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Latinos amassing political influence



Published: Sat, June 11, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



By MARY SANCHEZ

KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

Black Republicans are often seen as traitors to their race. Mention the names Condoleezza Rice or Clarence Thomas at a large gathering of black people and the tear-down commentary usually begins quickly. That is a reality of having so much of the black vote locked up as Democratic and feelings about which political party will do more for the black race as a whole.

Latinos, at least at this moment in time, are allowing their representatives to rise to high posts in either camp without facing slander. A more common reply is to hear Latinos boast of the political firsts they are racking up without making accusations of competence or intent. Likely, it is the newness of the status. A "just thrilled to be at the table" mystic.

A fitting example; the first Latinos to be elected to the U.S. Senate in nearly 30 years; Ken Salazar of Colorado and Mel Martinez of Florida. Salazar is a Democrat, Martinez a Republican. Most people note both men's ascension to the Senate, not one over the other.

A certain power resides with representation in both political camps. It is the current political ace of Latinos. No one knows which way their votes will swing in the future. Democrat/Republican, it's all still a guessing game.

True, Latinos who voted in the last presidential election -- a record 7.6 million voters -- tilted Democrat. But analysts believe more voted Republican than in past races.

Will that trend continue? No one knows, but everyone has an opinion. Here is the analogy of Marcelo Gaete of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, NALEO:

"All of the sudden you are the most popular kid in high school and everyone wants to buy you lunch."

The NALEO will hold its annual conference in Puerto Rico June 23-25. One session will be especially interesting; kind of a microcosm of watching Democrat and Republican strategists analyze plans for courting Latino voters.

Stanley Greenberg, the Democrat pollster and adviser, has already accepted. A Republican counterweight is also expected to confirm.

"It is a fun moment, but also a crucial moment for our community," Gaete said.

He's right. Latinos in the United States have never had this much political momentum. Everyone is coming 'a courting.

The growing numbers of Latinos is one reason. The U.S. Census recently gave the official pronouncement that the Latino population surpassed 40 million last year -- growing to 41.3 million as of July 1, 2004. The Census also recently released data about the 2004 election, which Gaete's organization is analyzing.

One significant statistic; the impact of naturalized citizens among Latino voters.

Diligent voters

The desire to vote is often cited by immigrants as the reason they became U.S. citizens, as opposed to remaining legal permanent residents. When that is the case, these new voters are often diligent voters. So it shouldn't be surprising that one out of four Latino voters in election 2004 (28 percent) were naturalized citizens. A whopping 87 percent of Latino naturalized citizens voted.

For candidates, that is a group to court. For Latinos, that is a group to grow.

Another group to watch are young Latinos, the 18- to 24-year-olds. Nearly one out of every 10 youth voters in the 2004 election were Latino (9 percent), while Latinos made up only 6 percent of the overall total vote.

As Gaete noted, "I think we are living through some remarkable times. This is the transition movement, the tipping moment. We are no longer the best kept secret."

X Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.




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