Todd Mosley is determined to pick up every last Latino vote in the race for the Ward 1 D.C. Council seat. At the July 25 Latino Civil Rights Center debates, a young Latina, maybe 7 years old, hands out fliers on his behalf. Mosley says that earlier in the day, a group of Latino vendors took him to lunch to toast his advocacy on their behalf. In case those credentials don’t cut it, Mosley has plastered Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights with posters telling the Spanish-speaking voter: “Reciba mas con Mosley” (“Get the Most With Mosley”). Mosley’s dark, goateed face decorates each one, but when asked if he has Latino ancestry he ‘fesses up: “No, I just look it a little bit. Everybody tells me I look it.”
Mosley has powerful incentives to profile like el candidato. “Society is not black and white anymore,” observes Ernesto Clavijo, a reporter with Univision’s local news coverage on Channel 48. “We’re also brown. And the brown part is growing faster than the other parts of the population. And people want to exercise their vote….They’re very dissatisfied.”
Santiago Tavara, editor of the La Nacion, delivers a less boosterish assessment: Latinos constitute about 5 percent of D.C. voters, but “because there are so many candidates, they’re counting every vote.” Tavara, whose newspaper has endorsed Anthony Williams for mayor and Jim Graham for the Ward 1 council seat, also says that as the Latino population balloons, pols are paving the way for future campaigns. “In a few years, the Latino population will be more in number than the African-American population,” he says, overstating a trend that nonetheless can’t be denied. For that reason, according to Tavara, this election marks “the first time that [politicians] are so aggressively approaching the Latino voters.”
It also accounts for the cheesy scene outside the July 25 debates. Two supporters of Councilmember Frank Smith make like mariachis one strums a guitar, the other shakes a shakar and ditties as authentic as “La Bamba” flow from their Anglo mouths. Mosley seizes the moment, and a little of his opponent’s juju, by grabbing a woman and, for a few moments, using the sidewalk as a flamenco dance floor. He’s not that bad.
At the start of the debate, incumbent Smith demonstrates his feel for la comunidad by announcing he’ll set aside 30 seconds of his two-minute introductory statement for a moment of silence to honor the recent passing of supporter Eduardo Perdomo. Smith’s “30 seconds” tick-tock down more like five in real time, but he’s made his point: The Latino vote in Ward 1 is important, and he respects it. In case you were wondering if Latinos other than the departed Perdomo support Smith, he’s provided a list of 34 “Latinos for Frank Smith.”
Smith’s challengers use other ploys to project la credibilidad: The Green Party’s Scott McLarty rattles off an impressive, if poorly accented, stump speech en espanol; Democrat Baruti “BJ” Jahi can’t muster a whole speech but manages to come up with a loud Como estas? Despite his self-proclaimed Latino visage, Mosley admits to the crowd that Spanish was the one college class he flunked, and delivers his remarks solamente en ingles.
The mayoral hopefuls have bypassed South of the Border kitsch in favor of more sophisticated outreach. Kevin Chavous hired political consultant Pedro Aviles to run phone banks specifically targeting voters with Latino surnames. Harold Brazil has taken a more direct route, appealing to Latino voters at area Latino churches and on the two main Spanish-speaking AM radio stations in town, according to Daniel Jones, the campaign’s Latino coordinator. Brazil’s appeals are delivered mainly in English, Jones admits, because the candidate can muster little more than: “Vote por mi. Me llamo Harold Brazil. Soy el candidato de
“Every candidate’s trying to get the attention of the community, and trying to be original,” says Latino Civil Rights Center Executive Director Mario Acosta-Velez. Attempts by white and black candidates to seem brown, says Acosta-Velez, aren’t in any way patronizing; on the contrary, he says, “they are just trying to appeal to the community in different ways it’s part of the whole game.”
Regardless of linguistic barriers, candidates all talk a good game on hot-button issues for Latinos. None of the candidates, for example, hesitate to hammer the D.C. public schools for failing to provide services to Spanish-speaking students, or the city bureaucracy for discriminating against Latinos, such as when Department of Motor Vehicles employees insist on seeing Latino drivers’ immigration papers (a request Acosta-Velez says is against the law).
Getting the office-seekers to wax rhetorical in favor of Spanish-speaking guidance counselors, after all, is like asking a Redskins season-ticket-holder to support free beer. What Acosta-Velez has found a tougher sell is a key item from the Latino Civil Rights Center’s 1998 Public Policy Platform: requiring the District government to fill 10 percent of its jobs with employees of Latino descent. That idea smacks of affirmative action, a toxic issue none of the major candidates will touch. “Right now [the percentage of Latinos working in District government] is like 2 percent,” he says. “Or less.”
To reach his magic number, Acosta-Velez will have to boost another tally: Latino candidates for elective offices around the city, of which there are zero. Only one Latino currently holds elective office in the entire city advisory neighborhood commissioner Omar Zavala, who isn’t running for re-election. The scarcity of Latino candidates has always been a “main concern,” says Acosta-Velez, who anticipates more (or even just one) Latino candidates in the next election cycle. Until then, though, he and his companeros will have to suffer the pidgin espanol of the white and black faces before them.
However much salsa the candidates end up splattering around, politics is politics in the District. When asked about La Nacion’s endorsement of Williams, Chavous adviser Aviles says, “We’ve been informed that Tony Williams is one of [La Nacion’s] stockholders. You might want to check on that.” We did: It isn’t true. As of press time, it couldn’t be ascertained whether Williams is a stockholder in the Hispanic Business Alliance, the Organization of Salvadoran Americans, or the local branch of the Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association, all of which also have endorsed the bow-tied front-runner. Maybe “Antonio” Williams knows something about la gente the rest of the candidates don’t.