Battle for Latino Vote Continues at LaRaza
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, everybody dreads a layoff, but what do you do to survive it? We'll ask to two people who have written a lot about it and a person who is living through it, in just a few minutes. But first, presumptive presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain hunted for votes this weekend at the annual conferences of two of the country's largest civil rights organizations. The NAACP and the National Council of LaRaza. Joining us to talk about how the candidates were received is Janet Murguia, president of the National Council. Welcome, thank you for talking to us.
Ms. JANET MURGUIA (President, National Council of LaRaza): Sure, Michel. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
MARTIN: Just wrapping up this convention, and obviously you've been talking a lot this week, your organization's now in its 40th year. What do you think is the most important priority today versus when the organization was started?
Ms. MURGUIA: Well, it's interesting, you know. When we started we wanted to lift folks out of poverty, it was really around the time of the war on poverty, and people were hoping to create better opportunities for our community. Now, today, when you look at the economy and what's happening right now, it's important for us to think about those folks who may still be invisible out there who need better opportunities to have access in this country.
MARTIN: Well, clearly, you're not invisible to these candidates. Both candidates also spoke at the LULAC conference last week, or the League of United Latin American Citizens, both Senators Obama and McCain spoke there and then came to your conference as well. How do you see this? How do you see the aggressive effort they are making?
Ms. MURGUIA: Well, I do feel that, you know, the presidential candidates are looking to win the Hispanic vote, and they are coming to our conferences to find it. I think it's fair to say the Latino community is projecting its demographics into political strength by engaging in the voting process.
MARTIN: Of the people attending your conference, what do you think was most important for them to hear from these candidates? And did the candidates speak to their priorities?
Ms. MURGUIA: You know, I think both were received, I think, high marks for coming because showing up is important, and that's a big difference from a long time ago. But I also, you know, think what they have to say is something we are very interested in. Both, I think, talked about their vision for the future, their priorities in the next administration, and I understand that the Hispanic community cares about not just one issue, like immigration, but you know, all the issues that are important to their families, such as education, health and dealing with the economy and these high gas prices. And I think both candidates talked about that. But I think we're still going to need to hear more specifics. They are going to have to start drilling down further on exactly how they will carry these priorities through.
MARTIN: I do want to spend a minute on immigration because both candidates did spend some time talking about this issue. Barack Obama came in first. He spoke at the conference on Sunday, and he criticized his opponent John McCain for what he called abandoning his earlier stance on immigration. Here is a little bit of what he said.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I don't know about you, but I think it's time for a president who won't walk away when something as important as comprehensive reform just because it becomes politically unpopular. That's the commitment I'm making to you. I marched with you in the streets of Chicago, I fought for you in the Senate, and I will make it a top priority in my first year as President of the United States of America.
MARTIN: Do you think that's fair? Do you think that John McCain walked way from his earlier position on immigration reform?
Ms. MURGUIA: Well, what we heard from John McCain was that he's absolutely committed to seeing comprehensive immigration reform happen in his administration, early in his administration. But when you look at how he breaks it down, there is some, I think, concern among some in the Hispanic community because, is john McCain talking about entirely securing the border first and then doing a comprehensive immigration reform? Or is he talking about doing that within the context of a comprehensive immigration reform system? And it seems that there's still some confusion about that.
MARTIN: But is this a difference of tone or of substance? Because Barack Obama also said that while we work to strengthen our borders we need a practical solution for the problem of 12 million people who are here without documentation and going on to talk about the need for path to citizenship. Is this really a difference in substance or is this a difference in tone and emphasis?
Ms. MURGUIA: Well, I think both in terms of their tone have said that this is a priority and I do believe when Senator Barack Obama talks about understanding this issue, having worked in Latino communities, having marched with many and having voted on this in the senate, you know, he has a compelling sense of what this means for the Latino community, he understands it. I think Senator McCain showed great courage in standing up to his party early on. The question is, is will he be able to deliver his party once he's president?
MARTIN: One more question on this. Senator McCain also talked about immigration reform, he acknowledged the country hasn't been able to move forward on immigration reform and he talked about, I think he kind of presented it as a sign of his courage that he was willing to buck people in his party. He also talked about the tone of the debate and here's a little bit of what he said.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I know many of you are Democrats, regrettably. I know I must work hard to win your votes, but you've always given me a respectful hearing. I know many of you were disappointed and hurt by those who used the debate on immigration last year not to respectfully debate the issue, as most did, but to denigrate the contributions of Hispanics to out great country. I denounced those insults then, and I denounce them today.
MARTIN: Do you think that that matters?
Ms. MURGUIA: It matters greatly to the Latino community because I think there's no question that the Republican brand has been tarnished by the extreme rhetoric that has come out of the failed immigration reform debate. And for our community, we have seen that while some may say that they are not talking about Hispanics or Latinos, they are only talking about what they call those illegal immigrants. For our community we know that this is very personal and that people can't tell the difference. And so we are being painted with a broad brush, I think negative sentiment. And that in many respects is what is mobilizing the Latino vote in this year's elections. So Senator McCain struck a real chord when he talked about that issue.
MARTIN: If you are just joining us, you are listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Janet Murgulia, president of the National Council of La Raza, which held its annual conference this week. I want to mention something that Senator Obama talked about at the NAACP convention, which is also going on this week in Cincinnati. He talked about this issue of personal responsibility, and I know you know there was some buzz about some off-color, off-mic comments the Reverend Jesse Jackson made about Senator Obama. He was critical of Senator Obama's kind of emphasis on personal responsibility. Here's what Senator Obama has said, perhaps in response to that, but it's also a theme he's talked about all along. Here it is.
Senator OBAMA: I know there are some who have been saying I am too tough, talking about responsibility. NAACP, I'm here to report, I'm not going to stop talking about it. Because as much as I'm out there fighting to make sure government's doing its job. None of it will make a difference, at least not enough of a difference, if we also at the same time, don't seize more responsibility in our own lives.
MARTIN: Now some have criticized this. Not as bluntly or as crudely as Reverend Jackson did in these remarks which were not meant to be public, but that suggesting that Senator Obama's emphasis on personal responsibility detracts from the focus on what other players need to be doing, what government needs to be going, what business needs to be doing. As a civil rights leader yourself, how do you read these comments?
Ms. MURGUIA: I agree fully with Senator Obama's message on this point. There's no question that personal responsibility is a priority, for the Latino community as well. It's something that we see and embrace. But I think we just need to understand that some folks, despite their tireless efforts to try to help themselves, still find some obstacles along the way and some barriers along the way. And we need to be mindful that not just government, but every other sector can play a role in helping to remove those obstacles.
MARTIN: One of the issues that has come up in connection with the story around these remarks about personal responsibility is a sense that there might be some kind of a gap between the vision of the people who have been long-standing leaders in the civil rights community, and those who are emerging leaders. Do you see that in a Latino community? Is that a conversation that's going on about whether there might be some things from the past that we need to leave behind? Whether it's time for new approaches?
Ms. MURGUIA: You know, I think you always here about the new guard and the old guard and the different, I guess, philosophies that may be attributed to that. All I can do is say that from my experience and my generation we see the future as one that has, of course, challenges. But I think we try to focus on the opportunities and what we can do to move ourselves and our communities forward.
Having said that, I will tell you that with this environment that we have seen as a result of the immigration debate for the Latino community, I feel that we have regressed in some respects and we've had to really embrace our civil rights roots at this time in the 21st century, and that's regrettable. But we'll always be cognizant of our need to defend the community against injustice and discrimination. But I hope that our focus in this 21st century can be much more opportunity oriented, and really about opening the doors to the American dream and finding the ways that we can do that.
MARTIN: Well, in fact that leads me to my last question, which is on the one hand you've had a year - I mean you've been president of the National Council since 2005, and in the last couple of years, on the one hand you've seen, as John McCain talked about, a sense in some ways a Latino community is under attack at least painted with a sort of a broad and negative brush as part of policy disputes. On the other hand, you have these two candidates competing very hard for your votes. So how do you assess it when you look at the road ahead? How - is this a good news story? Is it a bad news story? Is it the best of times, worst of times?
Ms. MURGUIA: Well, I think it's both. It's the best of times and the worst of times in some respects for the Latino community. It's a really a threshold moment that's filled with choices about how we deal with challenges, but also the knowledge that there are opportunities, I hope, for the Latino community when we finally realize that we can be empowered to move forward. And we have to engage in the Democratic and electoral process to do that.
MARTIN: Janet Murguia is President of the National Council of La Raza. She joined us in San Diego where the group just wrapped up their annual conference. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. MURGUIA: Thank you Michel. It's a pleasure.