Las Vegas Sun

December 1, 2015

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Latino leaders swirl around idea of Tequila Party



Political organizer Fernando Romero says if immigration reform isn’t tackled soon, Hispanics may strike out on their own.

Sun Coverage

UPDATE: ‘Tequila Party’ proposal gains international attention

Latino leaders in Nevada and nationwide are quietly debating whether to sever their traditional Democratic ties and form an independent grass-roots political group.

The idea, born of frustration over the party’s inaction on immigration reform and fears that as a voting bloc they’re a political afterthought, Latino leaders have discussed the idea among themselves locally and in conference calls with colleagues across the country.

The unlikely model for the movement they would like to launch is the Tea Party — not in substance, of course, but in its grass-roots organizational style. Acknowledging the source of their inspiration, Latino leaders have dubbed the proposed movement the “Tequila Party.”

These Hispanic leaders have noticed that while the Tea Party has had spotty electoral success, it has called attention to its concerns and values and put the establishment on notice.

“I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but there’s talk,” said Fernando Romero, president of the nonpartisan Hispanics in Politics, Nevada’s oldest Hispanic political group. “There’s discussion about empowerment of the Latino vote.”

Hispanics have proved to be a powerful political force in Nevada and nationally. They were instrumental in electing President Barack Obama and are credited with saving Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s re-election this month. In Nevada, Latinos accounted for 15 percent of voters in 2008 and a record 16 percent in this month’s midterm elections.

Despite, or perhaps because of, their robust turnout, many Latinos have become disillusioned with party politics. Their efforts haven’t led to the changes in policy they would like to see.

Hispanic Republicans complain that party officials court their vote but often advocate policies that marginalize the community.

For example, Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval, the state’s first Hispanic governor, reached out to Latino voters while also embracing Arizona’s controversial immigration law. GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle aired campaign ads on illegal immigration that portrayed Mexicans as menacing criminals. A spokeswoman for Angle, who is also the chairwoman of the Nevada Republican Hispanic Caucus, was put in the awkward position of denouncing her own candidate’s ads.

Latino Democrats, on the other hand, wonder if their support is taken for granted. They express frustration and anger at the lack of movement on immigration and education reform in Washington. They bristle at being underrepresented in the state Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee. Community organizers complain they are recognized only near the end of campaigns, when polls are tight and their votes are needed.

“There’s a feeling that Democrats aren’t listening,” said Louis DeSipio, a Chicano studies and political science professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Congress’ actions over the next month could decide the fate of the burgeoning Tequila Party. If comprehensive immigration reform is shelved again, some Hispanics will likely decide to strike out on their own.

“It would definitely induce us,” Romero said. “We would have to do something at that point to get ready for 2012.”

The organization could operate as an affiliate of the Democratic Party or as an independent movement, as the Tea Party was initially.

The Tea Party’s evolving relationship with Republicans could provide a lesson for Tequila Party advocates. The seemingly spontaneous grass-roots growth of the Tea Party revealed the pent-up anger of many Americans over what they saw as excess government spending and its intrusion into private industry. But translating that energy into electoral results largely came about when the Tea Party worked within the Republican Party.

Politicians affiliated with Tea Party groups won more than 40 congressional seats in the midterm elections. All ran as Republicans. And while headliners such as Angle and Christine O’Donnell lost at the ballot box, their association with the movement and the party placed them on a national stage, where they were able to amass a significant amount of support and in Angle’s case, a stunning amount of money.

Hispanic leaders hope to spur something similar.

“People want to leverage the fact that it was Hispanics who were the dealmakers getting Reid elected,” one Democratic Latino operative said. “This is the time to move forward and get something committed other than talk, which has been going on for a long time.”

The Hispanic community has had some success with grass-roots movements. The nationwide immigration rallies in 2006 are an example. Hundreds of thousands of them gathered in cities across the country to protest proposed immigration laws and push for comprehensive immigration reform.

A series of House and Senate hearings followed.

“These were community activists who thought leaders weren’t paying attention,” DeSipio said. “It got Washington’s attention.”

But efforts to create a third party around race or ethnicity have failed.

In the late 1960s, the Puerto Rican Young Lords Party emerged in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. Modeled after the Black Panther Party, the group used confrontational tactics to call attention to the struggles of immigrants in the barrios. In the 1970s, the Mexican-American La Raza Unida Party sprung up in the Southwest. The party gained city council and school board seats in Crystal City, Texas, where it began, and ran candidates for governor and U.S. Senate. But the party’s high-profile candidates lost, and the movement struggled to gain traction nationally.

“The party did not meet its goal of becoming a viable independent political institution, but it did contribute to the opening of doors for Mexican-Americans into the two-party political system,” Carlos Muñoz Jr., one of the founding members and now a Latino studies professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in a recent op-ed piece.

Muñoz still sees the need for a third political party with the concerns of minorities as its primary agenda, but he now thinks such a movement should be more inclusive.

“Latinos don’t have the luxury to try to be islands in and of themselves,” Muñoz told the Sun. “What we need, given the reality of today, is a new progressive party that is independent but inclusive of all racial and ethnic groups.”

“If the progressive Democratic caucus, if the progressive third parties can say this isn’t working, let’s leave and contribute to the building of a multiracial independent party, that would be the perfect nucleus for the eventual development of a vibrant independent force that reflects a diverse culture.”

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