DemoFest puts a spotlight on Hispanics

Hispanics’ top three concerns are the same as for most Americans: a good job, a good education and affordable health care.

But it’s the tone of the debate on the fourth most important topic, immigration, that has pushed Hispanics to vote heavily Democratic, said Juan Sepulveda, senior advisor for Hispanic Affairs for the Democratic National Committee.

He was in Wichita on Saturday to speak at DemoFest, a gathering of some of the state’s Democratic Party leaders. He talked about what the party’s research into what Hispanics want and and how to leverage that in Kansas was the gathering’s keynote address.

Kansas Democrats don’t expect the Hispanic vote to tip many elections here, yet. Hispanics make up 11 percent of the state population, compared to 38 percent in Texas, according to the 2010 Census.

Today, and for years to come, it’s a matter of building coalitions, with Hispanics being just one member of the coalition, said Dakota Loomis, communications director for the Kansas Democratic Party. But Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of the population in Kansas, making up about 100,000 of the 165,000 people added to the state between 2000 and 2010.

But Hispanics are starting to be felt nationally, helping to tip the 2012 presidential election to President Obama. They voted at least 70 percent Democratic.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be that way, Sepulveda said.

“The Hispanic vote is a persaudable vote; it’s not part of the (Democratic) base,” he said. “The Republican Party has the potential to make the pitch, but what we want to do is build on contrasts.”

That contrast has been most clearly shown on immigration, he said.

Most Hispanics don’t even think much about immigration policy day-to-day, he said, because they are citizens, but it is a defining issue for the community. Many Hispanics feel the rhetoric and actions of some Republicans have gone beyond the issue of legal status to an attack on their identity, he said.

“That’s the kind of disrespect you see from the other side,” Sepulveda said. “We know that the conversation has to start with respect, and then it can move on from there.”

Other Democratic policies, such as the Affordable Care Act, reinforce that support.

He said an estimated 10.1 million of the nation’s 55 million Hispanics have no health insurance. Anyone who is undocumented cannot qualify for Affordable Care Act coverage, he said.

“The largest percentage of uninsured folks in the country, that’s the Hispanic community,” he said. “We are the biggest beneficiary of what’s about to happen.”

In Kansas, he said, it will take time for that allegiance to pay off in political leverage.

But, Sepulveda, a Topeka native with long experience in community organizing, politics and education policy, said he expects more Hispanic faces to start winning elections here and there.

“We don’t kid ourselves,” Sepulveda said. “We know the numbers in Kansas are rough. We know what we are up against, but what we’ve also found is there are communities within the state where the numbers are little better as a starting point.”