November 2, 2004

Hispanic leader Cisneros discusses getting out the vote

When Henry Cisneros was elected mayor of San Antonio in 1981, he became a political trailblazer as the first Hispanic to lead a major American city. Although his initial appeal to San Antonio's Latino population was apparent, Cisneros's success in revitalizing the city drew national acclaim—and helped keep him in office for four terms. Cisneros served as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) from 1993 to 1997. After leading the HUD, Cisneros became president of Univision. In 2000, he formed American City Vista, a civic group to build homes in urban areas.

Over tea and snacks on Tuesday afternoon, Cisneros discussed the state of Hispanic representation in the American political system and the current presidential race.

In 1992, you worked for Clinton, getting out the vote. Are you up to anything this year?

On Thursday I'm going to Iowa, then Wisconsin from there, and then to Ohio. So that's my weekend. I think it's very important that Kerry be elected. My greatest concerns are in the domestic agenda that we tried to forge during the Clinton years and the impact of the Bush deficits to eliminate critical domestic programs. Health care, minimum wage, home ownership programs. The strategies have been put in jeapordy. Another example is No Child Left Behind—it's great as far as it goes, but it doesn't have enough funding.

It's really critical that we grow the middle class and that's imperative for the minority communities. No one's asking for a handout but are asking for the opportunity that comes from being part of the middle class.

When you campaign, do you see yourself as a Hispanic leader or just a concerned individual?

It's not how I see myself, its how the campaign sees me and wants to use me. And that's how they're using me. I've supported Senator Kerry since June of 2003. My rationale is basically that I knew that the Republican strategy would be to try to decimate the Democratic candidate—whoever it was—on national security questions. John Kerry had the best chance of standing because of his personal record in Vietnam. And that's indeed what's happened. They took hard shots but he was still standing at the end of the day. He's been able to get through the debates with enough strength and ask the hard questions. I knew it would be a close election and the trick was to come out of the debates with a mad dash to the end, and do a good job on the ground—and that's what I'm helping with.

What's the breakdown of the [Latino] vote?

It's 60 to 70 percent Democratic nationwide. It's broken up in that the Mexican-American vote is more pro-Democratic, and the Cuban vote is majority Republican—but its much smaller, and its mostly in Florida. And the Puerto Rican vote is probably the most Democratic. Some of the new immigrants—Nicaraguans and Salvadoreans—are more Republican because of their experience in the Reagan years.

Where they are in that spectrum has a great bearing in the election outcome. If Bush gets close to 40 percent, that would have major influence on key states. If Kerry gets 70—and Clinton got 78 in his win in 1996—then the Democrat would have a much better chance. Bush did reasonably well in 2000, but he was unknown then. He was touting compassionate conservatism, a Texas record, a better position on immigration than a lot of lefties would have expected. But now, four years later, there's no movement on immigration, minimum wage, there have been serious cuts in health care, health care insurance. The economy as a whole is in contraction. There are a lot of Latinos involved in Iraq—it's a different ballgame.

What makes these national issues important to the Latino community?

The issues don't cut much different from the basic middle class issues, except that Latinos are lower on the economic scale, have larger problems, and therefore the combination of still striving and needing a rung up on the ladder makes them more focused on small business programs, education, health care. It's the same American agenda except a little more intense about needing a relationship with a responsible government.

Is the Latino community underrepresented politically?

That's one of the big stories of the future—it maps population trends with a stunning amount of accuracy. If you just go through the largest states in the US and look at their Latino vote and its population. In California they're a third, in Texas they're a quarter, in New York, in Florida, in Illinois—those are the five largest states in order. In the Chicago area alone there are a million plus Latinos. You can see that this is going to be a huge electoral force.

What needs to happen to create more [Latino] senators and congressmen to match this population?

First, many are not citizens. They are new arrivals. Registration to vote is the next step. And finally participation on Election Day—people need to get out and vote. And to do that, people need to conclude that it matters. Many have not gotten there. They just don't believe that voting makes a difference in their lives. But that's changing. Not only are we electing more Latinos, but we're also more responsive to Latino issues, as Mayor Daley has been here.