The rise of Hispanic voting power

Pretty good article today on the growth of Latino voting power in Houston and Harris County.

As the babies born then turn old enough to vote in this year’s November election, politics in the Houston area has a much deeper Hispanic tinge. Hispanics on the voter rolls have nearly tripled in the passing of a generation; the number of Hispanic lawmakers from here is inching upward. The Democratic Party, if it captures county judgeships and government positions for the first time in 14 years, will owe much to a stimulated Hispanic vote and Hispanic candidates, such as Houston councilman Adrian Garcia, who is running for sheriff.

Harris County, however, continues to hold the largest Hispanic population in the United States that has never sent a Hispanic to Congress. And there is a staggering gap between its burgeoning vote of nearly 300,000 and the total number of Hispanic residents, 1.48 million, which includes all ages and residency statuses. Latinos make up 15 percent of the county’s electorate and 38-plus percent of its population, the U.S. Census Bureau and Harris County officials report.

In other words, the so-called sleeping giant, known as the Houston area’s fastest-growing voting group, has been making slow progress without yet achieving dominant clout.

“It’s not asleep, and it’s not a giant,” University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray said. “It has come to be a normal-size political animal.”

Houston political consultant Marc Campos remarked otherwise: “The giant is waking up, and he’s making a pot of coffee.”

Couple points here. There’s really only one Conngressional district in Harris County that might be won by a Hispanic candidate, and that’s the 29th. Since beating Ben Reyes (twice) and Felix Fraga in primaries in the 90s, Rep. Gene Green hasn’t been seriously challenged for that seat. When he retires – if I had to guess, I’d pick November of 2014 as the open-seat election for the 29th – it will almost surely be won by someone like State Rep. Ana Hernandez or State Rep.-to-be Carol Alvarado. That person would not be the first Hispanic Congressperson from Houston, however, because we are a lock to get a new seat out of the 2010 reapportionment, and I’d bet on it being an opportunity district for a Hispanic candidate. And so we’ll likely go from zero to two in two elections.

As for the size and wakefulness of the Hispanic electorate, I’d call it a mixed bag. Armando Walle’s victory over Craddick Dem Kevin Bailey was a big step forward, and the HISD bond referendum of 2007 probably couldn’t have passed without strong support in the Latino community. On the other hand, given the chance to elect the first Hispanic At Large City Council member since Orlando Sanchez in 1999, nobody came out to support Joe Trevino in his runoff against Jolanda Jones. I think it’s one thing to elect Latinos in districts that were drawn to elect Latinos, and another to win city- or countywide.

Speaking of the newly-elected Rep. Walle:

For the freshest examples of the stirrings, look near the railroad tracks by the Eastex Freeway in northeast Houston. This is where Armando Walle grew up with his single mother, Connie, who was 16 when he was born. Walle, now 30, became the first person in his family to graduate from high school. After earning a degree from the University of Houston, Walle worked as a staffer for elected officials at the city and county levels and is employed by U.S. Rep. Gene Green, the Anglo Democrat who represents a mostly Hispanic Houston district.

On his first venture as a candidate, Walle defeated longtime state Rep. Kevin Bailey in this year’s Democratic primary in a northside district. District 140’s population was mostly Hispanic for many years, and by 2004 most of its registered voters were Hispanic, too, according to the Willie C. Velasquez Institute, which studies Hispanic voting in the Southwest.

Other Hispanics besides Walle ran against Bailey in previous primaries, when voter turnout was lackluster. This year, Democrats across Harris County swarmed the polls for the presidential primary contest, and the wave carried Walle to victory. He also had campaigned door-to-door, losing about 20 pounds in the walking process, he said, and his mother apparently earned him some votes by calling voters and speaking to them in English or Spanish.

“We knew if we were going to win, that this would be the time to strike,” he said, “and the stars aligned.”

Indeed they were. And it should be noted that a late mailer by Rep. Green in support of Walle helped put him over the top. Reportedly, quite a few people gave their vote to Walle after hearing that Green had endorsed him. So in case you were wondering why nobody has bothered to challenge Gene Green in a primary over the past decade, that would be the reason: His constituents really like him. Sometimes it’s just that simple.

About 115,000 Spanish surname voters cast ballots in the county in the last presidential election and, Murray said, the pattern indicates at least 150,000 Hispanic votes this time. But with Houston Hispanic and outgoing state Rep. Rick Noriega leading the statewide Democratic ticket as a candidate for U.S. senator, the statistic could reach 175,000. “Now,” Murray said of that scenario for the Hispanic vote, “you are finally getting into the league where you become a city or countywide force.”

Numbers-wise, the Latino vote was about 10.8% of the total in Harris County in 2004. Based on equivalent turnout, Dr. Murray’s estimates would represent 14.0% or 16.4% of the total. However, everyone expects turnout to be higher this year; based on an expected total of 1.2 million (there was 1.068 million in 2004), Latinos would be 12.5% or 14.6% of the whole. That’s a nice improvement, but there’s still a lot of room for growth.

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