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Hispanics Lag In Donating To Campaigns

Hispanics pivotal in winning races: candidates covet their votes, money

by Rafael Lorente

October 3, 1999
Copyright © 1999 SUN-SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON -- Candidates from the presidential race down to the local level are making a pitch for Hispanic voters, especially in key states such as Florida and California.

But the rush to court voters masks a cold political fact: Hispanics are practically invisible when it comes to raising the cash that finances campaigns and sometimes enhances access to elected officials.

A study of campaign-finance records by the Sun-Sentinel shows that Hispanics, who make up almost 12 percent of the overall population, accounted for less than 2 percent of individual campaign contributions to federal candidates and political committees during the 1998 elections. That amounts to less than $10 million out of the more than $640 million given by individuals to federal candidates and other political committees in 1997-98.

The consequences of not participating in the financing of elections, according to political observers and campaign experts, is that Hispanics have less access to elected officials, less of an ability to push the issues of importance to them and more trouble getting Hispanics elected to public office.

"If you're not giving campaign contributions and you're not being vocal through other means, such as membership organizations or lobbying, you're invisible," said Larry Makinson, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group.

One of the few exceptions to the national rule is the Sunshine State, where Hispanics contributed almost 5 percent, or almost $1.5 million of the $31 million given by Floridians to federal candidates during the 1998 elections. More than $960,000 of the Hispanic money came from Miami-Dade County.

Florida's Hispanics, who account for 15 percent of the state's 15 million people, gave more money to federal candidates for the 1998 elections than their brethren from any other state or territory. That is the case even though Florida's Hispanic population ranks fourth in the country behind California, Texas and New York. In terms of Hispanic campaign contributions, Florida was followed by California, Texas, Puerto Rico, New York and New Jersey.

Don't take part? Don't complain

"The Hispanic community needs to get off its duff and become a player," said Al Cardenas, the Cuban-born chairman of the Florida Republican Party.

Cardenas said Hispanics need to participate more if they expect their concerns to be taken seriously. Communities that do not participate cannot complain if things do not go their way, he said.

Not giving to political campaigns is not unique to Hispanics. But the lack of Hispanic participation in the financing of campaigns stands in stark contrast to the importance Hispanic voters have gained in the eyes of politicians in the last year. Hispanics turned out in record numbers around the country last November, influencing key races in Florida, New York and California. That kind of turnout, which helped Republicans in some places and Democrats in others, has candidates and political parties openly courting Hispanic voters in hopes of getting them permanently in their corner.

"Whoever can organize the Hispanic vote is going to change politics in this country," said Dane Strother, a Democratic political consultant in Washington, D.C. "I think it's really up for grabs."

Hispanic political power is only going to grow. By 2010, Hispanics are expected to make up 14 percent of the country's population. That number will jump to 25 percent by 2050. Hispanics are concentrated in California, Florida, New York, Texas and Illinois, which represent 166 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. Last November, Hispanics accounted for 5.2 percent of all ballots cast, up from 3.7 percent in 1992, according to exit polls. Although most Hispanics, with the exception of South Florida's Cuban-Americans, tend to favor Democrats at the polls, both parties had success with Hispanics at the polls in November.

Money means access and influence

But candidates who speak Spanish have not turned Hispanics into huge political donors. Even George W. Bush, who has brought in record amounts of cash from individuals across the country, has not made major inroads with Hispanics. Through the first six months of 1999, Hispanics had given the Texas governor and presidential candidate about 2 percent, or $735,000 of the $35 million in individual contributions analyzed by the Sun-Sentinel.

Democrat Gore has not fared better, with Hispanics giving him less than 3 percent, or $455,000 of the $16 million in contributions the newspaper analyzed. Other presidential candidates have done even worse.

Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a California think tank that explores Hispanic issues, says Hispanics need to participate at every level of the political process. He points to groups such as the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, which raises and contributes money and therefore has access in Washington.

"A mark of influence in Washington or Sacramento or Tallahassee is who returns your calls," Pachon said.

Pachon said the lack of money often hurts Hispanic candidates who come from predominantly Hispanic areas. Many are forced to go outside their districts to finance their campaigns, which can cost upwards of $1 million in a California congressional race. While outside money can be gravy to a candidate who is well financed locally, it may be the only way a candidate from a Hispanic area stays afloat.

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, who benefits from a strong fund-raising base in Miami's Hispanic community, insists local financial support is the reason he is in Congress. "People from other areas of the country support you, but never to the extent that your community supports you," he said.

The importance of contributing

Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., is chairwoman of Hispanic Unity USA, a political action committee that has raised $500,000 since May and hopes to raise $2 million to $4 million by November 2000. The money will go to Hispanic candidates and candidates who support issues important to Hispanics.

Sanchez said part of the PAC's job is to help educate Hispanics about the importance of contributing to campaigns. So far, the PAC and its pleas for money have been received well by Hispanics and non-Hispanics, she said. She said she tries to talk to people about issues important to Hispanics. She tries to explain the connection between contributions and electing candidates who are sensitive to Hispanic concerns.

Divisive issues like the anti-immigrant propositions of a few years ago in California usually draw more Hispanic money into campaigns, Sanchez said. She hopes a PAC that gives money based on issues Hispanics care about might do the same and also get the attention of candidates.

"When you have a PAC that can raise $2 million or $4 million in an election cycle, people have to worry about more than our vote," Sanchez said.

Pat Harrison, the Republican National Committee co-chairman, is actively trying to get women and minorities involved. The challenge is to convince people to write the first check, even if it's small, so they will see that getting involved has it benefits. "You can get involved for such a minimal level," Harrison said. "You start feeling connected. And you know what? If you don't like it, don't write another check."

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