In 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama spoke at the annual conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO. He promised that if elected, he’d return the following year with comprehensive immigration reform as one of his early accomplishments.
Four years later, NALEO members are still waiting. Arturo Vargas, the executive director of NALEO’s Educational Fund, sat down this week for an interview with the Tribune and said that the president has some explaining to do. He also said it the president and his eventual Republican opponent would do well to attend this year’s NALEO conference in Florida to explain to the group of more than 6,000 officials where they stand on issues that are important to Latinos.
Vargas talked with the Tribune about why those issues include more than immigration policy, how he thinks politicians should engage Latinos, why he thinks voter ID legislation is problematic, and what it would take to get the estimated 21.3 million eligible Latinos to cast a ballot this November.
An edited and condensed video and transcript of the interview are below.
TT: Where do Latinos currently fit within the electorate?
Vargas: I think we’ve come to the point where Latinos have become a permanent element of the political landscape of the country. Anybody running for president understands they need a Latino strategy. It may not appear that way for some of the people who are running for president as candidates in their primaries, but just wait until November. Whoever the Republican candidate is and the president, they will be campaigning among Latinos. If they don’t, they do so at their own risk.
TT: Should politicians engage Latinos differently than they do other groups?
Vargas: In some ways Latinos are just like everybody else, because they care about everything the rest of America cares about. They are concerned about the economy, education, access to health care. They have relatives fighting in wars overseas. They want to make sure they have safe schools and safe communities for their children. They want to buy a home. They want to live the American dream.
But the challenges they face to get there are often very different than challenges that other Americans face. So, how you talk about these issues to Latinos is important because it’s different. For example, education: Latinos are much younger than non-Latinos, so they are much more affected by the quality of public education in this country than non-Hispanic whites.
I think one of the mistakes that candidates make is that [they assume] “OK, if I just do an ad in Spanish, I am done.” Well if you do a Spanish-language strategy, that’s smart because the Latino citizens who consume Spanish-language media, more likely than not, they are naturalized citizens, they are super voters. A Latino who comes to this country and becomes a citizen, does so because they want to vote. So if you have a Spanish-language strategy you’re reaching this segment of the electorate, that’s a good strategy. But don’t forget the two-thirds of Latinos who are listening to English-language media. You need to speak to them as well.
TT: Is it safe to assume that a Latino will always vote for a Democrat?
Vargas: I think it depends on the election. And we’ve seen that here in Texas and in states across the country. Generally, Latinos tend to register more as Democrats than as Republicans and generally they tend to vote more for a Democrat than a Republican.
There are exceptions. In the city of Houston, several years ago, when Orlando Sanchez, a Republican, ran for mayor, he carried a majority of the Hispanic vote. So it really depends on the dynamics, the campaign, and the candidate.
TT: What is the key to getting Latinos to vote?
Vargas: In 2008, 9.7 million Latinos voted, a historic number and the largest ever. In 2012, we at NALEO project that 12.2 million Latinos will vote. Again, a historic number. And I do believe that Latinos will be responsible for whoever gets elected president of the United States, because certain key states, swing states, will depend on whether Latinos turn out and how they vote.
But we also know that while 12.2 million Latinos are projected to vote, there are 21.3 million that are eligible to vote and who can vote come November 2012. So we can’t rest on our laurels, and we’re doing everything we can to figure out how we can get these 9 million Latinos who are just going to stay home in November, engaged in the process.
And I think what’s happened with this segment of our community is that they have completely separated themselves out from politics in this country. I call them the great unengaged. They don’t believe the political system can work for them. They developed a sense of cynicism that candidates come, campaign, make promises and don’t deliver. So I think one of the things that we have to do, is we have to stop lying to people. We have to stop telling people that their lives will change with this one election or with this one candidate. It’s not going to. Your life will change if you participate year in and year out.
TT: How will President Obama’s immigration policies affect how Latinos vote?
Vargas: I think the inability for the president and the Congress — when he had the majority — to get comprehensive immigration reform passed is going to be a major challenge for the president to explain that to the Latino electorate. He was very adamant about making that a promise in the campaign.
To my face, in Washington D.C. in 2008, when he appeared at our conference, we asked him “Will you come back next year if you are elected president and speak to the NALEO conference?" He said, “Not only will I come back next year as president, I will come back having signed comprehensive immigration reform into law.”
So, he has some explaining to do. Obviously, he is trying to explain to people that he can’t do it alone. He needs a Congress to go along. He had a Congress, but we know he used that political capital that he had after first being elected to get healthcare reform passed. And then he lost the majority of Congress. And now he doesn't have a Congress that works with him, so he needs to explain that.
But don’t assume that immigration is the only issue that Latino voters are going to be concerned with. In fact, it’s probably not the most important issue, because if you’re a voter, you’re a citizen. So, you are either born here or you are naturalized, so you don’t have a personal immigration issue to be resolved. You may have people in your family or people you know who are affected by the lack of immigration reform. I think what matters more is how the issue is debated by candidates, and I think this is where many of the Republican candidates are running a serious risk.
TT: What is the key issue that will motivate Latinos to vote?
Vargas: What turns people out is when they are angry and when they are fearful. And that’s really unfortunate, but that’s part of the human spirit. When you’ve seen people mobilize and get engaged is usually when they are really angry about something. Look at the Occupy movement, people are angry. Look at the Tea Party movement, people are angry.
But as far as the issues that matter to people and to Latinos in particular, I think it’s the economy. Latinos have suffered the most in the foreclosure crisis, they have suffered the most from the unemployment rates, they have suffered the most from job losses in the United States, and they have suffered the most from the fallout of the housing market and in construction jobs. So there are a lot of people who are really hurting.
TT: What is wrong with voter ID legislation?
Vargas: Voting is a cherished right in this country and it’s guaranteed to us by the Constitution. To put any kind of restrictions on it or requirements in order to exercise your most fundamental right as a citizen, I think is wrong. We also know that there are hundreds of thousands of people in this country who simply do not carry the kinds of IDs that are being required by many states. So, in essence, it’s another literacy test, it’s another tax on voting. And we’ve been lamenting about how people don’t vote and how people don’t care. If we add one more layer, it really is a strategy to suppress the vote.
TT: What about maintaining integrity at the ballot box?
Vargas: There should be no fraud in voting, we completely agree. Show us the evidence that there is rampant fraud and that we need these kinds of laws. It simply does not exist.