Most Latinos are conservative and don't know it. That's the message many emphasized at the Hispanic Leadership Network's Rebuilding the American Dream conference held in Albuquerque Sept. 23 and 24—the latest in the bipartisan battle for Latino support.
During Gov. Susana Martinez' keynote speech, she talked about growing up with parents registered as Democrats.
"I did exactly what they did without any questions," Martinez told a dinner crowd seated outside the Hyatt Regency Albuquerque. It wasn't until two friends "had the courage to have a discussion" with Martinez, then a criminal prosecutor, and her husband Chuck Franco about their values that her political allegiance shifted.
"We talked about welfare being a hand-up and not a way of life," she recalled. "We talked about freedom and the Second Amendment."
Hector Pimentel, owner of Albuquerque-based Pimentel Real Estate Services, recounts a similar epiphany.
Until six years ago, Pimentel voted for Democrats and independents. But when a policy change affected his business—Pimentel owned a mortgage company before becoming a realtor—he had a change of heart. A requirement that even independent contractor employees file W2s, he says, led to more bookkeeping and allowed Pimentel less time to focus on his business.
"I had to pay an additional 30 percent tax on each employee that I had," he tells SFR. "I had to start letting them go."
HLN, which hosted the conference, is a branch of the Washington DC-based American Action Network, a right-leaning nonprofit political action committee chaired by former Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn. Coleman, himself a former Democrat, says he started the PAC based on the idea that America is a "center-right" nation.
"To make that vision a reality, you need the support of the largest-growing minority population in the country," Coleman tells SFR. "Ideologically, Hispanics are conservative by large margins. We need to tap into that."
New Mexico is the perfect place: Nearly half of the state is Latino, and in 2008, Latinos made up 41 percent of New Mexico voters.
Pimentel says he attended the conference because he's concerned with where the country is headed—and that he sees conservative values cross lines in his own family. "We may be on different sides politically, but really our values are the same," he says.
Although the event centered on Latinos, Coleman and fellow AAN founder Fred Malek are white—though Malek noted in a speech that he identifies with Latino immigrants because his parents immigrated from Czechoslovakia.
"I think I understand the Hispanic community through that experience," Malek told the crowd.
Some at the conference acknowledged Republican rhetoric hasn't always been friendly to Latinos. Andresen Blom, executive director of the right-leaning American Principles Project, says conservatives have treated Latinos akin to slapping them in the face.
"Unless the conservative candidate gets 40 percent of the Latino vote, we cannot win the presidency in 2012," Blom said in a panel conference.
President Barack Obama, whom some two-thirds of Latinos supported in 2008, is losing their support. An HLN poll found Obama losing Latino approval in New Mexico, Colorado and Florida, although Latinos in those states still favor him over the GOP. The poll shows that most Latinos favor comprehensive immigration reform, including earned legalization for undocumented immigrants. Many at the conference acknowledged Republicans aren't winning this debate.
"The left has been very successful in painting conservatives as against immigration," Mike Gonzalez, a spokesman for the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, tells SFR.
The conference wasn't free of left-leaning protestors. At the end of Martinez' speech, police blocked approximately 45 Latino students with New Mexico Dreamers in Action who attempted to hand a basket of fake driver's licenses to the governor. Martinez has been trying to repeal a law allowing undocumented immigrants driver's licenses since the start of her term. To some, it's the very effort alienating the Latino vote.
"Outside people are coming in looking for the Latino vote within New Mexico," Carlos Deoses of NMDIA tells SFR. "This is not New Mexico. We are a state where we value and integrate the immigrant community."