Ruben Navarrette Jr. - The Leaf Chronicle
SAN DIEGO — For the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, one of the nation's prominent Hispanic evangelical leaders, the Hispanic vote is like a stock. In order to increase in value, it has to split.
"We will not be married to the agenda of the donkey, or the elephant," he told me recently. "We will be married to the agenda of the lamb."
As president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Rodriguez confers with leaders of both parties. But he is particularly well regarded in Republican circles. Perhaps this is because he says things that traditional Hispanic leaders — many of them Democrats — would never say.
"I do not want to see the Latino community held hostage by one political party by voting like African-Americans do — 92 percent for one party. I want us to have influence in both parties."
Bravo. I couldn't have said it better. And yet, as Rodriguez pointed out, giving both parties a fair hearing isn't always easy when the parties are busy fawning over the extremes.
"I would like to see the Democratic Party move toward the center," he said. "On social values, the Latino community is not MoveOn.org. ... And so if Democrats want to engage the Latino community, they have to move more to the center on many issues."
But the GOP doesn't get a pass either.
"Meanwhile, Republicans need to move toward the center right if they want to engage the Latino community," Rodriguez said. "I'm convinced that Latinos are a center-right community. Not hard right. Not extreme right. But center-right."
Both parties are woefully out of step with Latino voters, a constituency that made up about 7 percent of the U.S. electorate overall in 2008 but as much as 22 percent in California in 2010. Latinos could also leave a giant footprint in the 2012 elections since they have a big presence in the battleground states of Colorado, New Mexico, Florida and Nevada.
Those are places where the immigration issue has been known to flare up. That issue presented Latinos with a unique opportunity to start a different kind of dialogue — one they missed, according to Rodriguez. He would have preferred for Latinos to respond positively and use the issue as a rallying cry for greater political and civic involvement.
That's not what occurred. Instead, many Hispanic conservatives became disillusioned and pulled away from the Republican Party, which endorsed an anti-immigrant platform.
"There is an incredible amount of anger out there," Rodriguez said. "And it acts as a deterrent to more Hispanic political activism. People become apathetic."
That is only half the story. President Obama has disillusioned many Latino Democrats with his broken promises and his administration's aggressive deportation policy.
"You have a president who promised immigration reform in the first 100 days, then he changed it to the first year," Rodriguez said. "He had a Democratic majority in both houses. And still, the Latino community was not a priority for President Obama. Period. He demonstrated it."
So what's the answer? More involvement, according to Rodriguez.
"We need voices to rise up in the community and say that apathy is not an option," he said, "complacency is not an option, standing on the sidelines is not an option."
Rodriguez isn't telling Latinos who to vote for, or even which party to support. He just wants them to "vote their values," wherever that leads them.
"We have to ask ourselves, Rodriguez said, "'Did Obama fail us? Yes. Is the Republican Party doing us any favors? Not really.' So what are we going to do? We have to vote for someone at the end of the day. That's where the next few months are critical."
"The Republican Party could still turn itself around," Rodriguez said. "It's not too late. It could talk about positive contributions by immigrants — legal and illegal. They need to say: 'We're anti-illegal immigration but we're also 'pro' the Hispanic American family community.' If they do that, they'll get a significant part of our vote."
In fact, Rodriguez believes that Hispanics would be voting more for the center-right agenda if not for immigration.
"The Hispanic community has a role to play in this coming election by redeeming both parties," Rodriquez said. And in order to do that, he noted, the parties have to shake loose "the extreme elements that hold them hostage to agendas that do not resonate with the values that we hold dear as Americans."
Here's to shared values — and the power of redemption.
READ MORE: http://www.theleafchronicle.com/article/20111206/COLUMNISTS25/112060344