Maria Echaveste
"Latinos in the Political Process"

April 24, 2003

Maria Echaveste discusses the changing role of Latinos in the American political process at the International House on April 24.

The Political Is Personal: Latino Voters in the United States
Susie Hicks, Department of Latin American Studies

Maria Echaveste made a strong case for voter participation in a talk sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies. “When people are turned off participating, unfortunately that doesn’t stop the wheels of government … and it matters profoundly who is running it.” Echaveste acknowledged that the under-representation of Latino voters in the U.S. is the product of a complex interaction of factors both inside and outside Latino communities. But the result is clear: a population growing rapidly in size — now the country’s largest minority — that lacks corresponding political influence.

In a packed conference room, Echaveste’s discussion of Latinos and the political process highlighted familiar obstacles while offering some specific strategies for raising participation. A graduate of Boalt Law School at Berkeley, Echaveste served as White House Deputy Chief of Staff under President Clinton from 1998-2000, making her the highest-ranking Latino ever to have served in the White House. Today she works with Nueva Vista, a public policy and Latino advocacy group, and is a member of the Executive Committee of the Democratic National Convention.

Echaveste organized her talk around three basic assessments: the current status of Latino electoral participation in the United States, the main obstacles to the expansion of the Latino electorate and the possibilities for achieving real political influence over the next series of elections.

Echaveste stressed the idea that politicians do pay attention to the statistics: a steady decline in overall U.S. political participation has meant that campaigns focus increasingly on groups seen as likely voters. Although both major parties have recently funneled more resources into advertising to the Latino population (more money was spent on Spanish language political ads in 2000 than ever before), these appeals were largely symbolic rather than issue-based. “How much energy will they expend to research a population that isn’t voting?” Echaveste warned. She gave two reasons why the Latino vote is an opportunity for both parties: (1) it is a relatively young, rapidly growing population, and (2) Latinos underperform at the polls. In most places, Latinos are 15 to 20 points under white and African-American registration percentages; once registered, actual turnout is lower still.

Demographics offer some explanation for low participation. Latinos, as a group, are young and have relatively low levels of education — factors that correspond with low voter turn-out across racial and ethnic lines. Echaveste also cited the lack of large membership organizations and a fund-raising infrastructure that could mobilize voters — the equivalent of black churches’ role as an organizing “hub” in the civil rights movement.

Of course, defining obstacles to Latino voting is complicated by the difficulty of defining “Latinos.” As a political group, the Latino community is comprised of diverse populations. “We have to keep saying it: Latinos are not monolithic,” Echaveste emphasized. Around 40 percent of the Latino population is foreign-born and have experienced government in different national contexts. In many Latin American countries, participating in politics is “either irrelevant or dangerous.” The national identities of Mexicans, Salvadorans, Chileans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and others are all grouped into the political category “Latino.” The differences between these national groups are further compounded by the dividing lines of class, color and gender. There is probably no single issue, in Echaveste’s analysis, which could unite all Latinos. She suggests that “we should stop looking for a leader who would unite all of us as a Pan-Hispanic community … there may not be one issue that unites us, but immigration comes close.”

With several recent elections in the House and Senate decided by a handful of votes, Echaveste proposed a strategy for Latino activists and those interesting in raising participation: targeting get-out-the-vote resources on four or five races in critical elections, where Latino votes really do have the potential to make a difference. Echaveste worried that, in light of the extensive use of pro-Mexican-American symbolism by the Bush Administration (Cinco de Mayo parties on the White House lawn, for example), Democrats are not doing enough to draw important, issue-related party distinctions. At the same time, she suggests that, “we have to be aggressive in coalition building.”

For Echaveste, the connection between political process and people’s daily lives plays out in the issues, and this is the connection that must be stressed in order to mobilize the Latino vote. “If you vote Republican because you believe in the issues, fine. What offends me as a Hispanic is that we’d vote for someone because he seems nice, speaks some Spanish and has a Chicana relative.” Several Latino activists in the audience described the difficulties they faced trying to convince friends and relatives that they needed to vote, much less countering Bush’s national image as pro-Hispanic. Echaveste responded by emphasizing grassroots efforts to demonstrate the connections between the political and the everyday in the United States. She suggested that activists and progressives “start with like-minded people” by making contact with pockets of Latino activists around the country in order to educate and organize on a national, grassroots level.

In states like California that have relatively high Latino representation in public office, Echaveste urged Latino voters to hold their representatives more accountable to the issues: education, health care, immigration, social services and jobs. “It isn’t enough to simply elect Latinos to office … what we need is competent, intelligent leadership.”

Summing up her feelings on political participation, Echaveste commented: “Democrats want Latino votes. Republicans want Latino votes. Latinos should want to see Latino votes.” For Echaveste, the overall lack of participation, defined as informed voting based on the issues, is a far bigger problem than Latinos who vote Republican. What are the long-term consequences of low Latino political participation? Echaveste believes that the next few election cycles are critical if Latinos are to make their importance felt. If voting numbers do not increase in some critical races, political parties will continue to pay mere lip service to this growing population.

Ms. Echaveste is a graduate of Boalt Hall School of Law, and spent 12 years practicing law before moving into politics and public policy.


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