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Monday, February 25, 2008

In Texas with Latinos: The Switch is On

The New York Times

February 25, 2008
Texas Hispanics Face a Tough Choice in Primary

SAN ANTONIO — As recently as two weeks ago, Rudy Davila III, a pharmacist, was part of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s political firewall, the bloc of Hispanic voters from here to the border with Mexico whom she counted on to keep her presidential campaign from collapse. But the firewall is showing signs of cracking.

The Davila family has been doing business in this overwhelmingly Mexican-American city for more than 100 years, beginning with a corner grocery that in four generations has become a $16 million medical supply company. The same neighborhoods that propelled the Davilas’ business gave rise to powerful Mexican-American civil rights organizations, whose leaders built a following that has largely remained loyal to the Democratic Party.

It was loyalty to Mrs. Clinton that initially motivated Mr. Davila to support her candidacy. He said that not only had his family’s business prospered during Bill Clinton’s time in the White House, but that he also saw improvements across the city’s impoverished West side.

Mr. Davila’s loyalty weakened, however, after Mrs. Clinton began losing primary after primary. Then, after watching the effect Senator Barack Obama had on his community last week, feelings of loyalty were overcome by a sense of pragmatism.

“The lines to get into the plaza went more than a mile,” said Mr. Davila, showing photographs his assistant had taken at the Obama rally held less than half a block from his pharmacy. “The crowd was one-third white, one-third black and one-third Latino. I had never seen anything like it in San Antonio. And I knew right then he was the best candidate to defeat the Republicans in November.”

Here in the heart of Hispanic Texas, voters like Mr. Davila are being pulled hard from both directions. It is hard to interview a Clinton supporter at a coffee shop or taco joint without next running into someone supporting Mr. Obama. A P.T.A. meeting that started with polite applause during the presentation of the bilingual spelling bee awards ended in prickly political debate.

Recent polls have found the same trend that foiled Mrs. Clinton in her string of recent losses has begun to play out in Texas. Her double-digit lead over Mr. Obama has plummeted to a virtual tie. Mr. Obama has a significant lead over Mrs. Clinton among blacks and white men. His support among white women is about even with hers. And although she still has an advantage among Latinos — an estimated 25 percent of the electorate and some of her most steadfast supporters — that gap has begun to narrow.

With the Texas primary just over a week away, political pundits are reluctant to predict how things would ultimately play out among Texas’ Latino voters. Still, there is endless hashing over how Mr. Obama has made considerable gains in such a short time with an electorate whose ties to Mrs. Clinton date to 1972, when she registered voters along the border with Mexico in support of George McGovern.

But today’s Hispanic voters are a generally younger, more educated and more affluent electorate than they were two decades ago — qualities that make them impervious to Mrs. Clinton’s big-name endorsements.

For Hispanics in South Texas who live along the border, their ties to Mexico are little more than symbolic. Lydia Carrillo of the Southwest Voters Registration and Education Project said that most Hispanics here had been in this country for generations, and that they were just as concerned about issues involving education, the economy and health care as they were about an immigration overhaul.

Veterans groups pointed out that Houston and San Antonio had suffered the second- and third-highest numbers of fatalities from the war in Iraq, after New York, so Mr. Obama’s opposition to the war from the beginning resonated strongly here.

“Predicting a winner in the March 4 primary would be foolhardy,” wrote Jaime Castillo, a columnist at The San Antonio Express-News. “Hillary’s supporters are die-hards, the kind of voters who cast ballots in every Democratic primary. Obama’s backers are energized, but their commitment is untested over the long haul. They are an amalgam of party regulars, young kids, independents and the politically disenchanted.”

Other pundits and politicians echoed Mr. Davila, saying heart had less to do with Hispanic voters’ choices than hard-headed calculations about which Democratic candidate had the better chance of winning the White House.

“Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have strong platforms,” said Representative Charles A. Gonzalez, who has endorsed Mr. Obama. “It may sound clinical, but Hispanic voters, like all voters, not only want someone who speaks to their hearts. Obama is not only the best positioned to win in November, but also to live up to the promise to unite the country.”

Those who have managed statewide campaigns in Texas said the state had two important dividing lines: the one that marked the border with Mexico and the one marked by Interstate 10 from El Paso through San Antonio to Houston that divides North Texas from the south. North of the interstate are Texas’s prosperous, racially diverse economic capitals. The south is overwhelmingly Hispanic, and poorer, though the region has enjoyed some growth since the North American Free Trade Agreement turned the Rio Grande Valley into one of the most bustling commercial zones in the world.

Political analysts said Mrs. Clinton’s base of support had been the south, and they added that she remained stronger than Mr. Obama here. But because of the complicated way Texas selects its presidential nominee — a contest that is part primary and part caucus, and which assigns delegates to state Senate districts according to turnout during the 2004 presidential contest — the regions with the largest numbers of delegates are in the north, where Mr. Obama is expected to receive significant support.

“Texas is more like the South than the West,” said Antonio Gonzalez of the Southwest Voters Registration and Education Project. “Institutions, unions, community organizations are weak. Voters are increasingly individualistic. They are not organized on either the left or the right. So a charismatic candidate can come in and run the table.”

Nina Perales of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund agreed, saying, “Mrs. Clinton was counting on the old ward captains, and I’m not sure they’re really there anymore.”

Mrs. Clinton has endorsements from more than 100 Hispanic community leaders, businesspeople and elected officials. She has retained considerable support among Hispanic men. But Mrs. Clinton’s staunchest support is from Hispanic women, who see their own struggles in hers.

“I think as a female she’ll have more compassion for the elderly,” said Mary Louise Arce, 63. “We’ve become a lost group. Even doctors don’t take care of us the way they take care of the young.”

Mary Perez, wife, mother of two and president of the 20,000-member student body at San Antonio Community College, served as host to Chelsea Clinton at the campus last week. She said that she identified closely with Hillary Rodham Clinton’s drive and determination and that electing a woman would make a much bigger, and better, difference to the country, than electing a black man. And as a mother without medical insurance who said she had occasionally put her own health at serious risk in order to keep the rest of her bills paid, Ms. Perez said universal health care was much more important than affordable health care.

“I blocked out the pain as long as I could,” Ms. Perez, 26, said of a recent kidney infection that she waited several weeks to treat. “And then, when I started getting 105-degree fevers, I decided to go to the hospital.”

When asked whether she was still paying off the $10,000 bill, Ms. Perez voice cracked, “Yes.”

But Mr. Obama has made an aggressive play for some of Mrs. Clinton’s southern stronghold, with forays into the Rio Grande Valley to talk to students about his plans to offer tax breaks that would defer the costs of their loans, to veterans about building more military hospitals, and to single mothers about improving public schools.

As has been the case elsewhere, the tight race between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama has produced divided loyalties in Texas.

Mary Olga Montez, a retired military aircraft mechanic, said she had been focused on keeping the peace in her house. In her 53 years of marriage to her husband, Robert, an accountant, she said they had differed on presidential candidates numerous times. But Mrs. Montez typically kept her choice to herself — until this year.

“He kept telling people that both of us were supporting Clinton, so finally, I told him, ‘No. I’m supporting Obama,’ ” recalled Mrs. Montez, 73. “I said, ‘We need change. We need something different, new ideas.’ ”

Mr. Montez, 75, said: “How soon people forget. The Clintons did a lot for African-Americans, for Hispanics, for everybody. Now it seems like everyone’s forgotten.”

Referring to his wife, he half joked, “Some people, you just want to send them to the corner with a dunce cap on.”

When asked whether all the talk of politics had put a strain on their relationship, Mrs. Montez got the last laugh. “I just feed him a good dinner,” she said, “and that’s the end of that.”

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