Latinos came out in force. Nationwide, more than 11 million cast ballots, an increase of 1.6 million from 2008. In Illinois, 10% of those voting were Latino compared with 6% four years ago, and 1% in 1992.
They came out decisively for President Obama. 71% of Latino voters voted for the President, tipping the scale in battleground states like Nevada, Florida, and Colorado. In Illinois, the organized Latino get-out-the-vote campaign is credited with surprising Democratic victories in traditional Republican strongholds like DuPage County.
What does it mean nationally? The pressure is on to pass comprehensive immigrant reform. Signs at a rally of immigration rights organizations outside the White House read: "We voted for you. Now vote for our Families."
However, polls showed that it was the economy and jobs that were the number one concern of the community. So, Latino leaders are asking for more appointments of Latinos to positions within the Administration, especially in agencies that dictate economic policy.
What does it mean in Illinois?
Latinos have been part of the Democratic Leadership teams in the Illinois House and Senate for more than a decade. Now, Republicans are consciously reaching out to the Latino community. All three Republican leaders expected to enter the race for Governor in 2014 have made overtures. Senator Bill Brady is a co-sponsor of the driver's license bill. Senator Kirk Dillard attended the annual Latino Legislative Caucus Foundation conference. State Treasurer Dan Rutherford is working with the National Latino Education Institute on an Economic Empowerment program.
In the short run, it means that the General Assembly is likely to pass a law allowing illegal, undocumented immigrants register for a driver's license. Both Democrats and Republicans have eagerly declared their support: the Governor, the Mayor, Republican leaders in the General Assembly Tom Cross and Christine Radogno, Comptroller Judy Barr Topinka, and Senate President John Cullerton.
What does it mean for the community of Jewish leaders in Illinois?
Groups like the Alliance of Latinos and Jews began years ago to build personal and professional connections. Mt. Sinai Hospital, part of the Jewish Federation network, has always welcomed Latinos and is one of the major providers of obstetrics services to Latino families in the state. The Federation advocated for the inclusion of coverage for undocumented women in the Violence against Women Act in Congress. It is important to provide services and sign on in support of legislation. But a more powerful bond across leaders comes from being engaged in the hard work of building ideas, policy, coalitions around issues of shared concern.
One challenge is that the Latino community is actually several communities with different concerns. The largest group is the Mexican community. Other communities include Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Argentinians, Columbians, Peruvians, and so on. Religiously, they are likely to be either Catholic or Evangelical Christian. What is clear is that immigration reform is their civil rights issue and a litmus test.
So, where to begin? Naturally we look to see what we have in common. A Jewish political activist comfortable working in all communities quipped: "We are a natural coalition because Latinos are just like Jews. Their mothers are the bosses of the families; food is really important; family is even more important, and they are perpetually late."
Another place to start is to ask what do Latinos believe to be true about Judaism, about Israel, about the Jewish community.
The American Jewish Committee is a leader among established Jewish organizations in seeking closer relations with Latinos. This year, they commissioned a survey about Latino attitudes towards Jews. Among other questions, AJC wanted to know the prospects and challenges for building an inter-group coalition and for building bridges between the two communities. http://www.ajc.org/atf/cf/%7B42d75369-d582-4380-8395-d25925b85eaf%7D/AJC_LATINOS_04102012.PDF .
Without giving away the conclusions, I found much of promise in the report. The report noted that some of the criticisms of the Jewish community I grew up hearing are seen as strengths by a growing Latino community. They appreciate that "Jews stick together" because they want to maintain their cultural distinctiveness even as they expand into American society. They maintain close familial and financial ties to their homes of origin so they understand our love for Israel. They want to better understand how we built our political power in spite of being, at most, 3.8% of the national population.
Perhaps the way to begin to engage in public arenas and behind the closed doors of political maneuvering is to begin joining with Latinos on shared issues of concern; in the hand-to-hand combat of building relationships and trust and commitment to creating change together. The door is wide open.
Se avecinan tiempos emocionantes. (Exciting times ahead.)