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Shattering voter stereotypes

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Esther Cepeda
February 27, 2011
— I've said it before and I'll keep on saying it: Latinos don't vote based on ethnicity or on the immigration stance of any given candidate. Like all informed voters, they cast ballots based on self-interest. Nowhere was this played out more clearly than in last Tuesday's Chicago mayoral race.

The contest was supposedly a litmus test for racial and ethnic power in this historically segregated town once called "Beirut by the Lake" after political battles between machine aldermen and a liberal coalition of mostly black and Hispanic aldermen following the historic 1983 election of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor.


Into the ring stepped Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's former chief of staff, who stood to become the city's first Jewish mayor.


He was joined by no less than three African-American candidates who began their campaigns at the last possible minute after a failed attempt to have black leaders nominate a "consensus candidate" to rally behind. Two of them aspired to become the city's first African-American female mayor.


And then there were the two Latino candidates. Both of whom, yes, wanted to become Chicago's first Hispanic mayor.


One was a soft-spoken Puerto Rico native with a long history of serving diverse constituents while championing Latino issues. The other, a longtime machine politician with strong ties to outgoing Mayor Richard Daley, was dubbed the de facto white candidate by one local commentator because in all his time in city politics, the son of a Mexican-American father and a Greek-Lithuanian mother had not identified himself with the city's Latino community.


Even before this playing field was set, the local and national media were writing and talking about the possibility of citywide racial and ethnic animosity. To read some of these reports, you might have wondered whether race riots between the city's 32 percent white, 32 percent black and 29 percent Latino residents would break out in the streets.


Before the full meltdown of the black consensus candidate nominating committee, the spiciest story was why Chicago's Latino community had not united behind one candidate so as to not split the vote. As if, in any case, one person could magically unite an extremely diverse electorate via shared skin color.


But the focus soon turned to whether Latinos would come out for Emanuel. The front-runner was believed by many to have been unfriendly to Latino immigrants both in his Clinton-era past and more recently as the driving force behind keeping Obama from fulfilling his campaign promises to tackle comprehensive immigration reform.


In the final weeks of the race, the air was thick with talk about which candidate was more immigrant-friendly, as if it weren't a documented fact that nationally, Latinos are more concerned about education, jobs, health care, and the federal deficit than immigration. In Chicago, crime ranks high as well.


Well, by now we know that Emanuel won a sweeping victory, with 55 percent of the electorate, getting 325,413 votes. More to my point, he garnered nearly 130,000 more votes than both Latino candidates.


In the 19 city wards where the Hispanic population is heavily concentrated, Emanuel won about 13,000 more votes than both his Hispanic competitors combined.


Sure, Latino voters want to make history by electing the "First Latino"-fill-in-the-blank. And immigration is without a doubt an important issue to this minority group. But the "Latino vote" will settle for no less than a candidate they feel is qualified to tackle all the issues that loom large in their lives despite his or her immigration views.


That's the lesson as we gear up for the 2012 elections. It's crucial for political parties and candidates to re-evaluate Latino voter stereotypes and understand that Hispanics are not driven solely by ethnic solidarity or immigration concerns. They're no less interested in the economy, health and education systems, and global competitiveness than other voting blocs.


Any candidate who wants to engage a Latino voter had better concentrate on being the best qualified and most competent to tackle the nation's challenges before trying to appeal to a presumed cultural identity.


Esther Cepeda's e-mail address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.



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