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Latino votes up for grabs in 2018, but are there takers?
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Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks to a crowd at a meet and greet event at Taqueria El Mercadito in Gainesville on Saturday, March 24, 2018. - photo by David Barnes

Latino votes are up for grabs in Georgia this year, but how many candidates are reaching for them?

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams met with about 70 people at Taqueria El Mercadito on Saturday, March 24, in Gainesville. Speaking to a mostly Latino crowd, Abrams talked about her platform and her own life story that restaurant owner Gabriel Velazquez Jr. said resonates with the community.

“She related the struggles that she faced growing up to the struggles that we face as a community as well, and I feel like those struggles are very relatable,” Velazquez said on Thursday, March 29, noting that Abrams grew up with family working in the poultry industry. “You know those aren’t especially high-paying jobs. I think she understands growing up, not necessarily having all of the resources available that wealthier communities would obviously have. It’s a struggle of coming up from nothing to accomplishing something.”

On Thursday, Abrams told The Times she has worked to make connections in the Latino community since she became House minority leader in Atlanta, a position she resigned to run for governor.

Her positions on immigration mesh with national Democratic priorities: Paths to citizenship for immigrants here illegally, access to state universities to everyone who graduates from Georgia high schools regardless of their status (including in-state tuition) and a decoupling of local law enforcement and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

Abrams said heavy-handed immigration policing has created a deep fear of police in Latino communities, leading to unreported crimes, unchallenged wage discrimination and other offenses.

“My mission is to say that no one has to live in the shadows in Georgia,” she said, adding that she supports immigration remaining a federal responsibility. “The state’s responsibility is to protect everyone within our borders.”

But the significance of Saturday is not just that Abrams has a background that jives with the experiences of present-day Latinos in Gainesville.

It’s that she showed up at all.

“Right now I feel like it’s just the Democrats who are paying attention to us. Ten years ago, I’d probably say it was a little bit of both,” Velazquez said.

In 2004, George W. Bush won about 40 percent of the national Latino vote, according to the Pew Research Center, improving upon his 2000 performance with Latinos. Velazquez noted the support Bush enjoyed from the community, but noted that since his tenure the party has steadily moved away from courting Latinos. In 2008, Barack Obama won 67 percent of the Latino vote, and Democrats have won more than 60 percent of the Latino vote in every national election.

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Art Gallegos
Art Gallegos Jr., part of leadership in the Hall County Republican Party and a co-founder of the Latinos Conservative Organization, is trying to change that.

“In general, the Republican side has struggled reaching out to the Latino community because there has never been someone they’ve been able to (contact),” Gallegos said on Thursday. “Now we have somebody who has conservative views who can be the bridge, or kind of the point man, to try to relate our views, our principles and so forth — and communicate.”

Issues on the minds of Latino voters in many ways are similar to the rest of the electorate, according to Velazquez and Gallegos.

Jobs, faith, family and local issues like crime are on the minds of Latino voters, but there’s one issue that unsurprisingly sets them aside: immigration.

“Socially speaking, there is a lot of fear amongst the community,” Velazquez said.

He added that legislation like Senate Bill 452, which would require local law enforcement and courts to assist with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has put the community on edge.

Meanwhile, Gallegos said on Thursday that this fear has been exaggerated by Democratic politicians and even some within the Latino community.

“I’ve sat down with other people on the other side, and they tell me all these concerns. My thing is this: You come to the table and you bring problems, but you have to bring solutions,” Gallegos said. “If there are issues like immigration, you’ve got to come to the table and be willing to listen and willing to cooperate and willing to work together.

“I don’t see that from the Democratic Party. I just see a lot of finger-pointing.”

Gallegos acknowledged that some of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on Latinos and immigration in general has not been helpful to his cause in the Latino community — “The Wall” remains a powerful, divisive issue — but as with other conservative priorities under Trump, his administration’s actions have been dramatically different than the president’s Twitter feed.

Gallegos approved of Trump’s plan for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and applauded his move to put Congress to the task of drafting a permanent solution for the several million people who qualify for the program.

And as with Democrats and a vast majority of the Latino community, Gallegos said DACA recipients should stay in the United States.

“They’re out in limbo,” he said. “They deserve to have a status.”

There’s a precedent for Republican support among Latinos: Gov. Nathan Deal won almost half of the Latino vote in 2014, taking 47 percent to Democratic opponent Jason Carter’s 53 percent.

Gallegos said he’s working at the local level to connect Republican politicians and activists with the Latino community through monthly meetings and, Gallegos hopes, a gubernatorial forum in Gainesville later this year.

But the Republicans will have to show up.

“If the Republican side does decide to reach out, our people in the past have been ignored by both parties,” Velazquez said. “I feel like if they reach out, we’ll definitely listen. But as of right now, no one has.”

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