Hispanics Want More From Politicians

"Su nombre es John Kerry y ahora quiere ser presidente," says one of the Democratic presidential candidate's Spanish-language ads.

The Bush-Cheney re-election campaign is prepared to trade Kerry blow for blow in appealing to Hispanics. President Bush will use his Spanish-language skills just as he did in 2000, as well as have his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose wife Columba is Mexican-American, stump for him.

But speaking a few words of Spanish and indulging in fajitas and salsa music is not enough to win the Hispanic vote, activists say.

"What we're seeing a lot of is attention. It's still to be seen what is going to be the substance behind the attention," said Clarissa Martinez, director of the National Council of La Raza's Latino Empowerment and Advocacy Project (search).

Hispanics surpassed blacks as the largest minority group in the 2000 census, numbering 35.2 million or 12 percent of the population. Hispanics are expected to grow to 18 percent of the population by 2025 and 25 percent by 2050.

Both parties know that Hispanics will be a key constituency nationwide and in swing states like New Mexico and Florida this November. For their part, Hispanics want the candidates to address their concerns in a substantive manner, not just tip their hats to their ethnicity.

"We need to break our way from this cyclical approach when people only come around during election time," Martinez said.

Asked whether the two parties were reaching out to Hispanics adequately, Miguel Diaz, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' South America Project (search), said they weren't.

"In fact, I find the approach somewhat patronizing," Diaz said. "They think parading a few Hispanic officials would be enough and speaking a few Spanish words would be sufficient. It is not. We have interests and an agenda. We deserve a more substantive reaching out on the part of the candidates."

'Don't Pander to Latinos'

The attention Hispanics received in recent elections has left them wanting more.

"What happened in 2002 with a lot of candidates campaigning in the neighborhoods made a lot of Hispanic voters realize that there's so much more that the presidential candidates should be doing to organize in the communities," said Adam J. Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University (search).

"Hispanic outreach and communication strategies need to be among the very top priorities within the campaign structures. The presidential candidates need to devote significant amounts of time to being featured in Spanish-language and bilingual TV, radio and print ads. They need to spend time in the communities demonstrating their immersion in the Hispanic communities and literally campaign door-to-door or community-to-community," Segal continued.

The issues Latinos care about are not significantly different from those of all Americans, with the economy and education ranking at the top, according to recent polls. But Hispanics want candidates to address the impact of these issues on their community.

Martinez said that as candidates reach out to Hispanics, they need to make sure that our "needs are addressed a part of a larger group. Don’t pander by creating a message that is meant to appeal just to Latinos. You need to address our issues, but we are connected to the rest of America."

However, there are some issues in which Hispanics have a particular interest. Martinez said that Hispanics use immigration as an "issue to gauge a candidate's respect for Latinos. Generally speaking for the community, immigration serves as that type of litmus test."

Hispanics also would like to see a greater focus on foreign policy toward Latin America (search).

"There is an interest to see our government engage the region more wholeheartedly. New immigrants want the American dream to extend to the hemisphere," Diaz said.

Bush and Kerry are well-positioned to reach out to the Hispanic community, Segal said. He pointed out that Bush was the governor of Texas, which has a big Hispanic population, and he speaks some Spanish. While campaigning as senator from Massachusetts, Kerry also gained experience stumping at Hispanic parades and other events.

Democrats have long had the edge in Hispanic support, with more extensive grassroots support as well as a record of championing Hispanic issues. However, Republicans have been working to cut into that advantage. Recently, such moderate Republicans as Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and New York Gov. George Pataki made appealing to Hispanics a central part of their campaigns.

Bush, Kerry Camps Reach Out

Both the Bush and Kerry campaigns are building Hispanic grassroots programs.

"We are going to be campaigning on the president's record through a very aggressive bilingual media effort. We believe the more Latinos know about the president, the more their support will follow," said Sharon Castillo, spokeswoman for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

The Bush-Cheney campaign will be heeding the advice of Hispanic activists and will also be building an extensive community-based organization. "We want to make sure that we have the most effective grassroots team in place. We are in the process of putting together a grassroots team in every state," Castillo said.

Picking up on the theme that Hispanics are ignored except for election time, John Kerry said, “Latinos can tell it's an election year because George W. Bush is finally paying attention to them."

In the statement issued March 6, Kerry continued saying that Bush failed to provide real immigration reform or an adequate focus on Latin America, two issues that he would handle differently. "Latinos and Latin America will not be used or regarded as an afterthought in my administration."

Kerry has a Hispanic outreach Web site, and both Kerry's campaign Web site and Bush's Web site can be translated into Spanish.