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by Peter Costantini

Democrats Can't Count on Latino Support (2007)

(IPS) LAS VEGAS -- To drive from the City of Angels to Sin City, you take Interstate 15, two thin strips of asphalt across the Mojave Desert.

Once you leave behind the Los Angeles megalopolis, sagebrush-dotted barrens stretch away into salt flats, interrupted occasionally by scattered clusters of double-wides and old Jetstream trailers, a grove of Joshua trees, a pair of hawks riding the thermals, a spiky cluster of communications towers on a hilltop, all bounded by bare, eroded rock ridges the color of dried blood and bone.

This land might have been part of Aztlan, the mythical homeland of the Aztec people of Mexico. The Mojave was indisputably part of the Mexican state of Alta California before 1847, when the march of Manifest Destiny across the continent took this desert and a big chunk of North America from Mexico and annexed it to the United States.

Chicano activists in the 1960s invoked Aztlan as an emblem of their deep Mexican roots here. Anti-immigration activists today contemplate it with alarm at the thought of a flood of Mexican immigrants reclaiming their old land.

It's easy to imagine Aztlan in the desert. But then you reach the Nevada state line at dusk, and the casinos and outlet stores begin to rise up like glittering mesas. As the daylight fades and you approach Las Vegas, the mass of colored lights spills across the broad valley and penetrates the night sky.

Today, the sin in Sin City has been tamed into trademarked and shrink-wrapped naughtiness, and Vegas has become a world capital of the family entertainment industry. Multitudes of people of all ages speaking a Babel of tongues stroll along the Strip in the evening, many pushing little children in strollers, mesmerized by the sensory overload of lights, sound and marketing.

Behind the scenes, Las Vegas is also being built, operated and cleaned mainly by people who came here from somewhere else. Many are internal migrants moving here from other parts of the country; many others come from Mexico and points south.

As they pour in, the city's population has grown by 32.8 percent since 2000 to 2.075 million. Of that population, 30.6 percent was Hispanic.

Rather than trying to recreate Aztlan, however, most Mexican and Central American immigrants have been joining the world economy and buying into the "American dream" of the 1950s: a working-class job that pays enough to buy a home and put your kids through decent schools. They are a major part of the workforce in construction and in the monumental casino-hotels that throng "the Strip" -- the neon-festooned central stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard that defines the city.

In the political arena as well, Hispanics have been a big part of the broader influx that has gradually reshaped the electoral landscape of Nevada from a rural Republican redoubt to an increasingly urban and suburban Democratic polity. Hispanics moving into Nevada have boosted their proportion of the state population of about 2.6 million from 20 percent in 2004 to over 24 percent today.

In Tuesday's presidential elections, the slipping demographic faults unleashed a political temblor: Nevada gave its five electoral votes to Democrat Barack Obama by a stunning 12.4 percent margin over Republican John McCain, a dramatic reversal of Bush's narrow 2.6 percent win over John Kerry in 2004. Polls had predicted a much closer race.

Until the final week of this campaign, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico were considered the three western "battleground" states where the vote was too close to call.

In U.S. presidential elections, the winner is determined not by popular vote but by the most electoral votes, which are allocated by state on a winner-take-all basis.

Bill Richardson, the Mexican-American governor of New Mexico, called the shift towards his Democratic Party in western states with big Latino populations "the decisive story in this election." Speaking on MSNBC, Richardson said: "My Hispanic community was a big player tonight."

Latino voters, who made up 16 percent of the Nevada electorate, contributed heavily to the Democratic victory, favouring Obama over McCain by 78 percent to 20 percent. This represented a shift of 37 percentage points towards the Democrats from 2004.

National exit polls found that Latino voters supported Obama over McCain by 66 percent to 31 percent. In 2004, the Bush campaign attracted some 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Nationally, Latinos comprise 8.7 percent of eligible voters.

By working with Latinos, Maria Teresa Petersen of Voto Latino proposed on MSNBC, the Democratic Party could rebuild a modern version of "the New Deal coalition of the last century."

Nevada Democratic Party spokesman Paul Kincaid told IPS: "There is no real set strategy for Latino voters versus non-Latino voters. We've been trying to bring a real message of change to the people Nevada, regardless of who they are."

Clearly, a major factor in the Obama win in Nevada was the economic crisis, which has hit the state particularly hard. National polls showed that voters trusted Obama over McCain by a wide margin in dealing with economic issues.

Unemployment here hit 7.3 percent in September, putting it among the six worst states. Revenue from the gaming, restaurant and tourism industries is down 30 percent.

Median Las Vegas home prices have fallen more than 36 percent from their peak, the second worst decline nationally, economist Jeffrey Waddoups of the University of Nevada in Las Vegas told IPS. The home-foreclosure rate has been the country's highest for over a year and a half.

Political scientist David Damore of UNLV, speaking with, called the state "ground zero for the economic meltdown."

The Latino community has been particularly hard hit by both foreclosures and job losses. Residential construction, which employed large numbers of Latino immigrants, has "dropped off the cliff," according to Waddoups.

On top of the economic pressures, many Latino citizens, along with documented and undocumented immigrants, have been intimidated by aggressive immigration enforcement.

According to Angela Morrison, director of the Nevada Immigrant Resource Project, national immigration raids on workplaces have been "a big concern out in the community," although no workplace raids have occurred locally. She told IPS: "There's a lot of fear."

McCain had been co-sponsor of a failed 2006 immigration reform bill that would have provided some benefits to immigrants. But once nominated, he disowned his own bill and adopted some hard-line anti-immigrant stances to appeal to his Republican base.

The Republican candidate's shift to a harder line on immigration reform also alienated many members, Chris Bohner, research director of Culinary Workers Local 226 of Las Vegas, the largest in Nevada, told IPS. Latinos constitute some 40 percent of Local 226's membership of around 60,000.

Since July, the union has had a hundred workers on paid leave and another hundred staff members working full-time on the campaign, Bohner said. "Doing member-to-member discussions about what's at stake in this election, we've found that a lot of the division between Clinton and Obama has just dissolved."

No information was available on the winner of Aztlan's electoral votes.

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Albion Monitor   November 6, 2008   (

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