State’s Democratic Party launches push to lure Latinos

Brown’s win is one motivator

By Russell Contreras
Associated Press / February 26, 2010

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BOSTON - From Acton to Andover, voters packed the polls during last month’s special election to replace the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Election officials reported record turnout in a race that resulted in the stunning victory of Republican Scott Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley.

But in Chelsea, Lawrence, and New Bedford, cities with sizable Latino populations that have traditionally voted Democratic, turnout was low. Some residents said they didn’t know or didn’t care that an election was going on, given the lack of signs and campaign visits to their cities.

Now, just weeks after the epic defeat by Brown and new concerns about a shrinking base, the Massachusetts Democratic Party is launching an aggressive effort to attract Latino voters, the state’s fastest-growing population.

On Saturday, the state’s Democrats will hold Spanish-language workshops for Latino activists interested in volunteering in campaigns and raising money for candidates. In addition, party officials hope to network with Latino grass-roots activists who work independently of political parties.

The move, political observers say, is partly a result of the dismal efforts by the Coakley campaign to reach out to Latino voters, an important swing bloc that could have made the race closer. They say Coakley did not campaign much in Latino neighborhoods and did not advertise in Spanish-language media.

“We were completely ignored,’’ said Maria Idali Torres, director of the Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “It wasn’t until a week before the election that I got a call from her campaign. By that time, the writing was on the wall.’’

Alejandra St. Guillen, program director of ¿Oíste?, a Massachusetts group that promotes the election of Latinos, said some Latino voters feel they are repeatedly taken for granted by candidates. “Often they come to us at the last minute or when they want us to translate something,’’ St. Guillen said. “We complain over and over again, but I don’t think it sinks in.’’

Gloribell Mota, director of training and education for the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said candidates have not been intentionally ignoring Latino voters or their concerns. “I think it’s a sense of not knowing about Latino community,’’ said Mota, who is organizing Saturday’s Grassroot Strategies for Victory session at the Westin Waltham Hotel, an event planned before last month’s election. “We have to do a better job of reaching out.’’

Statewide, Latinos are one of the few groups that have seen their state population numbers rise in the last decade, according to US census estimates. And analysts say their numbers are expected to grow because of birth rates and continued migration.

Latinos represent about 8 percent of the state’s population. That number is predicted to jump after the 2010 Census.

In Massachusetts, Latinos have historically been traditional Democratic voters. But recent studies in Texas and California suggest that as the population gets larger and more established, Latino voters become more independent and conservative

Torres and St. Guillen are scheduled to speak at the Democrats’ event on Saturday. Both said they would also be willing to speak to the Massachusetts Republican Party about any outreach efforts for Latinos.

Tarah Donoghue, a spokeswoman for MassGOP, said that Massachusetts Republicans do not have an outreach program aimed at Latinos but have a general “ethnic outreach’’ committee.

“I think there is a home for the Hispanic community in the GOP,’’ Donoghue said. “Hispanics have an inclination toward family values and hard work that makes the Republican Party a good fit.’’

While most Latinos elected to office in Massachusetts are Democrats, Springfield and Lawrence have seen a handful of Latino Republicans successfully run for office in a nonpartisan race. In addition, Latinos in Lawrence, who elected the state’s first Latino mayor last year, previously helped elect former mayor Michael Sullivan twice, a white Republican who aggressively advertised in Spanish-language newspapers.

And Brown enjoyed the support of some notable Latino activists, including Iraq war veteran and Purple Heart recipient Francisco Urena of Lawrence.

Nationally, the GOP is jump-starting efforts to woo Latinos. But Karla Romero of Malden said that until now she has not seen either party really reach out to Latino voters in the state. That is partly why she is running as an independent for a House seat held by Democrat Paul Donato.

“I’ve had strong pulls from both sides to join their party,’’ said Romero, a second-generation Latina born in Boston. “But I think people are ready for a new generation and new blood.’’