In hippie stronghold, candidates turn to Hispanic voters

Colorado is one of six states where Latino voters could determine Senate race

Lizarlette Alvarez, left, and Abel Perez go door to door encouraging Latino voters to show up at the polls on Election Day.

BOULDER, Colo. — Lizarlette Alvarez, a recent high school graduate, has been eligible to vote for only a year, but she’s passionate about voter turnout.

Abel Perez, 26, can’t vote because he is undocumented. He is a beneficiary of the White House’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants legal status to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. Perez was 7 when he left Durango, Mexico.

But Perez is just as intent as U.S.-born Alvarez on getting people to vote in next week’s midterm elections, promoting candidates who support immigration reform. He reminds voters who are not registered that they may register as late as Election Day in Colorado. The two, both residents of nearby Longmont, pounded the pavement on a recent Sunday in Boulder, a quaint city at the foot of the Rockies. Dubbed the People’s Republic of Boulder, the city that attracted hippies in the 1960s is one of the most liberal in Colorado, known for its love of the outdoors, environmental sensibilities and home to a University of Colorado campus ranked high in academics as well as in partying.

Diversity has increased in Boulder County, where almost 14 percent of the 310,000 residents are Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 4 percent are Asian.

Up and down residential streets here, bikers and joggers streamed past campaign signs on front lawns for Mark Udall for U.S. Senate, the Democratic incumbent in a supertight race with Republican challenger Rep. Cory Gardner. With voting in Colorado’s first election by mail more than two weeks underway, Gardner is scoring a tiny lead — likely a reflection of earlier voting by Republicans.

In Colorado, where Latinos make up more than 15 percent of eligible voters, Hispanic support is crucial for a Udall win.

And that’s why Alvarez and Perez scour eligible voters’ lists (many with Hispanic last names) on their smartphones and march up stairs in apartment complexes and down winding walkways to reach out to residents.

“This election is important,” Perez said. “Their votes matter. They can make a difference.”

Rayna Roman answered her door, grandchildren in tow. Roman can’t vote, but her granddaughter Wendy can. She was not home, so Perez left a pamphlet with Roman and urged her to get Wendy to vote.

Doubling down on Latinos

Groups such as the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition are doubling efforts to get Latinos to the polls and paying political workers such as Alvarez and Perez $15 an hour (the state’s minimum wage is $8 an hour) to go door to door and galvanize voters.

“This is the main state where Latinos will make a difference,” said Cristobal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project, a national organization co-founded by actress and activist Eva Longoria.

Almost all the attention on the Latino vote is in Colorado’s Senate race, one of six Senate contests in which the Latino share of eligible voters is larger than the current polling margin between the two candidates, according to Latino Decisions, an opinion research firm.

Hispanic voters could also decide the outcome of the gubernatorial race between incumbent Democrat John Hickenlooper and Republican challenger Bob Beauprez, who supports the repeal of major laws that permit recreational marijuana use and issuing driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants. Hickenlooper is a few points ahead, but his lead is narrower than expected.

Registration drives continue. In 2012, 284,000 of Colorado’s 497,000 eligible Latino voters were registered, and 259,000 voted.

‘There’s frustration regarding immigration reform. But … Latinos in Colorado have their future in their hands.’

Cristobal Alex

president, Latino Victory Project

Mariachis get out the vote

It’s never easy to get people to vote in midterm elections. But this year may be especially hard to motivate Latinos who are feeling let down by both Democrats and Republicans. President Barack Obama’s decision to delay executive action on immigration reform until after the elections did not sit well with Latino groups here. They’re endorsing Udall despite the fact that they don’t feel he did enough to push for change in Washington.

“There’s frustration regarding immigration reform,” Alex said. “But the key to victory in Colorado and other very close races at the end of the day is going to be turnout … Latinos in Colorado have their future in their hands.”

Groups that have called for Latino voters to stay home on Election Day to punish and remind both Democrats and Republicans that they can’t take their votes for granted are in the minority, he said.

“It’s a very outlandish position,” Alex said. “These fringe voices saying ‘Don’t vote’ are simply not going to register with sophisticated Latino voters.”

Since more than 70,000 Latino children in the U.S. turn 18 every month, reaching young Hispanics is an important part of the political equation.

That’s why Latino groups recruit activists such as Alvarez and Perez. The two recently held a voting party with friends to discuss issues on the ballot.

“The latest poll I saw showed that 16 percent to 18 percent of young whites are not going to vote,” said Rick Ridder, the president and a co-founder of RBI Strategies and Research, a Democratic political consulting firm in Denver. “Therefore, Hispanics who do vote will become a larger part of the voting population.”

For the first time, Colorado is running a mail-in election. “Nobody knows what the impact of an all-mail ballot will be,” Ridder said. “Both races [for senate and governor] are very, very close.”

That’s why both sides are courting Hispanic voters — employing such tactics as a mariachi band traveling across the state with the Udall campaign and rallies in Hispanic neighborhoods.

Although Gardner said he supports the Senate bipartisan immigration bill and allowing children of undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S., he has to overcome past positions that could alienate Latino voters. He supported a measure to stop funding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — the one that allows Perez to remain here legally — and bills that would strip executive powers from Obama. Republican Jeb Bush has appeared in Spanish-language ads for Gardner.

Work in progress

Alvarez used her smartphone to map out a geographic strategy to reach all the voters on her log. She and Perez split up, each with three or four addresses to tackle before they rejoined and moved on to another neighborhood. Many knocks went unanswered, and they left pro-Udall flyers on the doors before continuing their quest.

Finally, someone was home. Anthony Salazar, chef at the Kitchen, a popular community bistro in historic downtown Boulder, opened the door. Alvarez asked if he has voted. Not yet.

When he does, who’s getting his vote?

“The right person, whoever that is,” said Salazar, who is half Irish and half Mexican. “I do my homework.”

Despite the many closed doors, Alvarez is convinced that it’s this type of campaigning that has resulted in laws that benefit immigrants in Colorado.

“Look how much progress Colorado has been made in immigrant rights,” she said. “Drivers’ licenses.” Since Aug. 1, undocumented immigrants can apply for drivers’ licenses and state ID cards.

“I’m pretty proud of the work we’re doing,” she said.

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