Here’s What You Missed at Last Night’s Lively Town Hall on the Latino Vote

Dozens gathered at Commerce Square for the conversation hosted by Al Día.

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Clockwise: Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, School Reform Commissioner Farah Jimenez, state Rep. Angel Cruz, former presidential assistant Daniel Restrepo and state Rep. Leslie Acosta.

Wednesday night, five politicos sat in a row, most wearing blazers and glasses perched on their noses, fielding questions from a pair of journalists who framed them, one on either side. There was a patriotic backdrop, and there was wine. Never mind the fact that two of the five, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez and state Rep. Angel Cruz, have a tense political rivalry.

Along with School Reform Commissioner Farah Jimenez, state Rep. Leslie Acosta, and former presidential assistant Daniel Restrepo, Sánchez and Cruz spent the evening talking with Al Día’s executive editor Sabrina Vourvoulias and Philly Mag’s deputy news editor Holly Otterbein about the Latino vote in Philadelphia and beyond. The group dropped a lot of knowledge. Here’s what you need to know:

• Panelists weighed in on what the potential impact of changing demographics in Philly’s Latino electorate might be. Vourvoulias says the city has seen a recent influx of Puerto Ricans from the island, who, it is often noted, tend to be more politically conservative than Puerto Ricans raised on the mainland. Philly will also soon witness a generation of Mexican-American children of immigrants reaching voting age, and the base overall is increasingly comprised of millennials. As such, Philly’s Latino voters are generally socially liberal, Cruz said.

• The City of Brotherly Love has a Latino voter participation problem, panelists said. According to Pew Research Center, the national Latino voter turnout rate declined from 49.9 percent in 2008 to 48 percent in 2012, reflecting slower growth in the number of registered Hispanic voters compared with the number of eligible Hispanic voters. Philly’s Latino voter turnout rate “is problematic and nowhere near that [national] rate,” Vourvoulias said. Acosta attributes the issue to voter apathy, which she suggests resolving through education, engagement, and building trust between voters and elected officials. Which brings us to number three …

• Panelists argued that parts of Philly’s Latino community have serious voting-related trust issues — and not for nothing. “The system is broken,” said Acosta. “The democratic system that we have in the city of Philadelphia needs to be reformed.” Sánchez added, “People don’t believe in the integrity of their vote. There’s an innate culture within our community that we have to overcome that’s been supported and financed by the establishment. Systems are meant to protect themselves, and the Democratic Party is part of the problem.” Acosta argued that the issues are exacerbated by the media, and Vourvoulias rose to the media’s defense. Then Cruz spoke up in response to the Al Día editor: “One of the things you said was the people who have felonies … well, you know, everybody deserves a second chance.” “And a third, and a fourth …” muttered Sánchez, drawing uncomfortable laughter from the crowd. “You don’t have to have a clean record to be a ward leader,” Cruz continued. “Everybody deserves to become who they want to become, but you’ve got to go work for it. If you’re not out there organizing, somebody has to do it.”

• Democratic panelists said Republicans are running up against some major challenges when it comes to wooing Latinos, and Philly is no exception. Just 14 percent of registered Latinos are Republican, according to a national survey by the Washington Post and Univision (51 percent vote Democrat, and 32 percent are Independents), and polls show that on average, Latinos count immigration, jobs, education, discrimination and health care among their top concerns. According to the Democrats that were on stage, those issues aren’t exactly in the GOP’s wheelhouse. Restrepo said that the Republican Party is inherently bad at attracting Latino voters. “Our frontrunner did not launch her campaign on the Democratic side by associating all Mexicans as rapists and criminals,” he said, “didn’t make a standard portion of his platform of every speech on this notion of building a wall, didn’t recently provide a two-page memorandum to the Washington Post describing how he would extort money from Latinos all over the United States to build that wall.” Jimenez, a Republican, argued that the media downplays the importance of Latino GOP candidates.

• The panelists agreed that it’s long past time for more Latinos appear on ballots. “It’s not easy anymore to say, ‘Latinos are Democrat, Latinos aren’t Republican, Latinos are this, that or the other,’” Vourvoulias said. “Amen,” Restrepo said. “Latinos have to be part of the governing coalition, not just part of the electoral coalition.”

Follow @zrkirsch on Twitter.

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