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US Political Parties Court Hispanic Voters

Each November brings elections in the United States. This year Americans aren't voting for president, but for their representatives in Congress and state and local governments. Many races are close, and political parties want new voters to rally to their sides. As many Democrats and Republicans are learning, that means courting Latino immigrants.

Latinos have held political sway for a long time in places like California, Texas, Florida and New York, where many of them have traditionally settled. But over the past decade, the Latino population has risen dramatically in other parts of the United States as well. In the southern state of Georgia, for example, the Hispanic population has increased by 300 percent in the past decade. The U.S. government says there are at least half a million Latino people living there. Yet, only 10,000 of them are registered to vote. That leaves a lot of potential voters. "And this is one of my goals, to see Latinos get involved in politics and know the laws," said Sora Chavez McFarlane.

Sora Chavez McFarlane is the Hispanic Outreach Director for the Georgia Republican Party. She travels across the state, advising Republican candidates. "[I tell] everybody running for political office: please do not forget the Latinos," she said. "We are here. There are a lot of American citizens here and that's the truth."

Ms. Chavez McFarlane says reaching the politicians is the easy part. She also travels across the state, trying to recruit Latinos to the Republican Party. Her program is part of an ambitious plan. State Party Chairman Ralph Reed says Latino outreach is essential to the party's growth. "We have a goal of 20,000 new Hispanic voters before the 2002 elections," he said. "We're educating in Spanish, through radio and television. I've been told by the Republican National Committee that our effort in Georgia is one of the most successful in the country and Sora is a big reason why."

Georgia Democrats are also courting Latinos, but through different strategies. Party Chairman Calvin Smyrie says: the party is appealing to Latinos through its stands on issues such as minority business opportunities, and by emphasizing the political party's racial diversity. "Latinos are a potent and real force and we're going to continue reaching out through inclusion and public policy," said Calvin Smyrie. "Ours is a 2-prong approach: inclusion of Hispanics in politics and also, more substantively through public policythe quality of life issues."

But convincing Latino workers to vote isn't easy. Many of them have come to Georgia in the last decade, seeking jobs in the state's carpet factories, poultry plants, and farms. Community organizer Adelina Nichols says they don't have time to think about politics. "Most are campesinos," she said. " They are struggling daily, police, job, more immediate concerns. Money and food."

Ms. Nichols considers herself politically active, but she doesn't vote either. Like many of Georgia's Latinos, she hasn't been in the United States long enough to become an American citizen. That's a common hurdle. But Nichols will be eligible for citizenship in five years. When that day comes, the political parties want her to know they've got Latinos' interests at heart. They point to their first successful Latino candidates for the Georgia state legislature. Democrat Sam Zamarripa is one of them. He and two others are running unopposed in new voting districts created after the last Census. Mr. Zamarripa says creating the new districts has helped Latino candidates gain voters' attention. "Open seats invite change and the door has been opened," said Sam Zamarripa. "From this point forward, you will see more and more Latino candidates in the future running for a mulitude of offices."

But Mr. Zamarripa says that doesn't mean Latinos will take over Georgia politics anytime soon. He'll represent a district in the capital city of Atlanta that's mainly African-American and white. He says he'll have to work with these constituents to achieve his political goals. "One of my ambitions is to build coalitions across ethnic groups. The issues are the same," he said.

Coalition building is good advice for all politicians, says southern politics expert Charles Bullock. He teaches at the University of Georgia. He says the Latino electorate might be small, but it could be decisive. "We're showing 3.6 million voters [overall], and Latinos less than 10,000," he said. "But could it [they] make a difference? Yes it [they] could. We just have to look at Florida in the 2000 presidential election, where 9,000 voters definitely made a difference, if they're cohesive."

Professor Bullock says it's too soon to tell whether Georgia Latinos will favor the Republican or Democratic parties. But both parties have made Latinos a priority in their voter registration campaigns. They want as many supporters as possible before the next presidential election, in 2004.