Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg

O’Malley, Sanders aim to bridge gap with Hispanic voters

Even as the Democratic primary becomes competitive, Hillary Clinton holds formidable lead in key voting bloc

WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley sharpened their pitches to Hispanic voters this week, aiming to bridge the gap with a group of voters likely to be critical in the 2016 election.

In their addresses on Wednesday afternoon to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, a forum for emerging Latino leaders, both men presented themselves as champions for the immigrant community and lambasted what they termed hateful rhetoric surrounding Latinos that is coming from the GOP presidential field. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is expected to present an award at the conference’s gala on Thursday night but will not make a formal address.

“I have news for people like Donald Trump and people in the Republican Party who say these things. In our country there is no such thing as an illegal alien, and babies don’t come shaped like anchors,” O’Malley said. “There is nothing more American in my mind than to come here to live the American dream.”

O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland, highlighted his work to secure driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants in the state, his early embrace of Central American refugees during last year’s humanitarian crisis and his efforts to pass a state version of the Dream Act, which offers in-state public tuition rates to undocumented residents.

Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, noted his longtime support for comprehensive immigration reform as well and went on to touch on a pantheon of progressive causes that he said disproportionately affect Latinos in the United States, from income inequality to mass incarceration.

“What is not acceptable is demagoguery. What is not acceptable is attempting to define one group of people as ‘rapists’ and ‘criminals.’ That is racism,” he said, in a reference to comments made by GOP front-runner Donald Trump. “That is unacceptable, and that has got to be rejected.”

Even as Sanders has surged in the Democratic primary contest to come within striking distance of Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire and O’Malley has worked to build his national profile, both men have a particularly large deficit to fill among Latino voters.

According to a July Univision poll, 73 percent of registered Democratic Hispanic voters threw their support behind Clinton. Neither O’Malley nor Sanders broke double digits.

Sanders acknowledged the steep climb ahead. “I come from a state, the state of Vermont — it’s a small state. There aren’t a lot of Latino people,” he told reporters after his speech. “What we are trying very, very hard to do — you are going to see us moving very aggressively in that area — is introduce myself to the Latino community.”

Patricia Signay, 48, who works in the nonprofit sector in Southern California and is leaning heavily toward Clinton, said Hispanic voters are already familiar with the former first lady and secretary of state’s record, while Sanders and O’Malley are unknown quantities.

“She’s been loyal, and her husband was loyal,” she said. “I don’t know how much Bernie has done to reach out to the Latino community. I think he’s still looked at as a Northeasterner.”

Others, nevertheless, said Latino support is still up for grabs at this early stage of the race. Yenisleidy Simon Mengana, a 28-year-old Cuban-American, said that although she appreciated Clinton’s advocacy for women, she came away impressed with O’Malley.

“The way that he talked about the refugee crisis — he came across as a very authentic person,” she said. “I want to give myself the opportunity to listen to everyone.”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter