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Connecting with Latino Voters: Friendly Advice for Illinois' Gubernatorial Candidates

  ·  Martin V. Torres

Illinois’ list of gubernatorial hopefuls continues to grow as the campaign season for the March 18, 2014 primary gains steam.  While midterm elections tend to attract fewer voters (and primaries have even lower levels of participation) these midterm primaries have high stakes for Illinois residents as the state’s unemployment rate remains higher than the national average, its pension crisis remains unresolved, and  Illinois’ investment in our children’s public education has diminished by $670 million since Fiscal Year 2009.

At this stage in the primary, gubernatorial challengers Senator Bill Brady, Bill Daley, Senator Kirk Dillard, Bruce Rauner, and Treasurer Dan Rutherford have been focused on initiating effective campaign announcements, raising money to demonstrate their credibility, and carefully crafting their profiles into those of legitimate chief executives.  Some have initiated ‘listening tours’ while others are carving space for themselves by announcing their plans to resolve the impasse of the day. 

But not one of them has laid out a vision for Illinois that includes specific references to the state’s largest growing population: Latinos.  With the Latino share of election-day voters rising in Illinois from 6 percent in 2008 to 12 percent in 2012, candidates would be remiss not to address this segment of the electorate and discuss their plans to improve the well-being of Latino residents.  The candidates will likely first engage Latino voters by highlighting their support for popular policy initiatives.  For example, every candidate with a fingerprint on the establishment of the new temporary visitor driver’s license for undocumented immigrants will undoubtedly emphasize their support for the law when addressing Latino audiences. 

While immigrant integration is an important item for candidates to discuss, the electorate has a much broader set of policy concerns that state leaders would do well to address. According to a June 2012 USA Today/Gallup (national) poll, Latino voters ranked their more important issues as: health care, unemployment, economic growth, the gap between the rich and the poor—and then immigration.  And like all Illinois voters, Latinos want to hear candidates’ plans to improve Illinois’ schools.  Latino children account for 25 percent of all children in Illinois under age 5, but only 62 percent of Latinos are currently graduating from high school statewide, according to Education Week’s Diplomas Count 2012.  That trend doesn’t bode well for our collective economic future.  Attention candidates!: What are you going to do about that achievement gap?

In the spirit of campaign-style multi-step plans, I’ve jotted down some common-sense advice for Illinois’ gubernatorial candidates and their campaign staffs on how to best approach Latino voters.  And while my campaign chops are limited to those of a one-time field organizer, I work very closely with Latino grasstop/roots leaders and the people they serve through nonprofit agencies across the state.  Here are three straightforward steps each campaign should take immediately with Latino voters in mind:

1)      Diversify your campaign’s brain trust

You can’t build bridges without any infrastructure.  Hiring part-time consultants and recruiting well-known campaign surrogates can be an effective strategy, but don’t stop there.  Hire Latino campaign staff to fill visible, prominent positions within your campaign and establish a Latino advisory committee.  Incorporating diverse talent within your campaign’s brain trust will send a signal to everyone that your campaign takes this segment of the electorate seriously. 

More importantly, Latino staff and advisors can provide valuable perspectives on how to address specific Latino audiences, offer feedback on how policy statements will be received by the Latino community, and connect you with people you will go on to  forge relationships with throughout the election.   They can also be used to make sure that your web content, print materials, and Spanish-language radio and TV ads strike the right chord with Latino voters.  At the very least, diversifying your campaign’s inner circle will indicate to voters and civic leaders that your administration will be inclusive if your candidate prevails in 2014.

2)      Be specific as to how your administration will address issues of concern to Latino residents

Latino voters want to know how they fit into your vision of a better, stronger, more prosperous Illinois.  Successful candidates will apply a Latino perspective to the overarching issues all voters care about.  So when your campaign is talking about economic development, please explain how Latino business owners will benefit from your proposals.  When your campaign talks education, please discuss how your reform agenda will help meet the needs of Illinois’ largest growing student population.  And when it articulates how to get Illinois out of debt, please outline how your package of tax changes, spending choices, and government reforms are going to affect Latino children, families, and workers.  Your campaign doesn’t have to carve out a Latino-centric explanation for everything, but it’s reasonable to expect some specific, data-driven responses from candidates who want to earn the trust of Latino voters.

3)      Make plans to visit Latino voters outside of Cook County 

This sounds obvious, but your campaign might feel pretty good about its standing with the Latino electorate after successful pit stops in Little Village, Humboldt Park, and Cicero.  Don’t be fooled: Roughly 40 percent of Latino residents live outside of Cook County.  In fact, during the last decade, the Latino population grew by more than 60,000 in both Kane and Will Counties and by nearly 50,000 in Lake County.  Before your campaign stops in these areas, do your homework.  Find out when Latino residents started settling in large cities like Elgin and smaller villages like Carpentersville.  That will help your campaign better understand the historic dynamics of the population, shed light on what’s fueled population growth over time, and give you some insight into what’s needed from a public policy perspective to contribute to the well-being of Latino families as you move forward. 

I have other useful bits of advice—like to eat whatever food is offered to you while visiting Latino residents, or that it’s OK to sprinkle a little Spanish into your campaign stump speech (just practice really hard the night before so it doesn’t sound too gimmicky). But the key to connecting with Latino voters isn’t that different than connecting with all voters: Put in some effort, be intentional, and don’t take any short-cuts.  ¡Suerte!




Posted In: Representation in Government, State Investment