San Francisco Chronicle – Carla Marinucci – March 3, 2008
(03-03) 04:00 PST Laredo, Texas — Just steps from a bridge that links the United States with its southern neighbor, 22-year-old Jorge Garcia is ready to tackle international trade: He’s just arrived from Mexico in his truck with a load of shoes, T-shirts and other goods to deliver to merchants on the American side of the Rio Grande.
But first, Garcia attends to politics. He grabs his “Texas for Hillary” sign and yells in Spanish to the shoppers crowding the streets of Laredo: “Hillary! Vote for Hillary!”
“She’ll be better for my friends and the immigrants,” said Garcia, also in Spanish, as he unloaded his truck Sunday across the street from U.S. Customs agents examining incoming cars for drugs and contraband.
“She’s a supporter of us. We want to work here. We are here,” he said, motioning to his Mexican crew.
With just hours remaining until Tuesday’s Texas primary, the efforts by Garcia and others to turn up the political heat – and get out the vote – for New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton underscores the critical role of the Latino vote in must-win Texas, a “minority majority” state where Latinos will help determine Clinton’s fate.
Garcia is just one of the tens of thousands of Texas Latinos who straddle the U.S.-Mexico border – sometimes literally in their day-to-day lives but also culturally – in this border city where an estimated 95 percent of all residents claim to have some Latino roots.
He was born in Laredo – and therefore holds American citizenship – but has ties as strong in Mexico. He lives in Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican town across the Rio Grande where he has family and a lower cost of living.
He says he will vote in the Democratic primary Tuesday because he believes Clinton can make the difference – both for the country where he was born and for the one he calls home.
“They need to make it easier for us to get here and work here,” he said. “It will help business.”
Just blocks away, in the historic Plaza de San Augustine, Zafira Serrato de Leon, 44, and her daughter, also named Zafira, were out in the 85-degree sunny Sunday afternoon, waving “Hillary 4 President” signs and distributing literature for the woman they hope will be the next president.
“She’s for amnesty for the immigrants,” said the elder de Leon, a Laredo health care worker who was born in Mexico and has lived in the United States since she was in her teens. “We’ve known her for a long time, and we know her husband. So that is why we’re supporting her.”
“We love Hillary,” said her 12-year-old daughter, wearing her “America con Hillary” button. She says that although she can’t vote yet, she is sure a woman as president “will make a difference.”
A recent poll by Texas A&M University showed Clinton leading Barack Obama by a 3-1 ratio among Latinos in Texas, but her early lead among the whole population has evaporated as the Illinois senator poured resources into the delegate-rich state.
Emphasis on early vote
Clinton’s state campaign manager, Ace Smith, said last week that the campaign’s efforts to get out Latino supporters – in addition to women and older voters, the senator’s most loyal base – during the 11-day early-voting period that ended Friday could well serve as her margin of victory on Tuesday.
While Obama’s Texas effort has been bolstered by support from young voters, African Americans and the college-educated, his team says it is not ceding Latinos to Clinton. Obama is outspending Clinton 2 to 1 on the air in Texas, with a substantial presence on Spanish-speaking television.
Texas will award 228 delegates of the 444 up for grabs on Tuesday, a day when Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island also hold primaries. Polls show Clinton is tied with Obama in Texas, while she holds a slim lead in Ohio and Rhode Island; Obama leads by a wide margin in Vermont.
The latest Associated Press count shows that Obama leads Clinton by 109 delegates, 1,385 to 1,276, with 2,025 needed for the nomination.
Both candidates were campaigning in Ohio on Sunday, relying on California Latino political leaders to carry their messages in Texas over the weekend.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been crisscrossing the state for Clinton, as has Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and Dolores Huerta, the iconic co-founder of the United Farm Workers.
State Sen. Gil Cedillo of Los Angeles, who has gained fame as a leading proponent of issuing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, was in the Lone Star State this weekend working the grassroots and Spanish media for Obama. The Illinois senator, in a move hailed by Cedillo, announced he supports driver’s licenses for those without immigration documents – a position popular with Latino voters, but not with the electorate as a whole.
“There’s no question that it’s controversial – and not the most popular issue” among some of the past presidential candidates and GOP conservatives, Cedillo acknowledged.
But he noted that Republicans look likely to nominate Arizona Sen. John McCain, a supporter of immigration reform. “So I don’t think that in (the general) election … this is a wedge issue that the Republicans want to make of it,” Cedillo said.
And Cedillo said Clinton’s hold on the Latino vote is weakening as more ethnic voters get to know Obama and understand he shares their values and experiences.
“There’s so many aspects of his life that are uniquely America,” Cedillo said. “As the son of an immigrant, this man has really tried to construct a way in which every American can participate in their democracy.”
Not all agree.
Jose Martinez, 39, born in the United States and working as a Laredo store clerk, echoes the concerns of many when he says that Tuesday’s vote will be crucial on many fronts: the U.S. economy, immigration policy and the family budget concerns of workers like himself who see themselves as both American and Mexican.
“The economy is bad. The workers don’t earn enough here,” said Martinez, who, like Garcia, lives on the Mexican side of the border. “And President Clinton was better for the economy. So I think for Mexicans, and Mexican Americans, the best will be Hillary. If she’s there, she will raise the economy again.”
Still, Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano, 28, an Austin community activist with ARGO, a statewide organization for gays and lesbians of color, warned that the Latino vote in Texas is far from monolithic.
Herrera y Lozano – a California transplant who is earning his master’s degree at St. Edward’s College in Austin – said he’s found disagreement and dissention among Latinos on the election, even within the tightly knit community of gay and lesbian activists.
“There’s almost this narrative that if you want to vote as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender), you’re Clinton,” he said. “If you’re a person of color you’re Obama. And if you’re both, what do you do?”
He said he went to a lively dinner last week, only to watch the attendees split right down the middle on their preferences – still arguing over the pros and cons of the candidates with just days to the vote.
“The progressive pro-feminist ideologues want to go the Clinton route. But the anti-racism ideology wants to go Obama,” he said. “As much as people talk about it being not a gender and race-based race, it has come down to that in some ways.”
For Latinos from every background here, he said, “there are no gut wrenching differences between the two – so it makes it hard.”