abound that he resurrected the presence of Angel Sanchez to split the Latino vote. But that game could well backfire given the enthusiasm and clear demand for action and change from his main opponent, Jose Perez, now endorsed by organized labor.)
Still, behind the growth of the Latino population lurks failure to even show up at the voting booth. Ingrained reluctance has a long record in districts where Latinos hold a majority (even more where they are a growing minority) and even when they elect one of their own.
Rep. JoCasta Zamarippa, the lone Latina in the state legislature from an 8th Assembly District dominated by Latino voters, recalls how few turned out for her in the 2010 primary -- 755 voters. Even counting all the Latino candidates in that primary field, the turnout was one-fifth that in neighboring districts, a margin that continued in comparing results in the November finale. Supervisor Peggy Romo West, also a Latino from a district where Latinos rule, can point to similar dismal numbers.
There are many factors working to maintain the lazy status quo. Some are built in cultural differences and some, more than ever, are deliberately kicked up by radio fervor and extremists who fear the inevitable course of history. That history has already overtaken the state's economic engine, the city, where whites are outnumbered more than two to one. Census realities suggest that within two decades whites will be a minority across the country. Yet while most citizens accept the inevitable, there are others who fear and oppose. They may lack the white robes of the past, but the tactics are often similar
But that is a pundit's observation. The reality is that Latinos have long been their own worst enemy at the ballot box because of cultural differences and the lack of understanding and heritage of how vital voting should be in this society. They have the numbers to change that but many doubt they have the capacity to do it.
Not Voces de la Frontera. The workers rights group has been working hard building the power of numbers and human rights -- and engaging Latinos in understanding the slow but steady possibilities of the vote. It was a ferocious presence in the recall campaigns, an empowerment likely to pay dividends in the February 21 primary and the April 3 nonpartisan election, clearing looking forward to the inevitable recall involving the governor and the presidential race in November.
Still, interviews with activists, politicians, ministers, community prosecutors and others reveal a lot of reasons for continued caution in the Latino community.
It’s language, one minister told me. Many genuine citizens are still more comfortable in the childhood tongue, Spanish, and embarrassed when challenged at community events (and polling places) about their halting ability in English and preference to lapse into Spanish.
It was not always thus (it was common a century ago to find worker contracts written in German as well as English). And yes, it is ironic that people who barely speak one language humiliate people who get by in two.
Deeper than language concerns, another pastor suggested, is religion, and he is well aware how many Latinos have moved from Catholicism to more evangelical forms of Protestantism. But he notes a difference. "To the Latino community, religion is a deep and personal family thing, not a political issue," he said. "What God wills is to be accepted. Prayer is the outlet, not voting."
It's a distinct difference. White conservative evangelicals almost fume to impose their faith beliefs at the ballot box, making political action a central expression and condemning those who don't wave their religion in front of politicians. This is foreign behavior to many devoutly religious in the Latino community. They believe. They fight to keep their souls intact, not require the government to do that for them. Few governments they encountered ever did.
That's why many misread the natural conservatism of the Latino community as an invitation to right-wing policy. To conservative Latinos we spoke to, very concerned about property acquisition and not always supportive of progressive actions, they still are not about to abandon immigration reform and equitable pay, and the need for corporations to pay up. They support the Dream Act, opposing the attack on those who came to this country for jobs.
If anything the efforts of Republicans to recruit them are driving them toward Democrats at the ballot box. Listening to the GOP presidential debates, they simply laugh over “the clowns” the conservative GOP keeps elevating and suggest those choices simply confirm their innate hostility.
But still, those interviewed emphasized, Latinos do not vote as a bloc the way many assume African Americans do. And they possess an abiding distrust of getting too active in government activity. Voces leader Christine Neumann-Ortiz, who has had great political success motivating poorer families and blended families (a mixture of US citizens and those without documents), can describes the caution at work. It may be particularly true among the poor, the disabled, the struggling families who associate involvement with authorities as an invitation to trouble even when they have done nothing or little wrong. "When you are poor, the authorities are more likely to harm than do good," one mother told me as she prepared food for a church event.
It is also a caution that has protected Latinos from the dominant white culture.
In the face of the new Latino clout and growing census numbers, you would think the GOP and more conservative forces would push for intelligent immigration reform, less emphasis on useless electrified border fences, more support of paths to citizenship and raising state revenue by allowing in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants carried over the border when they were infants.
Instead the GOP seems to be trusting in the built-in caution and lack of interest. They may also be quietly pushing it. Even law enforcement officials see more chill given the rhetoric on radio, the FOX anchorites and especially the Voter ID bill.
The law may not be targeted directly at Latinos, just at making voting more difficult for minorities, elderly, disabled and students in general, but some of its conditions are seen in Latino communities as aimed directly at them, an indirect warning to families that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is around the corner.
That stems from the requirement of showing state photo IDs or driver's licenses and then signing a book at the polls. Many US citizens are also part of blended families, with a spouse or a relative not documented. Some tell me this Voter ID requirement is another way for Republicans to peek into their households, no matter how election officials assure them it's not. It's not as if there is no basis in this partisan environment for such fears.
The natural reluctance even if you are legal (because you know someone who isn't or establishment figures assume you do) to stay out of the public eye now extends to voting activity.
Community prosecutors and even Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm openly express worries about the effects of presumed or real suppression on the Latino community. It makes their work harder.
"If someone who happens to be illegal is raped, I want to know about it, I want her to feel comfortable talking to the authorities and getting the criminal off the street," said Chisholm. "Good law enforcement relies on people being free to come forward, to trust their elected officials."
But all these efforts to drop gates of fear between the Latino population, legal and otherwise, and the rest of the community are making openness doubly hard. Add in the ugly attitudes the Latinos hear around them. To Chisholm and others in law enforcement, the main concern is those attitudes will drive up crime and prevent full disclosure. To political activists, the same attitudes rub things raw at the voting booth.
It remains to be seen whether the larger Latino population will overcome its natural caution and the artificial constraints imposed by a sometime virulent white minority. If they can, they can quiet the opponents through remarkable new clout at the ballot box.