Who Determines Whether Someone Has A 'Latino Heart'?
When New Mexico Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gary King told the crowd at the Democratic Party of Valencia County annual fundraiser on Sept. 6 that Republican Gov. Susana Martinez "does not have a Latino heart," he was reportedly paraphrasing previous remarks made by famous labor icon and native New Mexican Dolores Huerta. King probably meant to say that Gov. Martinez's policies don't align with the policy preferences of New Mexico's Latino electorate, but by parroting Huerta, he may have inserted a racial element into the campaign that could cause some Latino voters to pause.
Back in 2010, Martinez became the nation's first female Hispanic governor by earning 38 percent of the state's Latino vote, while her Democratic opponent, Diane Denish, earned 61 percent of the state's Latino vote. In the 2010 race, Martinez captured 54 percent of the overall vote in New Mexico.
Recent polling from the Albuquerque Journal shows that in the current race for governor, King still leads Martinez among Latino voters, but that edge has been significantly diminished. An August poll of likely New Mexico voters showed that among Latinos, 56 percent preferred King and 36 percent favored Martinez. A newer poll conducted last week after the "Latino heart" comment showed that 45 percent of New Mexico's Latino voters support King, while 44 percent of Latino voters support Martinez, and 11 percent say they are undecided.
The pollster for the Albuquerque Journal, Brian Sanderoff, remarked on King's loss of support among New Mexico's Latinos:
"It may have contributed to some of his (King's) slippage among Hispanics," Sanderoff said. King, as an Anglo candidate running against the nation's first female Hispanic governor, "was not the right messenger."
The issue of the messenger is key here. Dolores Huerta, an 84-year-old activist who was born in northern New Mexico, might be able to get away with making a racially tinged remark about Martinez. (Huerta has made similar ethnically charged statements before, such as "Republicans hate Latinos," which she said to a group of Tucson high school students in 2006.) But many people, Latinos and non-Latinos alike, chafe against someone criticizing another person's ethnic identity based on political leanings.
King could perhaps have more accurately said that Martinez's conservative policies don't line up with the expressed policy preferences of the state's Latino voters instead of attaching so-called Latino qualities to the governor's vital organ. According to polling from October 2012 from Latino Decisions, 52 percent of New Mexico Latinos said immigration was "the most important issue" or "one of the most important issues" in their voting decisions for that election cycle. Similarly, in that same poll from two years ago, a majority of Latino New Mexicans knew someone who was undocumented, and a majority of Latino New Mexicans supported a driver's license compromise than stricter requirements for undocumented drivers.
Shortly after being elected governor, in an interview with Latina magazine, Martinez had to be reminded of what the DREAM Act was because she couldn't answer a question about that policy. The DREAM Act is a federal legislative proposal that would legalize undocumented youth who satisfy certain requirements; it's a policy proposal that is popular with Latino voters and that has been around for over a decade. Martinez has also tried repeatedly to repeal a state law that grants undocumented people in New Mexico driver's licenses.
Instead of making ill-phrased remarks about "Latino hearts," King might have criticized Martinez over her immigration policies and child welfare record. But Latinos are already the largest ethnic group in New Mexico, and as their political influence increases, they will continue to hold positions across party lines. So playing ethnic politics by body part or even having prominent Latino Democrats publicly express that other Latinos are "not Latino enough" simply because they don't fall in line with the preferences of the majority within their group will likely become less tolerable.
Especially in a state where many Latinos can trace family histories to a time when there weren't Democrats, Republicans or Anglo politicians seeking their approval.
Adriana Maestas is a Southern California-based writer. You can find her on Twitter: @AdrianaMaestas .
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.