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Latinas' influence grows within Democratic party

By Jennifer Coleman
The Associated Press, August 16, 2000

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Even though the Democratic Party doesn't reflect the conservative influence on some social issues that her Catholic upbringing instilled, California delegate Veronica Martinez says she's staying with it.

Martinez said that though she must reconcile her opposition to abortion with the party's support for abortion rights, there is a simple reason she is a Democrat.

"I'm there because they like me. They let me in," said Martinez, 43, of Colton in San Bernardino County, a party member since the 1960s.

"No one has ever told me 'Come to our Republican meeting,"' said Martinez, a student and a program developer for a government agency that develops small businesses.

With the Democratic and Republican parties trying harder than ever to win over women and Hispanic voters, Latinas are using this election year to get their voices heard.

"It's a fantastic window of opportunity that we are working hard to keep open," said Helen Torres, executive director of Hispanas Organized for Political Equality, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that encourages and prepares Latinas to participate in politics.

The issues that will bring Latinas to the polls in November are education, health care and economic opportunities in their communities, Torres said.

"We don't want to be a flavor of the month," Torres said. "Latinas should be involved in both parties and should be able to bring these items to the debate."

Nearly 10 percent of the delegates at this week's Democratic National Convention are Hispanic.

About 26 percent of the California delegation is Hispanic, nearly mirroring the percentage of Latinos in the state's population.

Those numbers aren't lost on the presidential candidates -- both Vice President Al Gore and GOP candidate George W. Bush often address Hispanic crowds in Spanish, with mariachi bands backing them up.

California Democrats hold a sizable voter registration edge over Republicans both among the overall electorate and Hispanic voters. The state GOP is mounting an aggressive campaign to boost its ranks by the November election.

Gore and Bush have focused on education in their California speeches, ranked by state voters as their top priority in poll after poll.

Latinas also consider education the most important issue, said Alan Hoffenblum, a GOP consultant and publisher of the California Target Book, which tracks congressional and legislative races in the state.

"The main thing about Latinos is that they're no more homogenous than the rest of the country," he said.

While many have strong liberal leanings, especially on labor and immigration, there is also a strong Catholic influence that is more conservative on gay rights and abortion, he said.

"It's a very diverse group," Hoffenblum said.

Because of the GOP's history in California, especially regarding Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that sought to rescind most public services from illegal immigrants, and Proposition 209, a ban on race and sex preferences approved by California voters in 1996, the party is not perceived as inclusive, Hoffenblum said.

"Republicans are trying hard to change that perception. Democrats are working to maintain it. Perception matters more than reality," he said. "What the Republicans don't want to have happen is what happened to the black and Jewish voters. They got into one party because they felt the other one didn't want them. The issue is 'Do they want us?"'

Ramona Martinez, vice-chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee's Latino Caucus, said there's a good reason the parties want to recruit Latinas.

"Our community is strong because of the women in it. It is the mothers and the grandmothers that hold us together as a family," she said. "I think they recognize the strength in our community and want us to bring that strength to the party."

Martinez, a Denver city councilwoman and a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, said she doesn't have a problem with her party's positions on abortion or gay rights.

Neither did volunteer Wendy Orellana, selling Latino Committee 2000 t-shirts outside the Latino Caucus meeting. Orellana said she supports abortion rights, despite her Catholic beliefs.

"It's very important that Democrats don't leave anyone out. It's not just businesses or corporations, but they get involved with communities and people who live in the barrios," she said. "They're willing to help the Latino community."