WESLACO, Texas – The Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network held a news conference on Wednesday to discuss the significant increase in voter turnout that occurred in the 2012 primary elections in the Rio Grande Valley.
However, discussion among the leaders of the group also turned to a bigger picture – how its efforts to empower Latino communities is part of a national movement.
“There is a huge shift going on across America that you do not see when you are this close to the action,” said Mike Seifert, network weaver for Equal Voice in the Valley. “It is not just the Rio Grande Valley. People talk about the sleeping Hispanic giant. We are coming into a very historic moment when it comes to Latino voting.”
Martha Sanchez, a community organizer with La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), agreed with Seifert’s analysis.
“We must not forget we are part of a bigger movement that is aimed at increasing the Latino vote across the country. We need to increase that vote in order to get our agenda on the table. And the number one agenda item is immigration reform,” Sanchez said.
Opinion polls from organizations such as Pew Hispanic Research confirm Sanchez’s view. By a large margin Latinos say passing comprehensive immigration reform is very important. However, there is gridlock on the issue in Washington, D.C., and the voice of the Latino community, Equal Voice argues, is not being listened to.
Equal Voice leaders in the Valley say the only way to turn things around is to keep adding to the number of people in the region who take part in community affairs, not just in voting but in different aspects of civic life.
“We are in this for the local haul and for the much deeper commitment,” said Seifert, discussing the work of Equal Voice in the Valley. “For us it is all about the issues and those issues are not going away just because a certain candidate got elected. We must keep working on it and we will.”
Ron Rodgers, president and CEO of the START Center in San Benito, told the Guardian that his group is about to hire a full-time worker whose sole responsibility will be civic engagement. He said his group and others in the Equal Voice network cannot rely on elected officials to necessarily carry out the campaign promises they have made.
“We plan to do civic engagement year round. It is part of community advocacy. It is not just getting out the vote. We need to educate and involve families on a range of issues, not just voting,” Rogers said.
“We need to hold our elected officials accountable for everything that happens in our community. We have socio-economic issues in the Valley that are far greater than any other part of the country. We have more poor people. We have more teen pregnancies. These issues go beyond the moment, beyond the political parties.”
The RGV Equal Voice Network is made up of ten non-profits that work primarily in the Valley’s colonias. The group represents over 35,000 people. With funding from the Marguerite Casey Foundation, it started its first grassroots Get Out the Voter effort in 2008. The first thing the group did was start listening to the concerns of working families through a series of town hall meetings from Brownsville to Roma.
“We realized the parties were not speaking to our concerns,” Seifert said. The political platform developed by the group in the Valley was augmented by proposals from sister organizations in the Equal Voice network across the nation. This produced a national platform for working families. The incremental steps to success were in evidence on Election Night, Seifert said, when candidates that had made the runoffs went on TV and pledged to push for issues Equal Voice has already adopted.
LUPE’s Sanchez believes over 30,000 doors were knocked on this primary season by the block walking efforts of Equal Voice members. “The final tally has not yet come in but we know we reached a lot of people,” Sanchez said. “And the thing about it is we are only just getting started at this. This was a whole new game for us. We are learning how to manage a GOTV campaign, how to get out into the streets and to knock on the doors. We had never done it before. It was a new experience, a new skill that our leaders have learned. Now, they are a lot more experienced and they will do even better in the November general election.”
Hidalgo County, the biggest county in the Valley, posted the best voter turnout figures. About 14,500 people cast ballots on Election Day, to go with the 42,000 who participated during the two-week early voting period. This is the best turnout the county has ever had, with the exception of the exceptional 2008 Democratic primary. Overall, voter turnout in the Valley was higher than the statewide average. “We would be very selfish to claim credit for everything that happens in this county. But, we can also say we played our part in helping increase turnout,” Sanchez said. “Our goal with LUPE is simple. We want to increase the vote so we can have more power. With that power we can secure the immigration reform we need.”
Seifert said in his view a number of factors were at play to help bring about the higher than average turnout in the Valley. “We did our thing. AACT did its thing. We had the hot local races. And we had the politiqueras out there doing their thing too. We are not particularly interested in what the politiqueras do but all of these things came together,” he said.
AACT is the Advocacy Alliance Center of Texas. It is a non-profit, non-partisan group that is working to get voter turnout up to 65 percent in the Valley.
Seifert said Equal Voice must now decide if it wants to host candidate forums for the runoff elections. If it does, voters could learn more about the platform of Democrats Filemon Vela and Denise Saenz Blanchard and Republicans Adela Garza and Jessica Puente Bradshaw in the Congressional District 34 runoffs and whether these candidates support the Equal Voice agenda on immigration, driver’s licenses, education, access to health care and low-income housing. Voters could also learn more about the platform of Democrats Terry Canales and Agustin Hernandez in the Texas House District 40 runoff and whether these candidates support the Equal Voice agenda.
“We are going to very seriously consider holding another candidate forum. We do not want to lose the momentum we have achieved. We have an obligation to our members,” Seifert said.
Reposted with permission of the Rio Grande Guardian, www.riograndeguardian.com.