Latino Voters Flex Their Political Muscle In Virginia On Super Tuesday

CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

A voter heads to cast his ballot during the presidential primary in Henrico, Va., Tuesday, March 1, 2016.

RICHMOND, VA — Sitting on the seventh floor of Virginia’s General Assembly Building, overlooking monuments to the state’s Confederate past, Democratic Delegate Alfonso Lopez is thinking of his state’s future.

“My district is really the rich tapestry Virginia is becoming,” he said, referring to Arlington and Fairfax counties’ growing Latino, Asian, and Middle Eastern populations. “In the year I was born, Latinos and Asians each made up less than 1 percent of the population. Today, 45 years later, Latinos make up 8.7 percent of the population and Asians make up 5.6 percent. You’re seeing a pretty dramatic demographic shift in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and eventually people can’t gerrymander their way out of the situation they’re in.”

By “people,” he means the Republicans that control the Virginia general assembly, and by “situation,” he means the tendency for these rapidly expanding voting blocks to overwhelmingly back Democratic candidates at all levels of government.

The state currently has more than 270,000 eligible Latino voters, and tens of thousands more Latino youth will turn 18 and become voters in the next few years. This groundswell of Latino voters in the northern counties of the state helped hand primary wins Tuesday night to Hillary Clinton and helped Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) nip at the heels of national frontrunner Donald Trump — who has campaigned largely on anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric.

Latino voters told ThinkProgress that Trump’s anti-immigrant platform has not only turned them away from the Republican Party, but has made them more motivated than ever to vote for a Democrat.

“Not just Latinos, but all minority people are really afraid,” said Nelly Samaniego, a Peruvian national who has lived in Virginia almost 20 years. “That guy [Trump] does not respect us. This is one of our motives for going to fight, because we want to make sure he’s not elected. I tell people in my community to please vote, because we’re scared. Not just of Trump but Rubio and Cruz, who have the same platform.”

Samaniego, a member of the group Latinos for Hillary, has been working for months to register Latino voters at cultural festivals and other community events. “We tell them, your vote is your voice. If you don’t vote, nothing is going to change,” she said.

Arlington County resident Leni Gonzalez said she has already seen the impact of Trump’s rhetoric on her fellow Virginians.

“When I say I’m Mexican, people look at me like they’re thinking I’m a rapist or a drug dealer, because that’s the way he’s talking about us,” she said. “In the past, I didn’t feel like I had to constantly say that I’m a U.S. citizen. But now I do. And when I speak Spanish, people look at me like I’m less than them.”

Virginia Assembly Delegate Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington).

Virginia Assembly Delegate Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington).

CREDIT: AP Photo/Steve Helber

Lopez, who now represents Arlington County in the state’s general assembly, has experienced discrimination as well. The son of a Venezuelan father and Pennsylvanian mother, he grew up hearing adults make racist comments about his father in front of him, assuming they were not related.

“You want some tacos with that, Pablo?” he remembered a store owner saying to his father. “I heard things like that. It’s not burning a cross, but it’s bigotry.”

Once, during law school, he went to the doctor’s office while suffering from mononucleosis. Too weak to raise his hand when his name was called, he heard the nurse mutter, “Just like a spic to be late.”

Just last year, he said he heard a candidate for a judicial position in Northern Virginia — who has since left the bench — mention offhand that that “Latins” don’t care about their children. He also expressed concern about the bills his colleagues have introduced that would punish Sanctuary Cities, where local police refuse to turn over undocumented residents to immigration authorities, and roll back the state’s DREAM Act, which allows undocumented youth who grew up in Virginia to pay in-state college tuition.

Lopez told ThinkProgress he believes that if more of his fellow Virginia Latinos turn out to the polls this year, they could become a political force so powerful that such racism will become a thing of the past.

“We are more than 8 percent of the population and we need to vote in similar numbers,” he said. “We have hundreds of thousands of eligible voters, but we’re not all registered. If we were, we could easily decide elections in this state.” Extremely narrow wins for Democrats in recent gubernatorial and Senate races suggest the population may already be casting the deciding votes.

Gonzalez, who has lived in Virginia for 32 years, says she hopes there will be an even bigger mobilization of Latino voters this November.

“We can decide an election,” she said. “We can really have an impact if everybody decides to go out and vote. We need to inform them, we need to register them, we need to find them, we need to engage them.”

Additionally, exit polls in the state indicate that the Republican Party’s embrace of an anti-immigrant platform may not only doom them with the growing Latino electorate, but could also erode their base. Fifty-nine percent of Virginia Republicans polled on Tuesday said undocumented immigrants working in the U.S. should be “offered legal status.” The GOP’s right-ward lurch on immigration is just one of several ways the party has abandoned its own recommendations for minority outreach, which party leaders warned in 2012 would cost them future national elections.