Will Race Deter the Hillary Hispanics?

The Washington Post: Race in '08

For six months leading up to the elections in 2008, Amar traveled around America reporting on how race intersects with politics.  The following is one of a number of posts on the topic.  For more, click here.

Las Vegas, New Mexico - In Charlie's Spic--and--Span diner, affectionately but jarringly dubbed "The Spic," the power brokers of this small, predominantly Hispanic town gather over huevos rancheros and coffee.

City councilors, county commissioners, and school board members tip their hats at one another and take their favorite maroon booths, as Marty Suazo, the longtime San Miguel County Democratic Party Chair, scans the crowd.

"This is strong Hillary Country," he says. "[We're] Soldiers of Clinton."

Indeed, all but one elected official in this town of 15,000 residents is a Democrat. And when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton won the Democratic presidential primary in New Mexico by 1,809 votes, she carried San Miguel County by 1,100 votes.

But ever since Sen. Barack Obama vanquished Clinton nationwide, her Democratic soldiers here have been slow to switch sides.

Are subtle racial concerns holding them back? Will these Hillary Hispanics, usually loyal Democrats, turn out for their party's pick on November 4?

The conflicting views expressed by customers at the Spic--and--Span provided reasons to wonder.

Upstairs, older, veteran Hispanic officials were politicking, nodding and waving at one another across the bustling orange room. But downstairs, out of sight, two--dozen Barack Obama volunteers huddle in the diner's baby blue basement plotting their own outreach.

The demographics of those in the basement are notably distinct. Over half of the Obama volunteers are white. A number of them weren't born in this small town. And their leader, Jill Baskerville, is one of only a handful of African Americans in the county. Baskerville says months after Obama's victory that she's still struggling to get the Hillary Hispanics upstairs to openly support Obama.

The southwest state went for Democrat Al Gore by 366 votes out of 800,000 cast in 2000, and then for Republican George Bush by 6,000 votes in 2004. Strong Democratic turnout in the Hispanic north is key to offsetting the conservative southern counties of "Little Texas," and will determine whether Obama can hang on to his current lead in the polls.

Upstairs Suazo muses: "To say race doesn't matter would be ludicrous... But it's much deeper than...a black-white issue. It's the way people in San Miguel County prefer to do business... We're traditionalist democrats, like the Clintons."

He nods at a passerby and continues: "When the Clintons come in they reminded us of John F. Kennedy. They campaigned from the governor...right down to the county chairs." County Chairs like him.

The local party establishment was indebted to former President Bill Clinton and his administration, which funneled federal resources and jobs to New Mexico during tough economic times.

Suazo is blunt: "New Mexico is about pork because we have to be." Private investment in Las Vegas dried up long ago with the withering of the railroads. Now one in four people live in poverty here. Unemployment hovers at 12 percent (and at 36 percent in the neighboring Mora County!)

For now, government is Suazo's answer. "Seventy-five percent of jobs here [in San Miguel County] are government-driven. [People looking for jobs] give us [party officials] a call. We [then call our contacts and] say 'Take a look at this guy. He's a really strong Democrat...' They won't get a job solely based on our recommendation, but it's a bump... That's the way it's done here."

The Obama campaign was a sharp break from this model, Suazo says. Obama bypassed the Hispanic political hierarchy entirely. He had to. Hillary Clinton had locked it down.

So the Obama campaign "got its own grassroots organization... away from the status quo... They came in with an attitude of 'Get on the train, or be dragged along by it.'" Naturally, the political elite here was slow to jump at the offer.

It's not race, Suazo insists, "It's about the way we do politics."

Baskerville, leading the Obama group downstairs, is hardly over-confident or brash. She's energetic, hopeful, and similarly convinced that race isn't what's holding the Hillary Hispanics back. She claims it's all about Obama's "outsider, urban" status.

Does Obama really understand small town America like the Clintons did ¿ especially that one from Hope, Arkansas?

Obama's local supporters don't always make his case for him. They're still largely made up of strangers to the "traditionalist Democratic" party. They're white people, young folks, and even a few guys from out of town.

Yet while inside the diner, the leaders upstairs and downstairs insist race doesn't matter, in the fields and hillsides beyond town, some voices beg to disagree.

Geronimo Cruz, a retired factory worker living in Mora County, worries aloud that "blacks are for blacks," and that in the White House, Obama would care for his racial brethren in the inner cities before looking out for the white and Hispanic rural lands. He cites hip-hop videos as proof that confident, aloof African Americans are more interested in a good time than hard work.

He, like many others, refers to Obama as "El Negrito," a diminutive that can be affectionate when referring to one's grandfather, as in "abuelito," or condescending when referring to the potential President of the United States.

Cruz voted for Democrats his whole life. He won't cast his vote for Republican John McCain, he says. He might for Obama. "Maybe he's different than the rest." Or, for the first time in his adult life, he might not vote at all.

Back in the diner, Mr. Suazo and Ms. Baskerville agree that the closer Obama comes to Las Vegas, the better. On Sept. 18, he visited Las Vegas 100 miles away.

"Some people were disappointed that's still too far," says Baskerville. He should come here, "to Spic--and--Span to get a breakfast burrito with lots of green chili on it."

When he comes, should he sit upstairs with the old guard or downstairs with the new? Obama will never have to choose. He has no plans to show up in Las Vegas before Election Day.

Nevertheless, Baskerville is confident the work of her grassroots volunteers can make up the difference. Only two weeks before Election Day, she's still operating separate from "old guard" politicos like Suazo. But she doesn't mind. "We've triumphed without them," she says.

New MexicoAmar Bakshi