published Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

Georgia Hispanics’ political clout trails population

NORCROSS, Ga.—Despite explosive growth in the past decade, Georgia Hispanics barely have made a dent in the state political scene.

Georgia Hispanics make up 8.8 percent of the state population, according to new U.S. census figures. The population nearly doubled in the state in the past decade.

But just two of Georgia’s 236 state legislators are Latino. At the local level, Hispanics haven’t fared any better, holding only two city council seats, according to the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

“Hispanics are going to be a force to be reckoned with in Georgia,” said state Rep. Pedro Marin, a Democrat from Duluth. “But it’s still a new community that is not as engaged in politics as some of those that are more established.”

The state’s tough new law cracking down on illegal immigration law could change that. Critics of the law are hoping it will drive up Hispanic voter participation.

Sensing opportunity, the Democratic Party of Georgia — which has been looking to rebuild after losing every statewide office last year — is making an aggressive push to register new Hispanic voters, showing up at Latino festivals with stacks of registration forms and using the GOP-authored law as a rallying cry to draw Latinos into the fold.

Party Chairman Mike Berlon estimates between 75,000 and 100,000 Hispanics who could register to vote have not done so.

One of them is Jose Lopez, co-owner of Zapata Restaurant in Norcross, which is home to a large concentration of Hispanic residents.

“I’m just living day-to-day and I guess I don’t see how it impacts me,” Lopez, 27, said as he leaned on the bar on a recent sunny afternoon.

But Lopez allowed that political outreach could change his mind.

“Nobody has ever said to me, ‘here’s why you should vote, here’s why it matters,” he said. “I don’t see political ads on TV aimed at me.”

State Republican Party officials also say they are courting Hispanic voters.

But many acknowledge it is tougher for the GOP given the immigration law they pushed through earlier this year.

“It certainly didn’t help Republicans make inroads,” said Johns Creek City Councilman Ivan Figueroa, a Republican who is Hispanic. “It makes it much harder to go out there and say, ‘come vote for me.”’

And Republican-authored maps that redraw the state’s political districts may not improve Latinos’ electoral success any time soon. In each of the seven legislative districts where Hispanics now hold a sizable presence, the Latino population decreased. That was even true in the state’s lone majority-Hispanic House district, centered around Norcross in Gwinnett County. It went from 57.5 percent Hispanic to 55.8 percent, according to state data.

The other House districts that each had more than 40 percent Hispanic population under existing maps are in Gainesville, Atlanta, Duluth and Lilburn. Each saw its Hispanic percentage shrink. A state Senate district surrounding Tucker saw its Hispanic population shrink from 46 percent to 43 percent.

“It’s ridiculous that even as the Hispanic population has doubled in the last 10 years and yet you are seeing the voting strength reduced,” said Jerry Gonzalez, head of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

Critics say it’s a possible violation of the Voting Rights Act, which is designed to protect minority voting strength.

It could create a problem with the U.S. Department of Justice or the federal courts, which must still approve the maps. State officials have yet to submit the maps to federal officials for approval.

“We just don’t know,” said state Rep. Roger Lane, chairman of the House redistricting committee. “We’ll just have to wait and see what they say.”

The Voting Rights Act was written to protect African-Americans subject to discrimination at the polls. But experts say there is no doubt that courts have held it shields Hispanics as well.

Still, Sam Zamarippa, a former state senator from Atlanta, said he won as a Hispanic in a district that was 60 percent black. He said Hispanic candidates have a compelling story to tell no matter the audience.

“I’m not alarmed by any of this,” Zamarippa said. “The real issue is not ethnicity. The real issue is leadership.”

Louis DeSipio, a political science professor at the University of California at Irvine who specializes in Hispanic politics, said the passage of an anti-immigration measure in California boosted Hispanic voter participation and the same could hold true in Georgia. He added that Hispanics also tend to vote Democratic.

There is also a difference between Hispanic voting strength and Hispanic elected officials.

Georgia’s first majority Hispanic district in Gwinnett County is represented by Hugh Floyd, a white Democrat.

When Floyd moved to Norcross in 1972, the area was 95 percent white.

“This district has changed, no doubt,” Floyd said. “But I don’t see any problem with being a white male in a diverse area. I am fine with that and I think the voters in my district are fine with that.”

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