- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2001

UNION CITY, N.J. (AP) — Egidio Rivera's long journey from his native Colombia has brought him to the edge of American democracy, to a place where he watches but doesn't participate.
In the 14 years since he immigrated, Mr. Rivera has married and started a family in Jersey City, landed a job with an airline catering service and earned his U.S. citizenship.
Thanks to television, he's learned enough about politics to spot Rep. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, campaigning with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jim McGreevey along Union City's crowded Bergenline Avenue.
But his participation ends there.
"I don't vote," Mr. Rivera said, hesitating and looking to his wife for help. Ana Rivera chimes in. "We don't know where we have to go to vote. We've never done it before."
The Riveras are hardly alone among Hispanic-Americans, the nation's fastest growing ethnic group, according to an Associated Press computer analysis of registration and voting data in more than 700 predominantly Hispanic precincts in 10 states.
Only one of every four voting age adults in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods voted last year in the presidential election, significantly below the national rate of 51 percent.
In California, just 22 percent of the voting age population in heavily Hispanic precincts cast ballots last year, according to the AP analysis, and less than 20 percent did so in New Mexico and Illinois.
Even in hotly contested Florida, the turnout in nearly 100 predominantly Hispanic precincts was only 32 percent, the analysis found.
"It's a problem across the board, and certainly it will make it more difficult for us to obtain political power if people don't participate," said Juan A. Figueroa, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Still, Mr. Figueroa said, the 59 percent growth in the Hispanic population documented by the census during the 1990s "makes it an unstoppable fact that Latinos will have their rightful place at the table."
Both political parties are keenly aware of the Hispanic potential to change the political landscape. Republicans and Democrats are aggressively courting Hispanics for the 2002 congressional elections and the 2004 presidential race.
The 35.3 million Hispanics now represent 12.5 percent of the population and have eclipsed blacks as the nation's largest minority group. There are 23 million Hispanics of voting age, more than the entire population of any state except California.
Exit polls by Voter News Service estimated Hispanics accounted for 7 percent of the total vote last year in the presidential election. President Bush, cashing in on his popularity among Hispanics in his home state of Texas, won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote, far more than previous Republicans.
A prime battleground for Hispanic votes this year is New Jersey, one of two states with gubernatorial elections.
Following Mr. Bush's script from the 2000 campaign, Republican Bret Schundler is trying to parlay his hometown popularity among Jersey City Hispanics into statewide gains.
Mr. Schundler appointed Hispanics to Jersey City's two deputy mayor posts, named the city's first Hispanic fire chief, helped the state Hispanic Chamber of Commerce open an office and supported a statewide Hispanic education program.


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