Md. candidates court growing Latino vote

Maryland Votes 2006

October 07, 2006|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,sun reporter

SILVER SPRING -- Amid the backslapping and compliments exchanged in Spanglish, there was the acknowledgement of a single number: 74,018.

That's how many registered Latino voters reside in Maryland, according to the Democratic Party. It's a group that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martin O'Malley hoped to impress as he strode to the Silver Spring headquarters of the state's largest Hispanic advocacy group with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a man some in the audience dubbed the "Latino Bill Clinton."

For the 2006 campaign, the event at the end of last month was just another sign of how hard both parties are working to appeal to Maryland's emerging Latino electorate.

On the other side, the Republican Party has created a Hispanic Republican Coalition to communicate its message though Spanish-language newspapers and on the airwaves.

"There is no doubt that Hispanics will receive more attention from both the Democrats and the Republicans," said Adam J. Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project of the Johns Hopkins University. "That's precisely because of the rapidly growing Hispanic population, the growing political strength of community organizations like CASA of Maryland and the higher profile that the immigration issue has had over the years."

Although relatively small, Maryland's Hispanic population has surged in recent years. It increased 41.5 percent between 2000 and last year, a larger growth rate than any other ethnic group, according to U.S. census estimates. Prince George's County's population is about 11 percent Hispanic, while in Montgomery, the state's most populous jurisdiction, Latinos make up nearly 14 percent of the population.

At CASA of Maryland in Silver Spring, O'Malley was hoping to receive a boost from Richardson, the nation's only Latino governor and a rising star in the Democratic Party.

While Richardson's message struck the typical stump speech themes of education and health care, it was peppered with remarks on unity and diversity.

"[O'Malley] cares about a sensible immigration policy, a policy that recognizes protecting our laws and border security, but also to make America a melting pot for all people," Richardson said.

Other candidates also were hoping to gain whatever benefits Richardson might bring, The crowd of 150 consisted of many new voters and day laborers, but also a large number of politicians, including comptroller candidate Peter Franchot and attorney general hopeful Douglas F. Gansler.

Montgomery County Councilman Tomas E. Perez, who was forced by a court ruling to abandon his bid for attorney general, presided over the event.

At one point, he humorously dubbed Isiah Leggett, an African-American and the party's nominee for Montgomery County executive, the county's "first Latino on the County Council."

O'Malley's running mate, Anthony G. Brown, identified himself to the crowd as a child of immigrants (he was born to a Cuban father raised in Jamaica and a Swiss mother). But before he spoke, Brown made sure to introduce his wife, Patricia, who is Puerto Rican. He called her a person "who has truly valued her culture and her heritage."

She offered a few words of her own.

"They really understand the challenges that confront the Latino community," she said of O'Malley and Brown in Spanish. "Thank you for your votes."

O'Malley has gained the support of a group of Latino elected officials in Montgomery and Prince Georges counties called Amigos de O'Malley.

Meanwhile, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has focused on building support in Hispanic business communities, said Shareese N. DeLeaver, an Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman, adding that Ehrlich appointed Hispanic educator Adela M. Acosta last year as his director of intergovernmental affairs.

"Given the fact that this is a 2-1 Democratic state, the governor does not have the luxury of taking any vote for granted," she said "The governor intends to pursue all voting blocs, including the Hispanic vote, very aggressively in the next six weeks."

Nevertheless, O'Malley and others used the event to take aim at Ehrlich, reminding the crowd of the governor's 2004 comments on a radio program describing multiculturalism as "bunk" and the administration's elimination of a $7 million health care program for low-income pregnant women and children who are legal permanent residents.

In addition, Ehrlich sent a letter this week to the chairman of a legislative panel urging a hearing on more stringent identity requirements for driver's licenses, saying illegal residents are fraudulently applying for licenses.

"I would think, as a nonpartisan observer, given a history of real missteps in his relationship with immigrant and Latino communities, that he would be working much harder now," said Kim Propeack, a spokeswoman for CASA of Maryland.

However, figures show that neither party has a solid lock on Latino voters. Of the 74,018 Latino registered voters, about 39,000 are Democrats, about 18,000 are Republicans, and about 16,000 are independents.

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