Hundreds of Latino voters from around the state came to Durham on Sunday for the chance to hear from political candidates on what they can do for the Latino community.
Organizers said they sent multiple invitations to the candidates for governor and U.S. Senate, telling them they could come in person or send a campaign representative. But only the Democratic challengers showed up. No one from the Richard Burr or Pat McCrory campaigns was there, so Deborah Ross and Roy Cooper had the spotlight all to themselves.
The forum at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church held close to 1,000 visitors – including Durham residents and church groups from towns near and far, from Siler City and Hillsborough to Charlotte, Salisbury and High Point.
More than 163,000 people of Hispanic descent are registered to vote in North Carolina – which is more than the gap Barack Obama or Mitt Romney won the state by in 2008 or 2012, a fact that many people pointed out on Sunday.
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Ross, who is running for Burr’s seat in the Senate, told the crowd that if she’s elected they should help her understand some of the problems facing the Latino community. She also offered a few of her own ideas.
She said there needs to be more funding for Limited English Proficiency programs in public schools, in order to help both Latino and Asian immigrants. Ross also said she would have voted for the comprehensive immigration bill three years ago, had she been in the Senate then.
That won a large round of applause. Before the candidates began speaking, several pastors, priests and activists took the stage to address the crowd in Spanish. Others at the church translated their remarks, and a few themes shone through. Immigration reform received the most enthusiasm from the crowd. Behind that were health care, education and criminal justice reform.
The 2013 immigration bill Ross referred to never became law. But it did pass the Senate in a somewhat bipartisan 68-32 vote, after all the Democrats and 14 of the Republicans in the Senate voted for it. Burr voted against the bill.
There was little reaction when the organizers announced Burr wasn’t at the event, but when they called for McCrory and heard no answer, a loud chorus of boos rang out.
“He’s afraid,” some people in the audience yelled, according to a translator.
Cooper then got up to speak – but he wasn’t immune to booing either.
Some in the Latino community have advocated for a law that would have allowed immigrants who are in the U.S. unlawfully to receive a driver’s license and auto insurance. The moderator asked Cooper whether he would sign such a bill, if one passed the N.C. General Assembly. Cooper said he wouldn’t make a promise without reading the bill, and boos and shouting quickly rang out.
Javier Medrano, a registered Republican from Forest City, said he hopes to convince his party’s elected officials in the General Assembly that such a bill makes sense. Especially in areas where there is no public transportation, Medrano said, people will drive to work whether they’re legally allowed to or not – and he thinks it would help everyone if they could become licensed and insured.
Cooper later received a warmer reception after saying he supports immigration reform. A statement about education was drowned out by a small group of protesters who stood and chanted “in-state tuition now!”
Sonia Zuniga, a Methodist pastor from Winston-Salem, urged the crowd earlier in the day to let politicians know what they want by casting ballots.
“When no one hears our problems,” she said through a translator, “our problems become deeper and deeper. ... If we want to be recognized in this country we have to start exercising our right to vote.”
Although they still make up a relatively small amount of registered voters overall, Latinos are the fastest-growing group of voters in North Carolina. They have tripled their representation on voter rolls in the past eight years, from 0.8 percent of voters in 2008 to 2.4 percent now.
All of North Carolina’s 100 counties have at least a few Latino voters, although 60 percent of them live in just 10 counties: Mecklenburg, Wake, Cumberland, Guilford, Forsyth, Durham, Onslow, Union, Johnston and Orange, in descending order.
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran