Without a doubt, he is Colorado’s most popular former politician. And when he says something, people listen. Now, former Denver mayor and presidential cabinet secretary Federico Peña is hoping that the words that play so well in Denver and Colorado also hit the right notes when he takes his message on the road.
Peña, along with 20 prominent Democratic leaders from around the country, including Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, has been named national co-chair for President Obama’s reelection. It will be Peña’s second time around performing this job for the president. But, unlike 2008, when then-Sen. Obama was relatively unknown, this time there’s a record. And that is just fine with Peña who says, “Let’s talk.”
The facts speak for themselves, says an enthusiastic and very trim-looking Peña from his sixteenth floor Denver office. “We inherited a terrible recession that required some bold decisions.” The president’s actions, he says, “prevented us from going into a depression.”
Peña enumerates a litany of positives; twenty-three consecutive months of job creation, the Recovery Act that saved the jobs of cops, firefighters and teachers while also creating thousands of infrastructure jobs. The president, he says, cut taxes, fought for and won a payroll tax credit and ended the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest. “We have got a record.” And that’s before Peña waxes artfully over the president’s health care overhaul, pumping new life into the American car industry, ending the Iraq War and killing of Osama bin Laden. But, the job’s not done.
Between now and November, Peña will be a road warrior on the president’s behalf. And explicitly or implicitly, one of Peña’s big jobs is to secure Latino votes. In 2008, the president won nearly 70 percent of all Latino votes. In 2012, Team Obama is taking nothing for granted.
With more than eight months before the election, Peña will be reminding Latinos about draconian anti-immigration laws that have passed in Arizona, Alabama and Georgia. The laws, often referred to as ‘papers please’ laws because authorities may now demand immigration papers from those suspected of being in the country illegally, have wrecked havoc on immigrant families. They have also had some unintended consequences in Alabama and Georgia where a lack of seasonal workers cost the states billions in crop losses.
So critical is the Latino vote that TIME Magazine dedicated its cover to the Latino voter. “Yo Decido” became the magazine’s first complete sentence in Spanish on its cover in its history. Finally, in 2012, Latinos may be the critical voting bloc in a presidential election, certainly in too-close-to-call states, including Colorado. And while Peña knows the stakes, the same may not be true to some of the Republicans who want to be president.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has laced his campaign trail with anti-immigrant comments. His attacks on one-time Texas Gov. Rick Perry on immigration and for being against any form of amnesty won a lot of Tea Party support. He has also called for ‘self deportation’ of all Mexican immigrants and strongly denounced the Dream Act.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum likes to invoke memories of his immigrant ancestors, but has actively courted Arizona’s anti-immigrant forces, including controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio. During an Arizona Tea Party stop, Santorum once suggested that if upholding immigration laws meant breaking families apart, he would have no problem.
The shrill anti-immigrant message coming from potential Republican nominees even awoke Somos Republicanos, a splinter group of Latino Republicans. It says the party’s immigrant bashing has simply gone too far. Latino Mormons have also banded together to counter fellow Mormon Romney’s anti-immigrant messaging. Traditionally, Mormons have provided a safe harbor for new immigrants and not simply based on church teachings. New Latino immigrants have also proved amenable to converting to Mormonism.
Peña says immigrant bashing can only get Republicans so far. He says the president, who promised comprehensive immigration reform but has not yet made good on it, can’t do it alone. “Not one Republican senator in the last three years has stated they’re willing to work with the president.” In Texas, where Latinos will soon be a majority population, neither senator has spoken up on fixing the immigration system or shown any interest in the Dream Act.
Republicans may have won some conservative Latino voters, even with their repeated immigrant bashing, but they may have misplayed their hand with younger Latinos and with Mexican-Americans in the all-important West. These potential voting blocs are turned off by the rhetoric and don’t fall into a long held Republican belief that Latino values are Republican values.
Latino Decisions conducted a recent poll showing that more than half of Latinos don’t factor religion into their vote. On gay marriage, a hot-button issue with Republicans, 43 percent of Latinos favor it compared to 35 percent of the general voting population. And while a majority of Latinos voters are Catholic, a growing number of Latinos favor choice in family planning.
Yes, immigration is important to Latinos, says Peña, but more emotionally than pragmatically. Jobs, education and health care all rank higher as Latino priorities. And with a stabilizing unemployment rate, more money being invested in Pell Grants enabling Latino students to go to college and a health care overhaul that has allowed Latino parents to keep their children on their insurance until age 26, he says Democrats are doing the right things while Republicans seem to be marching backward into the future.
Sooner or later, Democrats say, Republicans, especially those wanting to lead the nation, will need to recalibrate their message. Instead of focusing primarily on vilifying and punishing Latinos who are immigrants, they are going to have to acknowledge that the vast majority of Latinos in the country are as fundamentally American as anyone named Gingrich, Paul, Romney or Santorum.