How Can Latinos Get More Political Power?
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We are marking Hispanic Heritage Month with a special broadcast today. While we cover diverse newsmakers and personalities all year long, we thought this would be a good time to put a special focus on issues of particular concern to Latinos and to highlight just a few of the people who are making a difference in politics, in media and in their own homes.
We're going to start off by talking politics with two experienced political observers. Maria Cardona is a longtime Democratic strategist. You see her often on CNN. We also hope to have with us Ruben Navarrette. He's a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. He's also a contributor to CNN and USA Today. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us, Maria.
MARIA CARDONA: Gracias for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: You know, we'd be remiss if we didn't start off talking about those terrible events at the Washington Navy Yard yesterday. Maria, you are in the Washington, D.C. area. And I just have to ask you, first, if you did the - you know, as experienced as you are - you've worked at high levels in government and in business and so forth - but did you still find yourself going through the minority checklist. I hope he's not a member of my group, or whoever this is?
CARDONA: I did, sadly. And that is something that goes through my mind whenever something like this happens. And we don't know a lot about what the history of the perpetrator is and what led to this today. But I will tell you that this will undoubtedly ignite, once again, the issue of guns and gun safety and gun policy. And it will, obviously, also spill into the political debate because the gun debate has been roaring this year.
And I think that this now, people are going to look at it from the context of mental health issues, from the context of background checks, from the context of processes in terms of what happened if there were these indications that this was somebody who should not have, first of all, A, had a gun and secondly, haven't been given access to where he was. Those are going to be questions.
MARTIN: You do work in the area of public opinion, as well. So do you have any idea where are - you know, obviously, Latinos are a very large group.
MARTIN: Latino-Americans or Latino voters are a big group. Do you have any idea where Latinos are as a group on this?
CARDONA: Yes, and in fact, the majority of Latino voters are where the majority of America is, especially on background checks. You know, Latino families have suffered - similar to African-American families - from a lot of gun violence, a lot of gang gun violence. And so most of them see the issue of background checks as something that is common sense, that is sensible, that goes with the Second Amendment and the Constitution, and they agree that this is a step that needs to be taken so that our kids can be safer across the country and all of our communities.
MARTIN: Well, let's talk about some of the other issues that we think are on the minds of Latinos and Latino voters in particular. So I'd like to move on to immigration reform. It's something that President Obama has said is on his list of priorities. The Senate voted on a bill. The House has yet to take up immigration reform, and the president was asked about this, among other issues, over the weekend on ABC's - a Sunday morning public affairs program this week - and this is what he had to say.
(SOUNDBITE OF ABC PROGRAM)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The problem we have is we have a faction of the Republican Party, in the House of Representatives in particular, that view compromise as a dirty word, and anything that is even remotely associated with me, they feel obliged to oppose. And my argument to them is real simple - that's not why the people sent you here.
MARTIN: Ruben Navarrette, welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.
RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Good to be with you.
MARTIN: So what about that? Do you buy that?
NAVARRETTE: I don't buy that the politics of immigration reform is merely as simple as you would think from reading some of the Eastern media. I think - you know, I live in San Diego - I live a stone's throw away from the Mexican border, and I think out here in the Southwest, we get a sense that it's much more complicated and that it's not simply the case of one party is on our side or one is against us. Neither party - neither political party wants to do immigration reform, which is why it's taken them 25 - 26 years to get back to this issue since the last time they took a bite out of the apple. And the reason they don't want to do it is because in both cases it divides their core constituencies. For Democrats, it pits labor unions against Latinos, and on the Republican side, it pits the business interests against the nativist factions of the Republican Party that are worried about changing demographics. So it's a messy conversation for political parties. They don't want to get into it.
MARTIN: Maria, what do you say about that?
CARDONA: I couldn't disagree more and I love Ruben, but on this one, he's just wrong because while maybe five or 10 years ago, that might have been the case. But today, you cannot find one Democrat that will say, let's not do immigration reform. The day that Ruben can find me one Democrat that says, let's not do immigration reform, then we can have the debate about whose fault it is. Right now it is up to one...
CARDONA: Right now, it is up to one man in Congress - John Boehner. John Boehner can bring this to the floor tomorrow and it would pass. It would pass with majority of Democratic votes, and it would pass with some Republican votes.
MARTIN: Well, so why doesn't he? Why doesn't he, Maria?
CARDONA: Because he does not want to go against the majority of his caucus, and to President Obama's point, they are against immigration reform. They are against many things that the president says, but I don't think it's as simple as, because they don't like him. Yes, they don't like him, but it's also because they come from conservative districts, Michel, where a lot of those voters don't think that immigration reform is something that we need. And they are deathly afraid of getting a primary challenge from the right, so they're not going to do anything. And there's no incentive for them to do anything...
CARDONA: ...To go against their own political interests.
NAVARRETTE: Maria threw out a challenge. I'll answer her challenge. I'll name five Democrats - five Democrats who, in December 2010, who voted against the DREAM Act, and that is - in the Senate, Tester, Hagan, Nelson, Pryor and Baucus - five Democrats who helped kill the DREAM Act. Democrats who take their orders...
MARTIN: Who are gone.
NAVARRETTE: Yeah, well..
MARTIN: Who are gone.
NAVARRETTE: Well, no, some have decided to retire. But to her point, in fact that this idea that there are conservative constituents out there - constituencies out there that worry about giving amnesty to illegal immigrants, it's not simply limited to Republicans. There are members of organized labor in the Midwest who feel that way. There are conservative Democrats in Montana who feel that way. It is overly simplistic and too much of a Washington beltway think to somehow say that the white hats are on the Democrat's side, the black hats on the Republican side...
MARTIN: Hold on, let me just ask you one thing, Ruben, before I go back to Maria here. California's governor Jerry Brown said last week that federal inaction and immigration reform is what caused him to change his mind on allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses and he said that he's hoping that signing this bill into law in California might provoke some action at the federal level. So what do you thing? Do you think that that's true?
NAVARRETTE: I think the Democrats are a really big disappointment for those of us in California. On immigration, I'll give you one example, he disappointed the left when he vetoed something called the TRUST Act, which was a bill in California - a legislature - that would've taken out Secure Communities from California and it would've said to local police officers you cannot be like Arizona here, you cannot enforce immigration law. That was on his desk and he vetoed it. And it's a position that he had taken all along as attorney general. So on immigration, Jerry Brown is very much a mixed bag an he's not been very pleasing to the left.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to our special broadcast. We're observing Hispanic Heritage Month. We're talking politics with syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette. That's who was speaking just now. Also with us, Democratic strategist Maria Cardona. Maria, can we switch up and ask about - we had historian Taylor Branch on the program yesterday talking about the anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. A terrible, searing event.
And one of the things he said to us is that it kind of shifted the focus of the civil rights activists from - first they wanted just a bill to end segregation. But that caused them to shift their focus to voting rights because they said the only way to fix this is to make sure that people who don't believe in this have a stake in changing this and a stake in the leadership of the country at every level of politics. I wanted to ask what all of this inaction in immigration reform - what effect do you think that's having on Latino voters? Do you think it's - what effect do you think it's having on their understanding of the political process - their willingness to participate? Is it in fact firing people up or is it making them feel discouraged and not as invested in participating?
CARDONA: It's firing them up but clearly not enough. One of the things that we saw coming out of the 2012 election is that there were record numbers of Latinos that went to the polls. But it was still - the percentage is still incredibly low. Less than 50 percent of Latino voters who were eligible to go vote in November 2012 went to vote. The African-Americans blew us out of the water. And that's so great and so fantastic but can you imagine, Ruben, and all of my other Latino friends and listeners - if our community voted at at least 80 percent, there would be no question as to whether immigration reform was going to pass or not. I'm sorry but there would be hell to pay with elected leaders all across the board if every Latino voter who was today eligible to go register to vote and then voted - if they actually let their voices be heard...
MARTIN: Why don't they? Why aren't they?
CARDONA: Well, I think a lot of it is apathy. I think a lot of it, frankly, is a misunderstanding or a lack of effort from leaders to connect - how politics actually affects the everyday person. It's getting better and I think the Arizona law and all of this talk around immigration does help that, but we need to continue to push.
MARTIN: In the final minute and a half that we have left, I wanted to ask you, each of you about - to name a Latino political figure that we should all be keeping our eyes on. Ruben, I'll start with you.
NAVARRETTE: Well, I think the easy choice is the Castro brothers. I think that Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, and his brother Joaquin Castro, the Congressmen from San Antonio, are obviously on their way up. I think they're on their way up a lot faster than people realize. And the fact that they both spent September 15th, which is the day before their birthday, in Iowa at the Tom Harkin steak-fry, gladhanding, tells you that they're very serious about this. And I think the party is very serious about them.
CARDONA: So obviously, I would've said that, as well, but I'm going to pull a little twist here. I think we need to keep an eye Susana Martinez.
MARTIN: Governor of New Mexico.
CARDONA: Yes. The governor of New Mexico who is a rising star in the GOP. And what I think she proves, and something that I wanted to mention, that I do agree with Ruben, is the immigration issue is not a left or right issue. It is a Conservative versus Republican Party issue right now, frankly. And people like Susana Martinez, people like Marco Rubio and others in the party who understand that for their political future the Republicans need to do this or there's no way in hell they're going to see the inside of la casa blanca anytime soon.
MARTIN: What about Ted Cruz?
CARDONA: Ted Cruz would like...
CARDONA: ...that he is a rising star, and he is among conservatives. But if he continues with the views that he has, you know, he's going to essentially have the same fate as a lot of Republicans have thus far, which is...
NAVARRETTE: Ted Cruz is a game changer.
CARDONA: ...not going to be electable.
NAVARRETTE: I've known Ted for 12 years. He's a game changer. He scares the Republicans. I love it. Somebody needs to shake up that party and he's the one doing it.
MARTIN: OK. All right. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicate columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. He's a contributor to CNN, a member of USA Today's Board of Contributors. I think we caught up with him on the side of the road in San Diego. Ruben, thank you for calling in. Maria Cardona's a Democrat strategist and contributor to CNN. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.