Democratic Giants Court N.M. Hispanics
By Jose Antonio Vargas
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- When it comes to surrogates, they don't get much better than this: Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton, icons of the Democratic Party, in command performances as their fiery, charismatic, distinctively-accented selves.
You'd think they were running for president again.
In a span of four hours, just three miles apart, Sen. Kennedy and former president Clinton held court in Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico, the most heavily Hispanic state in the nation. Kennedy, escorted by his wife, Vicki, barnstormed the state today, first appearing at the National Hispanic Cultural Center here, then quickly driving an hour north to Santa Fe Community College. Both were billed as "community gatherings" -- and if this morning's event was any indication, they were relatively small gatherings. About 250 people showed up at the Cultural Center, though they were so loud in applauding Kennedy's entrance ("Fired up, ready to go!" a lady yelled out) that an alarm went off.
Not to be outdone, Clinton drove up and down the state, too. He was in Santa Fe in the morning for a private fundraiser. By 3 p.m., he was being introduced to more than 2,500 Albuquerque rally attendees -- young and old, men and women, many Hispanic -- by Dolores Huerta and Martin Chavez, two of the biggest marquee Hispanic names in New Mexico and nationwide. Huerta, a native New Mexican, is co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America. Chavez is Albuquerque's mayor, and a loyal backer of the Clintons. "The reason that Hispanics in New Mexico support Hillary is when she looks at us, she doesn't see Hispanics," Chavez said. "She sees Americans."
To watch Kennedy and Clinton in person is to see two great orators at work, their speeches impassioned and detailed, their rhetorical flourishes sharp.
"Change is in the air," Kennedy said this morning, taking a page from Sen. Barack Obama's playbook. "It's really up now to each and every one of you." At the end of his speech, after citing Obama's "good judgment" and "good plans" about health care, the war in Iraq and immigration reform, Kennedy, his roaring voice drowned out by cheers, asked the crowd: "Are you gonna help us? Are you gonna help us? Are you gonna help us?"
Clinton was just as forceful. He kept the focus on conveying his wife's plans if she gets to the White House, from tackling health care reform and global warming to making college more affordable. In the past, he's been criticized for attacking Obama. Today, Obama's name did not come up once in Clinton's nearly 30-minute speech. Drawing from his standard stump speech, Clinton said of Sen. Clinton, "I tell you: Knowing what I know about the demands of the presidency, I would be here if she asked me to, even if we weren't married."
Kennedy and Clinton are beloved figures in the Hispanic community. Kennedy's relationship with Hispanics dates back to the '60s. His brothers, former president John F. Kennedy and former attorney general Robert F. Kennedy, put an end to unfair working conditions for migrant workers. More recently, Kennedy, as one of the most senior members of the Senate, worked on behalf of immigration reform. Clinton, for his part, is remembered for the prosperous economy of the 1990s. As Chavez pointed out in his introduction, there were "more Hispanics appointed [to government positions] than at any time in history" during the Clinton years.
Hispanics gathered at today's events showed Clinton's and Obama's draw.
"Some people seem to think that Hillary has a lock on the Hispanic vote," Michael Casaus, 35, an environmental organizer, told The Trail after listening to Kennedy. "I don't believe that at all. Sure, we Hispanics, we remember how good it was during the Clinton years. But we're not voting about the past. We're voting about the future. And Obama's the future."
But standing outside the Johnson Center gymnasium at the University of New Mexico waiting for Clinton's arrival, 69-year-old Mary Yarritu offered a different view.
"Look, this election is as much about the past as it is about the present. Obama's wet behind the ears. He needs seasoning, he needs experienced. This is not his time," Yarritu said. "This is Hillary's time, and we Hispanics are behind her all the way."
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