ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Political rivals for New Mexico governor faced off in a Spanish debate Monday, a rare event that marked an emerging trend as Republicans and Democrats around the U.S. court Hispanic voters.
In the state with the nation’s highest percentage of Hispanic residents, the moderator and Republican Gov. Susana Martinez spoke Spanish, while Democrat Gary King participated through a translator.
They sparred live at a KLUZ-TV Univision Nuevo Mexico-sponsored forum, discussing topics including the economy, education and a state law that allows immigrants in the country illegally to have a driver’s license.
“It’s not a problem of immigration. It’s a problem of security,” Martinez said in Spanish, explaining why she wants to repeal the law.
King, however, said some police agencies supported the licenses. “I’m concerned about making two classes of citizens” if the law is repealed, he said in English.
The debate and others like it acknowledge the ability of the growing and increasingly independent voting bloc to swing an election. Candidates for Florida governor will meet in a Spanish debate Friday, though both GOP Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic former-Gov. Charlie Crist will use a translator. Other notable Spanish debates include a 2010 event in California and a 2007 Democratic presidential forum.
Of candidates involved in those events, Martinez is unique in her ability to communicate in Spanish.
The overwhelming majority of Hispanics in New Mexico speak English, but the culture of bilingualism runs deep. Some local government bodies in the state start meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance in English and Spanish.
“The debate is more for symbolism,” said Matt Barreto, co-founder of a nonpartisan Latino political research firm and University of Washington political science professor.
Martinez is the nation’s first Hispanic woman to be elected governor, but her positions on the immigrant driver’s license law and border security fall in line with Republicans nationally and often put her at odds with some members of a group that comprises 47 percent of the state’s residents.
She had “an opportunity to connect and appear comfortable” by speaking Spanish in the debate, said Barreto, who helped launch Latino Decisions.
Meanwhile, King, who is white and the son of a popular former governor, faces a challenge seeking to knock off a strong incumbent. His supporters say his positions will appeal to many Hispanic voters in the state and should allow him to capitalize on momentum that has helped Democrats nationally.
In 2004, more than 40 percent of Hispanic voters supported George W. Bush for president. By 2012, about 75 percent of Hispanics went for President Barack Obama.
An inability to speak Spanish won’t “hurt him more than it will help her,” Barreto said.
The live debate was scheduled to also air on tape delay to accommodate voiceover translations. For the most part, both candidates stuck to talking points used in a previous forum.
King criticized Martinez over child poverty. “We’re last in child welfare,” he said. “That’s the most egregious.”
Martinez countered that some of the state’s lowest performing schools had improved, and she promised that things would continue to get better.
During her first bid for governor in 2010, Martinez took around 38 percent of the Hispanic vote in New Mexico at a time when most GOP candidates garnered 20 percent nationwide. She’s seeking to duplicate such success this election.
Ralph Arellanes, a Martinez critic who chairs the Hispano Roundtable, a civil rights group, said some Hispanic voters support Martinez because she’s charming and looks like a relative, “but when you look at where she stands on the issues, you’ll see that some of her policies hurt Hispanos.”
Las Vegas, New Mexico, voter Charles Ray Sanchez is among the governor’s Hispanic supporters, saying she has “cleaned up” state government and comes across as a needed reformer.
“I like Gary King. I’ve met him, and I think he’s a nice man,” Sanchez said. “But I don’t think he’s the right person to be governor.”
Absentee voting in New Mexico begins Tuesday by mail and at county clerks offices. Early in-person voting expands to more locations on Oct. 18.
Follow Russell Contreras at http://twitter.com/russcontreras