By JONATHAN TILOVE
August 2, 2004
c.2004 Newhouse News Service
BOSTON _ Alvaro C. Cifuentes bristles when the political talk turns to “people of color,” “brothers and sisters” and “black-brown coalitions.”
“I don’t believe in a minority approach,” he says.
He wonders whether it might not be time for the National Council of La Raza _ “la raza” translates as “the race” _ to rethink its name. “I don’t know how that name plays out in 2004.”
When asked how many times he has been discriminated against because he is Latino, he has a ready answer: “Never.”
And who is Alvaro C. Cifuentes? He is the chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Hispanic Caucus, formerly a successful corporate attorney and chief of staff to the governor of Puerto Rico, and fresh off a national convention at which his caucus meetings were packed and prized.
In this year of endless talk about the looming importance of the Hispanic vote, no one talks more unconventionally about how to mobilize that vote than Cifuentes.
He is for tamping down the hype _ “we have to do it in a humble and unpretentious way” _ and ramping up the local party-building everywhere,including states where the national Democrats figure they can’t win or they can’t lose.
“So, while the Kerry campaign is going to concentrate on the swing states, we are going to concentrate on the non-swing states,” said Cifuentes, whose post-convention itinerary includes trips to California, Texas and New York, the states with by far the largest Hispanic populations. “That way, win, lose or draw, we have a Latino political network that doesn’t go back to previous times.’
Most provocatively, Cifuentes asserts that Democrats must discard the strategy of trying to rouse the Hispanic community with what amount to racial appeals built on what he considers a dated civil-rights paradigm.
“I have never in my life felt discriminated against,” he said. “I cannot head a Hispanic effort at the national level based on something my heart and my mind do not believe in. We don’t need to follow the models of the past.”
Those appeals, he argues, don’t have much currency with the mass of struggling Hispanics.
“They might be frustrated in terms of where they might be in the quality of material life, but I don’t have a sense that they attribute that to race, to discrimination or isolation,” Cifuentes said. “They tend to attribute it to being the first or second generation that moved to the States and they feel that is a part of the growing-up process. There is not the anger. …
“They aspire to have a better life, they want to do well, they want to make money, they do not see it as us against other people.”
In fact, he said, the appeal of the GOP is precisely that it is perceived to be the party of material success. “That’s why you have 35 percent of Hispanics voting Republican without them doing anything (to earn it).”
Cifuentes also believes that talk of black and brown alliances only serves to discomfit whites. “I don’t like it when races are being treated any differently than any other,” he said.
That is why he wonders about the name of the nation’s largest Latino advocacy group. In its history, La Raza “has done wonders for the liberation of the Latino community,” he said, but “when you do understand that, you have to go beyond that.”
Raul Yzaguirre, who is retiring after 30 years at La Raza’s helm, said his organization has shifted its approach in recent years, “emphasizing opportunity more than victimization.”
But discrimination persists, he said, and “as long as race affects perceptions of us, we have to look at society through that lens.”
At its annual conference in June, La Raza released national survey findings that 80 percent of Latinos thought discrimination remains a problem (34 percent called it a major problem, 46 percent a minor problem), but that 90 percent agreed that “if you work hard enough, you will succeed in America.” The poll was conducted for the group by Zogby International.
On balance, said Columbia University political scientist Rodolfo de la Garza, who is affiliated with the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a think tank devoted to Latino issues, “the civil rights stuff is not needed in the same way anymore.”
Cifuentes is no stranger to controversy.
This spring an e-mail he wrote criticizing the Kerry campaign’s outreach to the Hispanic community found its way into The New York Times: “The word-of-mouth in the Beltway and beyond is not that (Kerry) doesn’t get it, it’s that he does not care.”
Not exactly the party line. But, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the nonpartisan National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, which has prodded both parties to work harder for Hispanic votes, “it’s a little bit more candid assessment of where things are, not so Pollyanna-ish about the Democratic Party being the salvation of Latinos.”
In an interview at convention’s end, Cifuentes said he expects the Kerry-Edwards ticket to win the presidency with at least 65 percent of the Hispanic vote, the share won by Al Gore, for whom Cifuentes was a big fund-raiser.
Cifuentes’ critical view of the minority political strategy may owe something to his having spent most of his life in Puerto Rico, where almost everyone is Hispanic and, he said, “there is no such thing as a race issue.”
In 1992, he managed the successful gubernatorial campaign there of Pedro Rossello, and from 1993 to 1995 he was Rossello’s chief of staff. He later moved to Washington, living in suburban Potomac, Md., and is now in his fourth year chairing the DNC’s Hispanic Caucus. He plans to seek another term in February.
During his term he has substantially increased the Hispanic presence on the DNC to 44, about 10 percent of the membership, and has turned the unpaid chair’s job into a full-time one, traveling the country enlisting supporters “on my own dime.”
“To my eyes he’s doing a great job in bringing a lot of us back into the Democratic Party,” said Raul Martinez, the Cuban-born mayor of Hialeah, Fla. Martinez was a Democrat before he could even vote, but dropped out of party affairs years ago because of all the “empty promises.” But, since Cifuentes brought him back into the fold, he said, “I’ve seen a tremendous difference.”
Likewise, Mayor Eddie Perez of Hartford, Conn., a longtime community organizer and the first Puerto Rican mayor in New England, has been drawn by Cifuentes into active involvement in the DNC and building a Latino political network in Connecticut and neighboring states.
“Alvaro has taken people like me to promote the idea that we should use the national election to build an infrastructure,” Perez said.
Indeed, Cifuentes’ self-described priority is this: “notwithstanding any presidential cycle, to try to create a national network of Hispanic political leaders.”
Organizing in states that are not battlegrounds has a ripple effect, years to come, in states that swing _ because so many of the new Latino populations in places like Nevada, Georgia, Michigan and the Carolinas move there from places like California, Texas and New York.
“Neglect them in those states and we lose them by the time they get to the swing states,” Cifuentes said. “I’m a long-range planner.”