'Latinos '08' Probes Importance to Presidential Bid

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The significance of the Latino vote in this year's presidential election is the subject of Latinos '08, a new documentary airing tonight on PBS. It gives a historic look at how the Latino vote has been courted by presidential candidates and how this year's election is playing out with Latinos.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, what Republican National Committee chairman Mike Duncan listens to when he is winding down. But first, both presidential candidates understand that the Latino vote may be crucial to winning the White House this year. A new documentary airing tonight sheds light on the history of efforts to court the Latino vote. I'm joined by Phillip Rodriguez; he is the director of "Latinos '08." And I'm also joined by syndicated columnist and our Barbershop regular Ruben Navarrette; he's featured in the film. Welcome to you both.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Great to be here.

PHILLIP RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, Phillip, I don't know. Maybe it's me, but so often we think of documentaries as this kind of a look at something that happened, you know, 50 years ago that, you know, has been chewed over by, you know, scholars. This documentary really is about what's happening right this minute. What gave you the idea to do this film?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, I'm interested in the changes of this country and when one is on the west coast and one is Mexican-American, it's very difficult not to have a sense of vast change. And these are the things that I'm interested in documenting.

MARTIN: Ruben, how highly sought-after is the Latino vote this year? And how do you contrast that to even four years ago?

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. It's more sought-after than ever, Michel. It's an incredibly hot ticket right now for a very simple reason. Latinos derive their power from their unpredictability, the fact that they can - even though they're registered Democrats, most of them - they've shown their willingness to support Republicans. They put their chips all over the board. They're not taken for granted by one party or written off by the other and so both parties really do seek them out. Somewhere between 9 and 10 million Latinos are expected to cast ballots next month, but the real strength comes not from the sheer numbers but the fact that you just never know what they're going to do. So neither party can really afford to turn their back on that electorate. They've both got a shot at it.

MARTIN: Phillip, in the film, you look back at Latino political participation going back to the 1930's. But the presidential election of 1960 was an important watershed when John F. Kennedy reached out to Latino voters. And I want to play a clip - which I must say I really enjoyed seeing - of former first lady Jackie Kennedy campaigning in a Spanish language ad. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF 'LATINOS '08' CLIP)

JACKIE KENNEDY: (Speaking Spanish)

LOUIS FRAGA: Now I'm sure that you have seen the Spanish language ad that Jackie ran where she spoke Spanish with a notable French accent.

KENNEDY: (Speaking Spanish)

MARTIN: And who is that talking again?

RODRIGUEZ: Louis Fraga, a professor of political science at the University of Washington.

MARTIN: While you were searching the film, Phillip, did you realize that efforts to court the Latino vote had gone back so far?

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. I mean, one has a sense of that. I mean, as a Mexican-American, again, in the Southwest, in every Mexican-American restaurant, you would see a photograph of John F. Kennedy sitting next to a Virgin Mary. So the sense of outreach of at least the Democrats has always been very pervasive and evident.

MARTIN: Was that controversial? The fact that they cut that spot, in effect, this election as you know, there was some toing and froing over whether there would be a Spanish language primary debate and there were some discussion about whether some of the candidates - some of the candidates refused to participate, saying they didn't think that was appropriate. So was that controversial at the time?

NAVARRETTE: Michel, I don't think it had that kind of negative brushback the way the issue does now. Back then, it was just sort of seen as a way to communicate to a group of Catholic voters, frankly, about the enormous challenge of electing the country's first Catholic president. And boy, the Kennedys struck a certain magic, so much so that 45, 50 years later when Democratic politicians go out to East Los Angeles to court the Mexican-American vote, they take Bobby's kids and Caroline Kennedy with them because the Kennedy magic endures in the Latino community.

MARTIN: But Phillip, you also make the point in the documentary that Ronald Reagan was a significant player in reaching out to Latinos in the 1980s. Tell me a little bit about that.

RODRIGUEZ: Well, Reagan seduced lots of Americans and I think he was particularly resonant among Latinos who reside primarily in the Southwest and California. There was something about his common touch, I suppose. And moreover, I think that the Democrats have been trotting out to Northeast elites for a while and I think there's - Latinos don't feel much of kinship with people from Exeter and Harvard. I think someone like Reagan of common stock is a kind of person that appeals to Latino voters.

MARTIN: Step light Phillip, Ruben and I both went to Harvard.

NAVARRETTE: Careful there, Phillip.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RODRIGUEZ: I know your types.

NAVARRETTE: As we did, Michel and I are uniquely positioned to understand what you just said and the wisdom in it. Michel, let me jump in on this if I can. I think if I had to put my finger on the one thing that works against liberal Democrats in getting the Latino vote, it's simply the idea that they take them for granted, the same dynamic you saw playing out in the Democratic primary with black voters. And frankly, some white Democrats taking umbrage that black voters would prefer Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton early on. That was a hugely defining moment and a hugely important moment. And likewise, that the best thing that a white liberal can do in speaking to either African-Americans or Latinos is to take a couple doses of humility and understand that they've got to earn their votes just like everybody else.

MARTIN: Ruben, four years ago, the Latino vote was roughly divided between the two major parties, and Latinos are more likely than other groups to describe themselves as independents.

NAVARRETTE: Right.

MARTIN: So what are the issues or factors you think that Latino voters will swing on in this election?

NAVARRETTE: When people talk about issues for the Latino voters, we always sort of hit the same issues over and over again. We hear education. They somehow think that they're voting for a national superintendent of schools in addition to the president of the United States. This particular time around, the war and the economy are top issues, health care remains a top issue. Immigration surprisingly is kind of a red herring; it's a big issue when it flares up. When there's a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment, nativism and racism, it becomes a top issue. But when the waters are calm, the immigration issue falls to the bottom of the list almost. And so it's really, I think, one of the common mistakes that the politicians think that Latinos only care about the immigration issues. Certainly, they care about a variety of issues.

MARTIN: Phillip, though you do spend a lot of time on the immigration issue in the film, you also make an interesting point about Governor Bill Richardson who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination. By every standard, according to his resume, this man was if not the most qualified person in the race, it's certainly in the top tier. I mean, he's a man who's a governor with executive experience, a man who was ambassador to the United Nations with international experience. He was energy secretary who dealt with some of the most important policy issues. The film makes the point, he never got any traction including among Latinos in his own state. What's up with that?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, you know, it's hard to know. But certainly, he ran in a year which he was running against two superstars certainly, but an argument can be made for the fact that Richardson's poor performance is really an indictment of the state of Latino politics, Latinos' perhaps willingness to stay tribal and vote for their own. On the other hand, it's difficult to know whether Latinos understood that a man who's named Richardson - despite the fact he was raised in Mexico and speaks fluent Spanish and is essentially culturally Mexican in many respects - was one of them. So, there are lots of open questions about the implications of Richardson's candidacy.

MARTIN: Ruben, what's your take on Governor Richardson's candidacy and the lack of success therein on the national scale?

NAVARRETTE: I think Phillip said two very important things, and that was the name ID Richardson. Sometimes it is really that simple. I think a lot of times people didn't know he was Latino. Richardson himself, when I interviewed him, would say that, that he thought his name had worked against him. Also, Phillip is absolutely right, you're trying to get traction in a race were you're competing against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Those two are sucking all the oxygen out the room, and so I think it was going to be an incredibly tough year for anybody including Bill Richardson. But here's the last thing, Richardson's secret in New Mexico has always been that he sort of tried to speak different languages to different groups of voters. He tried to do that on a national level, and before long, Richardson was sort of coming off and saying one thing to one group of voters, and one thing to another, and try to sort of patch them all together and it was very, very difficult for him to pull that off.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Phillip Rodriguez and Ruben Navarrette. They're talking about "Latinos '08." It's a new documentary premiering tonight about the Latino vote. The documentary has some very, I think, bracing comments about Senator Barack Obama, who is of course the Democratic nominee. I want to play a short clip, and the person speaking is Rodolfo de la Garza, who's a professor at Columbia University and here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF "LATINOS '08")

RODOLFO DE LA GARZA: For white liberals, it's a way - and white independents, it's a way of cleaning their conscience. I've so abused blacks, and I'm going to fix it, I'm going to vote for a black man for president. The Mexican didn't have to do that. Mexicans say, hey, I didn't screw the blacks. I don't have to clean my conscience. You feel guilty, vote for him.

MARTIN: Phillip, I have to ask you about that, is that, do you think that's really fair?

RODRIGUEZ: I don't know if it's fair or not, but might be true.

MARTIN: But I mean the implication is the only reason anybody votes Barack Obama is out of guilt.

RODRIGUEZ: That's not the only reason, I suspect, but I think for lots of white liberals and lots of white independents his race and the kind of healing salve that he represents is an important reason for their enthusiasm.

MARTIN: But how do you know that? What's the data?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, I don't know that; I perceive that from, you know, being a witness to the culture and the friends that I know who otherwise don't have any African-American people in their lives but are so deeply enthusiastic about Obama that it makes one scratch their head.

MARTIN: Ruben, what's your take on this?

NAVARRETTE: I wouldn't say white guilt. I would say a desire for white people to feel sufficiently enlightened. And they think that they can square their opposition to affirmative action programs, their opposition to school vouchers for black families, various positions that they hold frankly as liberal Democrats that are not in the best interests of African-Americans. And they can square that somehow by voting for this African-American for president and then they call themselves enlightened. So it's little different. The flipside to that is there are people who really do think that anybody who votes against Barack Obama is a racist. I think it's just more complicated than that.

MARTIN: Phillip, what about Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee, what do some of the commentators in your film have to say about that - about him?

RODRIGUEZ: I was surprised the degree to which many commentators were generous about Senator McCain and noted his longstanding support for immigration reform. I think there's also a great deal of dismay about McCain's apparent retreat from reform that he has championed for a long time. So, this issue that the senator comes from the Southwest and who might kind of intrinsically have a sense of Latinos, have a sense of the Mexican-American reality. Once again, very often Northeast elite who don't witness Latinos on a daily basis the way we do here may not have the adequate sensitivity to speak or know how to even approach the question and the opportunity that Latinos present.

MARTIN: How do you want people to view your film? What would you like them to draw from it?

RODRIGUEZ: I think it's important for us to now start using documentary and public media to have an open mind and to witness America as it changes without this overriding ideological, how can I say, overdetermined analysis. I'm curious about the implications of what Latinos' presence, great presence in this country signify, and it's an open question.

MARTIN: Ruben, what would you like people to either draw from the film or know about the Latino vote as we head into the home stretch particularly of this election?

NAVARRETTE: I would like for them to be able to reconcile what seems to a lot of people to be this big contradiction and it is. I think of the Irish-American example or even the black American example, people often say, well, are you an African-American, or are you American? Are you Irish, or are you an American? And likewise with Latinos, we are very much part of the American family. We're American voters like everybody else. We have concerns that are just like everybody else's concerns in this country. On the other hand we also have this part of our character where when you go beating up on Mexican immigrants, it's going to remind us of something they may have been said about our grandfather 100 years ago. And were going to take umbrage to that. And so there is a great contradiction there to some people but to me it makes sense. Certainly to my Irish friends in Boston it makes perfect sense, you can be both American and Irish. So, I hope they take that away.

MARTIN: Phillip, I wanted to ask you about, you mention that you interviewed a wide array of very accomplished Latino leaders, but I didn't see that many women. In fact there are seven Latinas currently serving in the Congress; of some 1700 women state legislators, there are 75 Latina. I'm just wondering - I mean I saw Leslie Sanchez, who's a frequent commentator on CNN along with Ruben. But...

RODRIGUEZ: I don't, as a rule, interview elected officials. In an hour documentary you can only accomplish so much and very often I have to pay attention to the sum rather than the parts. But ultimately the role of Latinas in terms of political future of Latinos seems to be very - one of the very hopeful aspects of the project. One scholar noted that traditionally, Latino politics have been dominated by people who have been chosen from the top down, people who have been appointed by unions, let's say. And most of them have been men, but more and more we're seeing kind of organic street organizing, mothers fighting in school districts. According to some, there's an argument to be made that Latinas will have a greater and greater influence on Latino electoral politics.

MARTIN: Maybe that's your next film.

RODRIGUEZ: Maybe.

MARTIN: Come back in, you'll come back and talk about it if you make that film.

RODRIGUEZ: As long as I don't have to do rater interviews, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Phillip Rodriguez is the director of a new documentary "Latinos '08," it's airing on PBS tonight although you want to check your local listing. It's part of their Vote 2008 lineup of pre-elections specials. He joined us from KPCC in Pasadena. Ruben Navarrette is a regular on our program on the Barbershop. He is featured in "Latinos '08" and he joined us from San Diego. Gentlemen, thank you so much.

NAVARRETTE: Thank you very much.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you very much, Michel and Ruben.

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