ANNAPOLIS – When Hurricane Mitch tore through Central America in 1998 and a series of earthquakes hit the same region in 2001, thousands of Washington, D.C.,-area Hispanics united immediately to collect funds and supplies to send to their countrymen.
Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery, said she wishes Maryland’s Hispanic community could come together as quickly to vote and raise its voice on political issues.
“We don’t have a natural sense of organization — of coming together for political and civic activities,” she said, but “we come together very beautifully on family and social issues.”
And as the number of Hispanic voters in Maryland increases, leaders and the electorate find that, much like America’s other ethnic and racial communities, pursuing and pushing a unified policy agenda is almost impossible.
“I would not say that Hispanics have a common agenda,” Gutierrez said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate that we should … no one asks the Anglo community if they have one common agenda.”
Yet Hispanic community and political leaders said their community has begun to influence politics through involvement in recent issues like driver’s licenses and in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.
That involvement shows promising signs of awakening the Hispanic voting bloc, described often as a growing potential force in local and national politics.
“Whichever party is successful in conveying their need for inclusiveness to the Hispanic community will be a force to reckon with, and it has to start now,” said John M. Kane, Maryland Republican Party Chairman.
And with a presidential election this year — as well as congressional contests in Maryland — the importance of the growing Hispanic voting bloc is rising.
About half of Hispanics in Maryland were U.S. citizens in 2000 and eligible to vote, one of the lowest percentages in the country, the Census reported in March.
There are 155,971 Hispanics over age 18 in Maryland, and 80,121 or 51.4 percent, are citizens, according to a March Census report.
Some Hispanics have been slower to exercise political rights because experiences in their native countries have made them suspicious of elections and government, said Delegate Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George’s.
“The majority, I would say, of Hispanics that live in this area are not accustomed to the politics. Whether it’s a bad experience or it’s not their priority,” he said.
Gutierrez and Ramirez were both born in El Salvador. They, along with Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick, who is half-Cuban, are the General Assembly’s three Hispanic legislators.
Mooney said he is familiar with the Hispanic community and is interested and attentive to issues affecting the growing group.
In 2003, he said he cast a “very difficult” vote in favor of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, which led to criticism from his conservative colleagues.
“I understand how true the needs are of the Hispanic community,” he said.
Hector L. Torres, executive director of the governor’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said Hispanic voters are growing more sophisticated with every issue, legislative session and politician they sway.
“I think what I have seen this year is a much more organized effort by the Hispanic community in trying to influence legislation in Annapolis.” he said. “I see signs that we will be becoming more and more sophisticated, and that is a good thing.”
While the entire Latin American community is not known to coalesce around specific issues, when it does, the impact can be significant.
For example, Hispanics and immigrants of many stripes rallied to defeat a platform of bills targeting illegal aliens in Maryland.
They succeeded in killing bills that would have required state, Baltimore and Harford County law enforcement to detain illegal immigrants and contact federal authorities, as well as a ban on issuing driver’s licenses to illegal aliens and a prohibition against accepting consular identification cards as official identity documents.
“I still think that there are lots of hills that we still have to climb before we are fully effective,” Gutierrez said.
It’s only a matter of time before Hispanics rise as a voting bloc and into more government positions, Ramirez said.
And the mainstream shows concerns about the idea of Hispanics becoming an effective presence in government.
“Quite honestly,” he said, “I think people are scared of it.”
Hispanic power has not reached the kind of critical mass to cause voter trepidation, said Gutierrez.
While campaigning for the House of Delegates in Maryland’s 18th District, she said she ran two campaigns: one for the mainstream and one for her district’s “miniscule” contingent of Hispanic voters. She won by a few hundred votes.
Gutierrez attributes her slim victory to the Hispanic voters in her district. Ultimately Hispanics may begin determining more and more elections, she said.
“It’s not going to happen in a year,” she said, “but we weren’t supposed to be this large a minority until the year 2015 and we have already passed that.”