MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. In a moment, we'll hear from Belen Robles. She's the first woman president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the country's oldest and major civil rights organizations.
But first, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain spoke yesterday at the annual conference of the League of United Latin American Citizens or LULAC. With some of the country's most influential Latino leaders in the audience, McCain and Obama made their best case. They spoke of immigration, the economy and education. But will those messages take them to the White House?
Here to talk about the presidential campaign and the role of the Latino electorate are Araseli Caraminjo(ph), she's a volunteer with Latinos for Obama in Prince William County, Virginia. Maria Teresa Petersen, executive director of Voto Latino, a group working to harness the political power of a Latino community. And Javier Revas(ph), he's a McCain supporter and host of a popular Spanish language radio show in Las Vegas, Lova Aqui(ph), or Here and There. I thank you so much for joining us, here and there.
Ms. ARASELI CARAMINJO (Volunteer, Latinos for Obama, Prince William County, Virginia): Thank you, Michel.
Ms. MARIA TERESA PETERSEN (Executive Director, Voto Latino): Thank you.
Mr. JAVIER REVAS (McCain Supporter; Host, Spanish Language Radio Show, Las Vegas): Thank you, Michel, for having us.
MARTIN: Maria Teresa, let me begin with you. Why do you think these candidates make such a point of speaking to this audience at this time?
Ms. PETERSEN: I think more than anything is that when you have six of the 13 (unintelligible) Grand states that have a Latino electorate of 10 percent or more, the Latino vote is in play. And it's basically trying to figure out an understanding who the Latino voter is, communicating that message and really using this as a forum to get their, you know - to get through the noise and say, look, these are the platforms that we want to give to you.
MARTIN: Sometimes the issues that an outsider or political leader thinks is important is not the issue that the group considers most important. Do you think that these candidates got it right on what they talked about?
Ms. PETERSEN: I think they are getting closer. I think one issue that they - with the Latino community comes into play is that everybody thinks that immigration is the top of mind. In reality, the immigration issue for most Latino voters is a catalyst for political awakening. And they're using it as a filter to say, you know, this candidate's for me or they're not for me. And then when you start drilling down their policy issues, and I think McCain and Obama both did a very good job yesterday when they started talking about economics and the economy because at the end of the day it's the economy stupid(ph). Unfortunately, with the sub-prime mortgage crisis, it's hit Latino communities adversely more than anyone, primarily because of predatory lending and we can go down the list.
MARTIN: Araseli, what about you? Is immigration a voting issue for you and what are, sort of, maybe your top one, two or three issues?
Ms. CARAMINJO: Well, I think that she has said it right. I think that number one, Latinos have emerged as the surging self group in our population across the country. So we are not new. We have been here for quite some time but as she has stated, the immigration issue has challenged us in that was one of the reasons why, actually, myself entered politics, as you came to Woodbridge, Virginia last year and spent some time with me.
MARTIN: You ran for the board of supervisors...
Ms. CARAMINJO: Exactly.
MARTIN: As a riding candidate.
Ms. CARAMINJO: As a riding candidate because of the nonsense that is happening in Prince William County. But the reality is that Latino populations care about the economy, our houses, our jobs, health, education. Those are issues that are bread and butter issues for all Americans, not just Latinos.
MARTIN: Javier, what about you?
Mr. REVAS: Well, I feel that - good morning to you all. I feel that this situation with Latino voters - hello, can you hear me?
MARTIN: We can hear you but you're not - you don't sound great to us, so why don't you try this answer and then we're going to hang up and call you back. How about that? So just tell us a little bit about - tell us your, sort of, one, two or three top issues and how you read it. And then we'll call you back and see if we can get a better line. Go ahead. OK, we're going to - we'll come back to you, Javier, because we want to hear what you have to say.
A recent AP Yahoo poll shows Obama leading McCain among Hispanics, 47 percent to 22 percent, with 26 percent undecided. Maria Teresa, I do want to ask you, do you think this is a firm lead?
Ms. PETERSEN: Yeah, I think it's - all the polls are showing that the folks are leaning Obama but I think what - McCain strategy, and this is something that I keep sharing and pounding, there is no accident that McCain went to Colombia last week, no accident.
MARTIN: Not Colombia, Maryland. Colombia...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PETERSON: Colombia, South America. It was no accident. And part of the reason is that you have over 200,000 Colombians in Florida. And after you've had ten years of non-engagement by the Bush administration in Latin America, what McCain is trying to do is we're going to engage Latin America, which is also very important for the Latinos living here.
So by going out and, you know, showing his presence in Colombia, all of a sudden he's also sending a message to the Latino community in Florida where the vote will make a difference for him. So I think McCain is on the right track and as I said, he's doing almost a divide and conquer strategy and the same thing with Central America.
MARTIN: What does that mean? What do you mean?
Ms. PETERSON: Divide and conquer, recognizing, you know, I don't need all the Latinos to vote for me, I just need pockets of Latinos to vote for me. And you know, for example - Florida is a perfect example. Virginia, you have a lot of Central Americans who are historically more left leaning, as well. So - excuse me, right leaning, as well because of their communist past that they had to leave Nicaragua and El Salvador. So it will be interesting how he realizes, again, I don't need the whole Latino political landscape, I just need pockets of them to solidify some states.
MARTIN: Javier, I think you're back with us.
Mr. REVAS: Yes. Can you hear?
MARTIN: We were talking about the fact that the latest AP poll shows Senator Obama leading Senator McCain among Latinos voters, 47 percent to 22 percent, with a 26 percent undecided, and we were wondering whether this represents a firm lead or is this a moving target?
Mr. REVAS: Well, no, I disagree with those numbers. Actually, here in Nevada we have had several Democratic Hispanics move to McCain simply because she connects with Hispanics better than Obama, there's no doubt about it.
If you consider his track record and the issues that are concerning, especially immigration, when he risked his neck going in support of an immigration bill, but not only that but most of Mexican-Americans, for instance - which are the majority of Hispanics in the United States, they don't even know that they're more conservative than other - anything else.
So as we go along and we talk to people it is amazing how they're coming back to the conservative party, the Republican Party.
MARTIN: Javier, you have an interesting story to tell on this - as I understand it, you've been - you were born in Mexico, right? But you've been in this country for almost 30 years. You started out as a Democrat and then became a Republican.
Mr. REVAS: Right.
MARTIN: And I'm sure that's a book. But if you'd just tell us sort of briefly, what led to your change in political outlook and affiliation?
Mr. REVAS: Well, first of all, I got say, this immigration problem that we have in the United States, this problem is born south of the border, not here. And we have to deal with it over there. And I think McCain, by going there, he sent a signal, a strong signal that he's going to take care of things.
Now in my case, I don't know why it's a - we've taken for granted that all the Spanish we must be Democrats and that's not the case. I think we have diversity of thinking within our Hispanic population. I - yes, I was registered when I became a U.S. citizen. I immediately registered Democrat because that was the trend that I needed to follow according to the political culture that we have.
But when I started going to meetings and I started analyzing deeper all the issues and the related policies and the different issues related to any citizen in the United States, then I realized that I was more of a Republican.
So I moved to the Republican Party and I've been there since - since I moved there I've been very actively involved in teaching people, trying to guide people, our Hispanic community in terms of why they have to analyze the different parties that we have in the United States but also the different policies within the structure of government and how they serve us.
And you know what is exciting, how people do not understand. Most of the grassroots voters, which are Mexican-American, the majority, again - and I'm talking also what the (unintelligible) and others, greatest, they failed to analyze, to read, to get more educated on what...
Ms. PETERSEN: Let me interrupt...
MARTIN: Hold on one second. Hold on one second. We need just to pause here and say, if you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with a roundtable of Latino voters about the presidential candidates' efforts to win the support of the Latino community.
Maria Teresa, Javier raises an interesting point. Is part of the reason that this group of voters is so desirable is perhaps the voter identification or the party identification is not as firmly fixed as it is perceived to be with other groups? Is that - is Javier's experience true? More fluid?
Ms. PETERSEN: I think Javier hits the nail on a couple of things. First of all, it's that the Latino vote - the Latino voter's still learning about the political process and that's why it's so coveted. However, I also, you know, for the record, Javiar's trend is actually the opposite for most Latino voters. Most Latino voters come in Republican and then as they get older and get to know the system more, they actually become Democratic. So it's interesting to see his transgression and really learn his story.
MARTIN: That is interesting. Araseli, I wanted to ask you, on the Democratic side...
Ms. CARAMINJO: Well, Michel, I wanted to respond a little bit...
MARTIN: Go ahead. Go ahead.
Ms. CARAMINJO: About the immigration story that he was sharing because I'm also of immigrant descent, from El Salvador, and he actually happened to mention my country of origin. And I have been always Democrat, and if immigrants are going to think that the Republican party is embracing immigrants and the immigration issue because McCain was the sponsor of a bill, you know, they're wrong.
MARTIN: Let's hear a little bit about what Senator McCain had to say. He talked about the fact that - when he addressed the law convention yesterday, that he tried to pass immigration reform and felt that this sort of the tougher line, if you will, was necessary. Let's listen to what he said.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I and many other colleagues twice attempted to pass comprehensive immigration legislation to fix our broken borders and deal practically and humanely with those who came here as my distant ancestors did, without excusing the fact that they came here illegally or granting them privileges before those who have been waiting their turn outside the country.
MARTIN: Maria Teresa, how is that message likely to be received?
Ms. PETERSEN: It's tough.
MARTIN: Asking you to predict the reactions of millions of people.
Ms. PETERSEN: No, it's tough because I think behind closed doors or in very, you know, targeted areas, McCain hits the nail on the head on what the Latino communities needs to hear in order to support him. Unfortunately, it's not translating, and I think part of it is - the reason it's not translating is that he has a very difficult position within the Republican Party itself. They're not supporting him if he continues down that path. And as a result, you know, people may like McCain but again, most - this - again, the example I always cite is what happened in California during the 1990s with Pete Wilson with Proposition 187.
California up to that time was, believe it or not, not even a purple state. It was pretty much a red state. And then when you start hearing this very caustic language associated with immigration, all of the sudden the Latino voter had a political awakening and it didn't move Republican.
Ms. PETERSEN: And it solidified California as a blue state.
Ms. CARAMINJO: But this is also happening in Prince William County at the grassroots level. We had the Republican Party also attack the immigrant community in Prince William County and while Corry Stuart(ph), county chair in Prince William County would like to say that his policies have been successful, what he has been successful at, he has been successful at galvanizing and unifying the community and getting us involved. So we're ready. I mean, he caught us by surprise last year but right now we are getting ready to take him on.
MARTIN: Let's listen to a short clip of what Senator Obama had to say. He also addressed the immigration issue. Let's listen to that clip.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Yes, they broke the law. They should have to pay a fine. They should have to learn English. They should go to the back of the line but we also have to put them on a pathway to citizenship. That is how we'll finally fix our broken immigration system and avoid creating second-class servants in our midst. That's not what America's about. This has always been a land of immigrants and that is what it will continue to be. That's what this election is all about.
MARTIN: So, Maria Teresa, once again, and also I should also mention that the senator delivered a very personal speech drawing comparisons between his own life, the fact that, you know, his father is an immigrant. And, you know, drawing an analogy to his experience and that of other immigrants. How did you think - from a policy perspective, there isn't that much difference, is there, really?
Ms. PETERSEN: There's not, and I think that the immigrant story that Barack has to share with folks is actually what resonates the most. I mean, the reason folks come to this country is really not just necessarily for themselves but their families and their children. I think he did a quite a great job with the exception of, you know, they need to learn English. I can honestly share with you that I have yet to meet a person who doesn't speak English who doesn't want to. And the reason being, unfortunately, is they're working and they're not working, you know, you know, nine-to-five jobs, oftentimes they're working 16, 17 hour jobs and I'm not exaggerating.
So if there's, I think - I think there has to be that kind of level of education. I'll be very - I mean, with voter Latino what I've learned is I thought my job - that 100 percent of my job was to really educate young Latinos to come into the political process. I've been doing this now for three and a half years and I realize that the educational process has to happen in the general market, as well, because they don't understand the Latinos. They don't understand the Latino voter. And I think that's very critical in this election and that's important.
Ms. CARAMINJO: But I think, also...
MARTIN: I wanted to give - I wanted to give Javier another chance to come in. Javier, do you think that - you were saying that for you, from a values perspective and sort of a philosophical perspective, McCain is - and the Republican Party are where you are right now, but do you think that the senator's message - Senator Obama's message, will resonate with other people who haven't perhaps, undergone the same trajectory you have?
Mr. REVAS: Well, the - my experience with Senator McCain is that he - his backbone is there. I mean, nobody can deny that he risked his neck - political neck when he - with Edward Kennedy and looked for a solution to immigration. And also we have to remind people that the Congress and Senate were majority Democrats - Democrat Party - Democratic Party and they haven't - they've been - they never did come up and set up...
MARTIN: Yeah, but do people vote for gratitude? I mean, do people vote out of gratitude? To say, you tried hard?
Mr. REVAS: Definitely. Definitely. Hispanics are - but again, it's not about gratitude. It's also about considering experiences. I think Obama's an excellent speaker and I think he's got a great personality. But he just doesn't have the experience.
Mr. REVAS: McCain is from a border state in Understate. He went to Mexico, free trade agreement, and we need to create jobs south of the border.
MARTIN: I understand. I also want to point out, though, Illinois has a very large Latino population, too, one of the largest outside the southwest. Araseli, I want to give you the final thought here and also that - point out that Senator Clinton is also addressing the LULAC Convention. Senator Clinton did better during the primaries than Senator Obama did among Latino voters as a group. Is there something that Senator Obama needs to learn from Senator Clinton about how to attract Latino voters?
Ms. CARAMINJO: I think that getting to know the community on a very personal level and continuing to use the network of friends is very important, but I want to go back to the point that if you believe that as a community we can actually remove the immigrant population from the United States without any impact set to the economy, for example, 2,000 homes went into foreclosure in Prince William County when this actually occurred last year, and so if you were to imagine that at a national level, significant economic impact and we can't afford that.
MARTIN: OK. Araseli Caraminjo is with Latinos for Obama in Prince William County, Virginia. Maria Teresa Petersen is the executive director of Voto Latino. They were kind enough to join me here in our Washington studio. We were also joined by Javier Revas. He's host of the Las Vegas Spanish language radio show, Lova Aqui, and one of the state's commissioners for minority affairs. He joined us from Las Vegas. Thank you both - thank you all so much.
Ms. CARAMINJO: Thank you so much, Michel. Thank you.
Ms. PETERSON: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: Still to come, former LULAC President Belen Robles on becoming the group's first female leader.
Ms. BELEN ROBLES (Former President, League of United Latin American Citizens): And he said, you know, Belen, I love you and your husband. I respect you and national presidency is not a position for a woman.
MARTIN: Our Wisdom Watch conversation, and it's next on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.