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Hispanics' influence on state and local politics is still small but growing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 24, 2010 - At Missouri's statewide Lincoln Days, U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt -- Republicans' best-known candidate for the U.S. Senate -- warned that his party needs to do a better job of courting Hispanic candidates and voters.

"Don't wait until Hispanics are in the majority," Blunt said, citing the influx of Hispanics that he has seen in his southwest Missouri district. "Hispanics are very pro-family. They're socially conservative,'' he said. "They should be Republicans."

But, according to various polls in recent elections, most Hispanics are not.

An analysis of exit polls of the 2008 presidential contest by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center concluded that 67 percent of the participating Hispanics favored Democrat Barack Obama, compared to 31 percent who preferred Republican John McCain. No reliable poll numbers for Hispanics are available for Missouri, but political experts see no sign that the percentages were much different.

The state Democratic Party says it's out to hold on to its perceived edge in support, which Missouri activists say has been made easier with President Barack Obama's appointment of the first Hispanic to the U.S. Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor.

Meanwhile, the state GOP has formed the Hispanic Republicans of Missouri, which gathered at Lincoln Days. Members said their aim is to woo more candidates as well as votes.

But so far, the Hispanic vote hasn't had a huge political impact in Missouri's elections. The biggest reason: Hispanics haven't flocked to the state.

The last national census 10 years ago found that Hispanics made up only 2.2 percent of Missouri's residents compared to 15.4 percent of the population nationally.

Both percentages are expected to go up with the completion of the 2010 Census, which gets underway this week.

But even with higher numbers, Missouri is still expected to lag behind many other states when it comes to Hispanic residents and registered Hispanic voters.

In the St. Louis area, the lack of large numbers of Hispanic residents and voters is reflected in the faces of the region's politicians. Area officials believe that few, if any, Hispanics hold municipal offices.

At the moment, the 197 members of the Missouri Legislature include only four members -- all in the House -- who claim Hispanic ties: Republicans Brian Nieves of Washington and Tim Flook of Liberty, Mo., and Democrats Mike Talboy of Kansas City and Maria Chappelle-Nadal of University City.

Chappelle-Nadal said the four reflect a wide range of political viewpoints, which underscore that Hispanics can't be politically pigeon-holed.

With few Hispanics, Missouri no longer a bellwether 

Jorge Riopedre, executive director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis, believes that Missouri's small number of Hispanics is a key reason the state appears to be losing its political bellwether status.

In the 2008 presidential election, the state failed to side with the victor for only the second time in 100 years. Republican John McCain narrowly carried Missouri, but lost nationally to Democrat Barack Obama. UMSL Political scientist David Robertson wrote in the Beacon after the 2008 election that "Missouri is growing less and less representative of the nation's rapidly changing ethnic makeup" and because of that, "Missouri's relatively small Latino population has undercut its status as a political bellwether."

The state's political preferences didn't echo those of the nation, Riopedre also says, because its demographics are no longer in line with the country's.

"Missouri is becoming more white, while the rest of the country is becoming more diverse," he said.

While emphasizing that he and the Hispanic Chamber are staying out of partisan politics, Riopedre said that certain issues -- such as the 2008 statewide passage of a measure requiring English-only for governmental proceedings -- send a disquieting message to all immigrant communities.

" 'Missouri is not welcoming,' that is definitely the message,'' said Riopedre.

He cites regular calls that he gets from Hispanic residents who report being stopped by police asking for documentation that they are legally in the state.

Riopedre also is concerned about a bill now in the Legislature that would bar the state Highway Patrol from giving drivers exams, written or on-the-road, in foreign languages, or to allow the use of interpreters. The patrol said at a recent House hearing that it now provides the test in at least a dozen languages. Interpreters also are allowed.

Riopedre says such a law would do nothing to curb illegal immigration since people seeking a drivers license already have to provide documentation of their legal status.

"It only targets people here legally and who don't speak English well," Riopedre said.

The bill's chief sponsor, state Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O'Fallon, said it is aimed at public safety, not immigrants -- and certainly not just Hispanics. One of her co-sponsors is Nieves, who also was a supporter of the English-only law.

Davis said Missouri drivers should know enough English to read traffic signs, communicate with other drivers and deal with police or insurance companies. Davis added that she was unaware of any non-English-speaking foreign countries that offer their drivers' tests in English.

"I'm not demanding full fluency," Davis said. Those who oppose her bill, she maintained, are against assimilation.

That dispute aside, Riopedre emphasized that the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and other allied Hispanic groups don't want to be defined by immigration-related issues.

That may help explain why other matters dominated this year's Hispanic Day, held Feb. 9 in Jefferson City. Members meeting with legislators focused instead on education, economics, economic development and health care -- not immigration.

About 40 people, mostly Hispanic businesspeople, made the trip. More were expected, organizers said, but dropped out because of the snow storm that day.

Still, Riopedre was pleased with the turnout, which he says has doubled in the past five years. Several dozen legislators of both parties participated in forums and meetings with the Hispanic Day participants.

But what's more important, he added, is "what has to happen after Hispanic Day."

"In the last five years, most definitely progress has been made. (Legislators) will engage in our events," Riopedre said. "They will take our calls. That may seem small, but it helps."

Missouri's climate for Hispanics may be warming

State Rep. Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City, says he has seen improvements since he came to the state House four years ago. Talboy's mother is Hispanic, hailing from Colombia.

"You've seen some of the rhetoric change," said Talboy. "Some of the language has been toned down."

Some of change, he continued, may reflect the realization of some legislators that -- like it or not -- "Hispanics are the fastest-growing population nationwide."

Hispanics also have gotten more involved in the political process, which Talboy suspects is prompting some legislators to re-examine whether fiery anti-immigration talk makes sense.

But still, he's seen first-hand how some of Missouri's policies are prompting Hispanics to vote with their feet.

In the Kansas City region, for example, he believes more Hispanics live on the Kansas side. One reason, said Talboy, is that Kansas has passed a law, known as the DREAM Act, that allows children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Kansas' colleges and universities.

Efforts in the Missouri Legislature to follow suit have failed so far. Explained Talboy: "I don't think we're at a point where there's an appetite for that yet."

Still, leaders of both state parties emphasize their push to capture and keep Hispanic votes.

"In Missouri, the Democratic Party has strong ties to the Hispanic community through the many organizations and groups that we are associated with," said state Democratic Party spokesman Ryan Hobart. "Just like all Missourians, many of them are focused on bringing good-paying jobs to their communities. Democrats on the state and national level are working to bring the economy back from the greatest downturn since the Great Depression, in which Hispanic and other minority communities were greatly affected."

The Missouri Republican Party notes that its leaders adopted a resolution at Lincoln Days honoring Tony Ramirez, a prominent St. Louis area Hispanic businessman and civic activist -- and founder of the Hispanic Chamber -- who died last year. "What we're doing as a party is talking to the people we need to be talking to, involving them in the process,'' said state GOP executive director Lloyd Smith. "We're also looking for ways for elected officials to interact. When we explain where we are as a party (on issues), we do real well."

It's unclear how Hispanics may figure into the already heated U.S. Senate contest. The campaigns of Blunt and the best-known Democratic candidate, Robin Carnahan, each say they are focused on wooing all voters and believe all voters have similar concerns.

Carnahan's husband is Hispanic, Juan Carlos Antolinez, and he appears with her at some campaign events. Some Democrats remain irked about the state Republican Party's action last year to file an ethics complaint against Carnahan, accusing her of failing to disclose one of her husband's companies on her financial disclosure forms. Carnahan said the company in question didn't exist; the state Ethics Commission later tossed out the complaint.

Arguably a more powerful demonstration of the growing political importance of area Hispanics occurred last fall, when a bipartisan cadre of elected officials turned out for the grand opening here of the Hispanic chamber's new technology and resource center.

U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., was lauded, in particular, for his role in snagging a $500,000 federal grant.

Bond's ties with the chamber go back decades, to his creation of the state's first Governor's Advisory Council on Hispanic Affairs. Even so, the senator acknowledged in an interview that he took some heat from conservatives for his work to obtain the grant, although he said he did so because of his commitment to assisting private enterprise and job creation.

The grand-opening crowd also included St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, both Democrats.

Riopedre said the bipartisan turnout was "very gratifying" and was proof that the Hispanic chamber and allied groups "are earning respect."

More political attention to Hispanics may follow once the state and the region gets a better sense of how many there are.

Said Riopedre: "I certainly hope, when we are done with the census, that we have a better sense of numbers."

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.