There's no doubt that when it comes to politics Latinos and Hispanics finally have a chip in the big game - and Hudson County leaders say they are ready to up the ante.
Friday, Rep. Robert Menendez (D-13th Dist.) returned home to Union City after wrapping up an unprecedented three-day convention in Phoenix dubbed the first "Latino Political Convention." The event, sponsored by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), had eight of the nine Democratic presidential candidates discuss issues affecting Latinos, including the economy, immigration, education and health care.
"This conference is just another example of the dramatic rise the clout of the Hispanic and Latino community in the political arena," said Menendez Tuesday. He added that, like never before, candidates at the highest level are seeking the Latino vote.
Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO, echoed Menendez's message of increased Hispanic leverage. "The presence of these leaders and the passion with which they spoke to our membership clearly demonstrates the political power of Hispanics today," he said.
But even on the heels of a new Census report that announced that Hispanics are now the nation's largest minority, many Hudson County Latino and Hispanic leaders said this week that there continues to be a ongoing struggle for political respect.
Number one minority
For the Hispanic and Latino community, this summer marks a major landmark. The U.S. Census Bureau recently declared Latinos to be that nation's largest minority group. "This is an important event in this country," said Census Bureau Director Louis Kincannon recently. "An event that we know is the result of the growth of a vibrant and diverse population that is vital to America's future."
Numbers released by the bureau place the national Latino population at 38.8 million in July 2002, an increase of nearly 10 percent from the 2000 census. The report, which was released three weeks ago, estimated the African-American population also at 38.8 million. While the figures are nearly identical, the census reports say that Latinos have just barely surpassed African-Americans in population.
Each group accounts for a little more than 13 percent of the country's entire population.
In New Jersey, Hudson County has one of the highest concentrations of Hispanics and Latinos outside of the southwest and south Florida. Statewide, Hispanics make up 13.3 percent of the state's population, but in Hudson County, Hispanics and Latinos comprise a whopping 39.8 percent of total residents; far surpassing Passaic County, the county with the second highest concentration of Hispanics at 29.9 percent.
Hispanics exceed the 12.6 percent state average in just three other New Jersey counties: Union County, 18.6 percent; Cumberland County, 18.3; and Essex County, 16.5.
From 1990 to 2000, Hudson County's Latino population grew 32 percent. Union City and West New York have the highest percentage of Hispanics, with 82 percent and 78.7 percent respectively.
Looking for more clout
But even with the unprecedented growth, statewide and nationally, politicians observe that the numbers don't necessarily translate into political clout. Latinos are still underrepresented politically, locally and nationwide, they said.
Nationally, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials based in Los Angeles, there are 18 Latinos in the U.S. House of Representatives, including Menendez; 52 in state senates, and 129 in state Houses of Representatives. One Latino, Mel Martinez, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is in President Bush's cabinet.
Here in New Jersey, there are no Latinos in the state Senate, with no prospects for any new gains in the Assembly this November.
But in the past couple of years there has been some progress made. In the Assembly there are six Latino members, with West Hispanic New York Mayor Albio Sires recently being named Speaker of the Assembly in a landmark move.
Menendez added that in addition to Sires, there is a growing roster of energetic young mayors around the state such as Mayor Sammy Rivera of Passaic and Jose Torres of Patterson.
"I think if you look at it in context, we have made significant strides," said Menendez, "but there is still much more to be done."
How can that be done?
For starters, Hispanic leaders need to get out the Latino vote, which has historically been lower than most other ethnic groups. A 2002 nationwide study by the National Council of LaRaza, based in Washington D.C., found that 45 percent of Latinos of voting age voted in the 2000 election, compared to 62 percent for whites and 57 percent for black.
Demographically speaking, the Latino community is younger and poorer than the general population, both factors that contribute to lower voter turnout. Also, many new immigrants, approximately 29 percent in New Jersey according to census numbers, lack the citizenship to vote.
Menendez said that the Latino community needs to be more active in assisting New Jersey non-citizens in the citizenship process. He also said that he expects the Latino community to "mature" as a voting base in the near future and expects the voter turnout numbers to dramatically increase in upcoming elections.
We're together, but also apart
Another problem Hispanic leaders have had in their attempt to gain a unified political voice has been the lack of cohesion among different Hispanic groups.
Ethnic-bloc voting is very American. The Irish do it in Boston. Poles do it in Chicago. Italians do it in Brooklyn. African-Americans do it in Atlanta.
But that's been a chore among Latinos who often identify themselves by where they are from, be it Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico or the Dominican Republic. All of these groups have varying degrees of political ideology.
Menendez said Wednesday that the key is to rally Hispanic around issues that are important to all Latinos, such as heath care, economic development, and education.
"It's a big challenge," he said. "We're not as monolithic as [other ethnic groups] so it's important to weave in threads that are common to [all Latinos]."
Another factor of political clout very well might be time. The recent rapid population growth means that there are many young Hispanics. According to the Census Bureau, one out of every three Hispanic-Americans is under the age of 18, which means that the next and presumably larger crop of future Latino leaders are now just growing up.
Take, for example, 28-year-old Hoboken City Council President Ruben Ramos, a school teacher and a rising star in the county political scene.
"We still have a long way to go," said Ramos Tuesday, "but there are plenty of good young leaders in our community right now."
Ramos added that it is his hope that this next generation Latino leaders will be the first that are not viewed only as "Latino politicians" but, as he said, "just politicians."
"For a long time, Latinos have been put on tickets as nothing more than figureheads in order to get out the Hispanic and Latino vote," said Ramos. "That's starting to slowly change. Now Latinos are being put on tickets because they are good candidates that create good and innovative polices. The entire mindset of people is slowly beginning to change."
Not a competition
Hoboken City Councilman Christopher Campos, whose mother is Hispanic and father is black, said that another issue has been that it has become a competition between different minority groups to achieve political posts.
"I think part of the problem," said Campos Tuesday, "is that there is the misunderstanding that African-American and Latinos need to compete for the same resources. We need to be working together, but instead, too often, we are fighting against each other."
Campos added, "We should increase minority representation across the board. Right now, it's addition by subtraction. It seems like every time a Latino is hired, he or she is replaces an African-American, when really there need to be positions available for both groups."
An example of this type of competition was the most recent appointment to the state Supreme Court. The Hispanic community became upset over Gov. James E. McGreevey's decision pull the nomination of Cuban-American candidate Zulima Farber from consideration. The administration said that Farber was pulled because a background check found a bench warrant for an unpaid parking ticket.
Clouding the situation was that the governor was also under intense pressure to replace Justice James H. Coleman, the state's first ever African-American justice, with another African-American.
Eventually McGreevey selected Appellate Division Judge John Wallace Jr., an African-American, for the post. The appointment drew cheers from black lobbyists and jeers from the Latino contingent in Trenton.