BY JOHN RACKSON
“Never put us in one box,” Democratic New Mexico governor Bill Richardson advised candidates seeking to win Latino voters. “The worst thing you could do is assume that what’s going to work in Santa Fe is going to work in Spanish Harlem, is going to work in Miami.”
Richardson delivered the 2003 Wurf Memorial Lecture at Harvard Law School on Tuesday to a crowd of students from several area schools as well as representatives of Boston political campaigns. His speech focused on the relationship between Latino voters and candidates for national office.
“The Democratic party cannot take the Latino vote for granted,” said Richardson, who is currently the only Latino governor in the United States. He pointed out that George W. Bush captured 35 percent of Hispanic votes in the 2000 election, and that the Republican Party plans to capture 40 percent in 2004. “That five percent is what this election is probably going to be about.”
But Richardson warned that an exclusive focus on traditionally “Latino” issues – which he defined as issues such as immigration, civil rights and affirmative action – risked overlooking other issues of broader interest. “We care about budgets and homeownership and entrepreneurship and small business . . . education, making money, being part of the mainstream of the American people.”
He also suggested that candidates should avoid superficial appeals to Latinos. “You don’t have to talk Spanish in the damn debates. You know, one of them . . . I thought he was talking Yiddish, and I told him,” Richardson said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “It’s a sign of respect, but you don’t have to overdo that respect.”
Richardson repeatedly emphasized the diversity of the Latino community. “To count Hispanics as a single group of like-minded voters, you have to assume the following . . . Cuban-Americans in Miami are going to go the same way as first-generation El Salvadoran immigrants in Southern California . . . Mexican-Americans living in the West Texas oil patch are going to pick the same candidate as Puerto Ricans living in Spanish Harlem. . . . You can’t make any of these assumptions.”
Richardson discussed problems that exist in the Latino community, noting that 18 million Latinos are not covered by health insurance, that 31 percent of Latinos are dropping out of high school and that the gap between Hispanic and white homeowners increased by 7 percent in the last three years. He argued that part of the problem is low voter turnout among Latinos and a lack of well-trained Latino organizers.
Urging Latino students at Harvard to enter public service and help solve these problems, Richardson said, “you, as Latinos, need to step up.” Before becoming governor of New Mexico, Richardson served as Secretary of Energy and Ambassador to the United Nations under the Clinton administration. In 2001, he taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He has been chosen to chair the Democratic National Convention this summer.
The Wurf Memorial Lecture was named in honor of Jerry Wurf, former president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The current AFSCME president, Gerald McEntee, introduced Richardson after some opening remarks from Dean Kagan.
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