ANNAPOLIS — The removal of Montgomery County Councilman Thomas E. Perez from Maryland’s attorney general race has disheartened the Hispanic political community and left Latino ballots up for grabs, politicians and community leaders say.
Perez’s Dominican heritage combined with a vocal pro-immigrant stance gave him almost universal appeal to Maryland Latino Democrats, Hispanic politicians said. But now that he’s out of the race, many of those votes are undecided — but neither of the remaining candidates seems able to seize them even though the Hispanic vote could tip the scale in a close election.
“We’re devastated,” said Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery, who said her opinion reflected those of Maryland’s 316,257 Hispanic residents. “We were so proud of the campaign that Tom Perez had been running. But I personally have not seen Simms or Gansler targeting and going after the Latino community.”
Though Perez endorsed former Baltimore state’s attorney Stuart O. Simms, Latino leaders doubt Simms can replicate the fervor Perez inspired in Hispanic voters. Unlike his remaining opponent, Montgomery County State’s Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, Simms doesn’t speak Spanish, and he hasn’t appeared on Spanish language stations or sent out mail advertisements in Spanish.
Marta Pola, a fundraising director for the Simms campaign, said the campaign’s tight budget made it seem pointless to court a constituency Perez seemed to have wrapped up. Now that Perez is out of the race, Simms is beginning to targeting the Latino community, planning appearances in Spanish television advertisements. But Hispanic politicians said it might be too little too late.
“In a seesaw battle between Gansler and Simms, a shift of the Latino vote from Perez to Simms could decide the outcome of the election,” said Del. Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery. “I don’t see Simms attempting to exploit this advantage that has come to him courtesy of the Court of Appeals, even though Perez has endorsed him and is willing to help.”
Pola, a Cuban and Puerto Rican American who will act as Simms’ liaison to the Hispanic community, said Perez’s endorsement makes it viable for Simms to appeal to Latino voters. But his limited campaign budget makes name recognition a problem, critics say.
“Outside of a little blurb or a picture in the newspaper, I don’t think many people know Simms outside of the activists,” Simmons said. “I don’t think many Latino voters know Perez endorsed Simms.”
Gansler, who speaks near-fluent Spanish after spending years in Ecuador, may appeal to voters in Montgomery County, which has the state’s largest concentration of Hispanics, because he is well known there. But Hispanic leaders say he isn’t doing enough to reach the community.
“I think the jury is still out on Simms, and I don’t feel from my discussions that these folks [in the Hispanic community] have any connection with Gansler,” Simmons said.
Latino voters haven’t decided where to turn, community leaders said. Now that Perez is out of the race, both candidates seem to have the ability and an interest in appealing to Latino voters. But Hispanic leaders say they aren’t trying hard enough.
“This is a classic case where a disenfranchised minority shifting from one candidate to another could be the factor that determines the race for someone like Simms,” Simmons said.
According to the Census Bureau, 5.8% of Maryland residents are Hispanic, compared to about 14.5% of U.S. residents. About 23% of those residents, or 74,023, are registered voters, including about 48,000 democrats, said Perez’s former campaign manager.
Because the state’s board of elections does not keep track of voter turnout based on race, experts could not say for sure whether Hispanic voter turnout would diminish after Perez’s exit. Still, anecdotal evidence suggests Latinos who are registered vote consistently, political leaders said.
“I always tell my party, ‘Don’t take [the Hispanic vote] for granted,’ because all it takes is one issue and people will go to the other side,” said Victor Ramirez, D- Prince George’s, citing Cuban Americans’ shift to the Republican party after the Bay of Pigs invasion. “I’m always leery.”
Gutierrez recalled campaigning with Perez for their current posts in overlapping districts. Targeting Hispanic voters made a “huge difference” in that race, she said.
“They didn’t elect us, but the difference of their vote made the difference in our getting elected,” she said.
Neither candidate can hope to replicate Perez’s personal connection with the Latino community, leaders said.
“It was devastating,” said Jaime Contreras, district chair and supervisor for the Washington chapter of the Service Employees International Union.
The union, which represents mostly custodial Latino workers, had endorsed Perez. Now the union will endorse neither Simms nor Gansler, but Contreras added union leaders support Simms.
“No matter how strongly other candidates appeal to that base, they’re never going to have the history there that Mr. Perez does,” said Mike Morrill, a spokesman for Gansler’s campaign. “They don’t have the same kind of relationship with other candidates because Mr. Perez is from that community.”
Perez, who could have been the first Latino ever elected to Maryland statewide office, was a role model for his community, leaders said. But more than that, he was the only candidate to specifically target Latino voters, giving some speeches in Spanish and advertising in Spanish media.
“There was already this swelling up of interest in the race [among Latinos] because Tom was there,” Gutierrez said. “There’s just no way that can be transferred to Stu Simms.”
Beyond the issues, community leaders said Perez’s heritage mobilized voters. “It’s very important for communities to see their members advance in the political process,” said Kim Propeack, a supporter of Perez who works for a nonprofit organization in the state that benefits Latinos. “When Latino candidates run, it ignites a lot of interest.”