Steven Walters: Hispanics will play critical role in Wisconsin governor's race
Candidates for governor next year will do all they can to win the votes of Wisconsin Hispanics.
Item: Republican Gov. Scott Walker surprised more than 600 when he spoke at the Oct. 12 “Hispanic of the Year” banquet in Milwaukee. Because his appearance had not been promoted, it “pleasantly surprised” the guests, one event planner noted.
Item: Jessie Rodriquez, a Hispanics for Choice activist from Franklin, became the first Republican Latina elected to the Legislature last Tuesday.
“I congratulate her, for it is another indicator of how Latinos are increasing their role in Wisconsin politics and public policy formation,” said Enrique Figueroa, director of UW-Milwaukee's Roberto Hernandez Center and the top campus adviser on Hispanic issues.
Census Bureau figures say Hispanics made up 6.2 percent of all Wisconsin residents in 2012. The national Hispanic population then was 16.9 percent.
But Hispanics made up more than 12 percent of voters in three Wisconsin counties: Milwaukee, 13.9 percent; Kenosha, 12.2 percent; and Racine, 12 percent. Hispanics were 7.9 percent of Rock County's population.
Those numbers suggest Hispanic voters could play a decisive role in electing the next governor—an election a Marquette Law School poll says could be very close. In the October poll, Walker led the only announced Democrat, Mary Burke, by only 47 percent to 45 percent. The poll had a margin of error of 3.5 percent.
But Hispanic voter turnout has traditionally been low, said Marquette Law School pollster and professor Charles Franklin.
For example, Franklin said:
-- In 2010, 1.7 percent of all Wisconsin voters were Hispanic, and 39 percent of them voted. That compared to a 54 percent turnout statewide.
-- In 2012, 2.2 percent of all Wisconsin voters were Hispanic, and 44 percent of them voted. That compared to a 74 percent turnout statewide.
It means, Franklin said, “Hispanics still are not a large percentage of the state's voters, but there is also potential for significant increases in turnout among Hispanics citizens.”
When polled, Hispanic registered voters self-identify as 24 percent Republican, 40 percent Democrat and 34 percent independent, Franklin added. Voters nationally say they are 28 percent Republican, 32 percent Democrat and 38 percent independent.
Figuero said Rodriquez's election made Wisconsin political history.
It will also be interesting to watch how Rodriquez's Assembly record differs from that of Democratic Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa of Milwaukee, the first Democratic Latina. Zamarripa was elected to the Legislature in 2010.
Figueroa said Wisconsin Hispanics will closely follow several issues in the 2014 race for governor.
Immigration reform: “If reform has not been passed by Congress, then Latino voters will want to know the position of candidates with respect to reform,” Figueroa said. “If reform has been passed, then the position of the candidates in the immigration debate will be important, as well.”
Part of that controversy is over whether children of undocumented Hispanics should pay in-state college tuition. Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle fought for and signed that change into law. Walker's first budget rescinded it, however.
Also, candidates for governor next year will be asked about another Doyle proposal that never became law: Issuing Wisconsin driver's licenses to undocumented Hispanics.
Education: Figueroa said Hispanics want to know about funding for K-12 and higher education, positions on School Choice, the “quality and access” of education for adults, and job-creation plans.
Wealth gap: The “distribution of wealth and tax policy for addressing the increasing disparities between the 1 percent and the 99 percent of Americans” is an issue for Hispanics, Figueroa added.
Affordable Care Act: “Depending on how well Obamacare has been accepted in other states, was (Walker's position) the appropriate one as it has affected Latinos in the state?” Figueroa said.
Walker, and Republicans who control the Legislature, refused to take federal cash to expand Medicaid to more low-income Wisconsin residents.
“Latinos are the most uninsured or underinsured population in the country,” said one Dane County Hispanic leader, who asked to not be identified because Walker and Burke want his endorsement.
“We are a younger, child-bearing population. Access is important. Coverage is, too.”
Latino advisers: Hispanics want to see Latinos on campaign teams and on officials' staffs, and to know that Latinos will be heard when policy decisions are debated and made, Figueroa said. “How will respect and appreciation to/for Wisconsin Latinos be manifested?”
It angers some Hispanics that Walker has no Hispanic cabinet secretary in his administration.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email email@example.com.