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Latino groups question commitment of political donors to community

Although the Latino electorate is repeatedly referred to as the "sleeping giant," Latinos prefer to describe it as an untapped giant.
Voting booths are illuminated by sunlight as voters cast their ballots at a polling place on Nov. 6, 2012. (Photo by Jae C. Hong/AP)
Voting booths are illuminated by sunlight as voters cast their ballots at a polling place on Nov. 6, 2012.

The number of Latinos eligible to vote in this country is expected to double in size within a generation, but some Latino groups question whether their traditional, moneyed allies are doing enough to leverage those voters.

Although the Latino electorate is repeatedly referred to as the "sleeping giant," Latinos prefer to describe it as an untapped giant that political spenders fail to give its due for political mobilization.

"For all the angst that exists about low Latino voter turnout, there has never been a commitment from true wealthy donors to mobilize Latino voters with the level of money that needs to be invested," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, NALEO.

Latino leaders have been echoing Vargas' view and amplifying it since last month when the Democracy Alliance, an organization created to counter conservative funding and movement building, devised its latest strategy for funding a progressive political agenda and recommended to its some 100 members which organizations should get their financial support. Wealthy, mostly white individuals and philanthropic institutions make up the alliance's donor members.

The alliance's strategy is centered on winning more state level offices to build its political influence by 2020, a year of a presidential election as well as new Census numbers that will force a redrawing of political boundaries.

"The tension has been really between national and local; part of the perception problem is, are national groups getting as much money as they would want or should get?' said Steve Phillips, a Democracy Alliance board member and donor.

In its official portfolio, Democracy Alliance states that in the last three election cycles, conservatives have cemented gains at the state level "that threaten economic opportunity and environmental safety, restrict democracy and roll back human rights."

In addition, "the right's sustained assault on labor has diminished resources for the progressive movement and thrust a key ally into a fight for survival," it states.

Under its new strategy the alliance, formed in 2005, divides its funding streams into four categories. There are 34 groups, including one that is a joint venture, funded in three of the categories. None are considered Latino-led or Latino focused, although some have divisions, campaigns or outreach for Latinos.

The strategy also calls for bringing together previously separate accounts - the Latino Engagement Fund, the Black Engagement Fund and a Youth Engagement Fund - into what it calls the New American Majority Fund. That fund also will add money streams for women, Asian American/Pacific Islanders and the LGBT community. Latino leaders said the Democracy Alliance's strategy leaves Latino-led groups competing with other communities of color for funding and fails to recognize state work that Latino led groups are doing.

Although Latino group leaders were reluctant to say so publicly, there is a general sentiment among leaders who spoke on background to NBC News that the other groups, whose leadership is largely white, don't understand the Latino community as well and are ineffective or less effective at engaging the Hispanic community.

"There are some very promising organizations doing incredible work in the community and are trusted: Mi Familia VotaVoto LatinoNCLR (National Council of La Raza). But those are the same groups that have to fight over scraps because major investors don't appreciate (the value) of investing in the community," said Cristobal Alex, who leads the Latino Victory Project.

Phillips said he believes the New American Majority Fund that collectively focuses donors' attention on growing political engagement in the communities is more effective than just increasing contributions to individual groups.

"It's easy for any group to say there's a lot of white people in a donor group so my group is not getting enough money," Phillips said. "Those of us who created these vehicles come out of those communities and are trying to move as much money as possible back into those communities."

Alliance President Gara La Marche said he's surprised by the backlash. Some $40 million has been spent on Latino-led organizations over the last several years through the Latino Engagement Fund, he said. The alliance helps to raise about some $30 million a year for its core groups, and about $3 million to $5 million is focused on Latino efforts.

The money has gone to groups in 10 states, with some of that money going to NCLR in Florida and Mi Familia Vota to do election protection work and with for work around the campaign of former Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Texas, who was elected in 2012, defeated in 2014 and is seeking re-election in 2015. Other groups in the portfolio doing state level work include One ArizonaSouthwest Organizing Project in Albuquerque, N.M. and MOVE San Antonio.

"Whether it's the right number or not, it's a significant piece of the overall amount we raise," LaMarche said. "We've worked harder to deliver money directly to Latino and black organizations than other groups in our portfolio."

Under the strategy there is no plan for a "diminution" of the funding to Latino groups, he said.

"In these 10 states groups have registered more than half a million Latino voters and talked to over three million voters on things that are important to them" such as minimum wage and health care, said Eddy Morales, director of the alliance's Latino Engagement.

Morales said additional groups could be getting money through the New American Majority Fund. The alliance has been talking to the Latino Victory Project about its work and whether it can build Latino donors and "infrastructure" for Latino political engagement and involvement.

"People should not be panicked yet," Morales said.

The stakes are high in devising the best strategy for improving Latinos' political engagement and boosting the community's election turnout.

After the 2012 election, Pew Research Center projected that Latinos would account for 40 percent of the growth of Americans eligible to vote through 2030. In that year, some 40 million Latinos would be able to vote, the center said.

That's because the vast majority of Latino youths are born in the U.S. and have the right to vote. There would be no need for a campaign to get potential voters through the citizenship process first as NALEO and other Latino groups did for the 2008 election.

If the turnout rate of the projected 40 million Latinos matches those of whites and blacks in 2008, 66 percent and 65 percent respectively, the number of Latinos who voted in 2012 - 24 percent - could double, Pew calculated.

"We are at the forefront of a tidal wave," said Maria Teresa Kumar, founding president and CEO of Voto Latino, which mobilizes Latino youth. She said there is not enough conversation being had on how to ride that wave.

Related: Latino Victory Project Making Demographic Destiny a Political Force

But as Latinos have shown again and again, the high eligibility numbers don't amount to turnout. That has created a circular debate over whether there is much return to investing in Latino political engagement when turnouts are low or whether turnouts are low because of the limited investment.

But the growth of the Latino population is a fairly recent phenomenon so infrastructure and institutions around it are still developing, Phillips said.

In addition, many of the Latino organizations are registered as non-profits, and therefore are not allowed to endorse candidates and are restricted in their political work to maintain their tax status. More need to form political arms, Phillips said.

Latino leaders would do well to form what Phillips called an independent clearing house that has quality standards and a big picture overview around where resources are needed.

As an example he cited California Calls, an organization set up around the election of Antonio Villaraigosa as Los Angeles mayor. The group combined two other organizations - the African American group Agenda and the Los Angeles Labor Council. Villaraigosa identified different precincts and voters and cut up turf for political work between various unions and groups. He said the work remains a national model.

"There's a history of racism and racial ignorance in this country, so I understand there's a high level of skepticism about any donor configuration. I get that," Phillips said. "At the same time there's scarce resources and everybody wants their resources going to their group and somebody has to have the overview."

As troubled as Republicans' relationship is with Latinos, conservatives have put some serious money into penetrating the community, most notably through LIBRE.

With at least $10 million in backing from the billionaire Koch brothers, the conservative group has provided tax preparation, GED classes, driver's license test preparation and other community services in Latino communities. With that sort of service work, which left-leaning Latino groups have been doing for years, they develop connections with Hispanics and separately inform them of LIBRE's and the brothers' conservative philosophies of limited government, low taxes and other issues and candidates who support those ideologies.

Phillips, LaMarche and Morales all expressed concern about the Koch investment.

The alliance is "very concerned," Phillips said. "It's a continual educational process to ... deepen (progressive donors') knowledge about how to be helpful in the Latino space. That's an ongoing discussion we are engaging in and it's something we have to accelerate and approach with greater urgency, given what the Koch brothers are doing."

Latino Victory Project's Cristobal Alex said he expects the Koch influence will change investment by liberal groups in the community.

"We are the future," Alex said of Latinos. "The interests that want to be part of that future have to make that investment in the Latino community now. The Kochs are doing it...There are promising signs, including important voices at the Democracy Alliance, the NEA (National Education Association), led by a Latina, SEIU (Service Employees International Union), George Soros and others that understand what's at stake."

This story originally appeared on NBC News