In pursuit of Florida Latinos, Democrats fight socialist tag

MIAMI (AP) — From a tiny studio in the sprawling Miami suburb of Doral, a popular Venezuelan-born radio host recently pressed one of Florida’s best-known Democrats on a touchy topic: socialism.

“Older voters associated you with socialists,” host Julio Cesar Camacho told Andrew Gillum, who narrowly lost a bid for governor last year. Gillum blamed Republicans for preying on “sensitivities” of Latinos in Florida, as Camacho translated his complaint into Spanish for listeners.

The conversation wasn’t just a rehash of another narrow Democratic loss in the battleground state. Camacho’s weekly show is funded by the Florida Democratic Party — part of a statewide effort to bolster its standing with Florida’s Latinos ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

While Latino voters nationally have leaned Democratic, Republicans in Florida continue to find strong backing in the nearly 2 million Floridians of Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan origin — voters whose deep skepticism of socialism has been shaped by Latin American authoritarian leaders. Democrats are trying to shake the label.

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“We waited a bit too long before we started to push back,” Gillum told The Associated Press, saying the party wasn’t aggressive enough in 2018. “Now we know better. You see more Latino voices in radio and print who are elevating this conversation around socialism.”

Republicans are elevating the attacks, too. President Donald Trump and his allies have been hammering Democrats as leftists and anti-capitalists — knowing such labels call up images of corruption and poverty.

At a news conference earlier this year, Trump mockingly said there was a “rumor” the Democratic Party was changing its name to the “Socialist Party.” In June, Vice President Mike Pence visited Miami to launch “Latinos for Trump” and warned the Hispanic crowd about Democratic presidential hopefuls.

Democrats are trying to take the accusation head-on, calling it misleading and dangerous.

“It’s a strategy that we have to expose because they insist on these politics of fear. It’s a return to McCarthyism,” said Leopoldo Martinez, the first Venezuelan-born member of the Democratic National Committee.

They’ve also tried to shift the conversation to Trump’s policies that affect the state’s Latinos, such as the rise in deportation of Cubans, and the challenges for Cuban families who have been unable to bring relatives because of Trump’s decision to pull most embassy staff out of the island in 2017.

When Democrat Joe Biden campaigned this fall in Little Havana, Cuban exiles’ historic neighborhood, he blasted Trump for opposing a bill to grant protection from deportation to thousands of Venezuelans living in the U.S. Almost 9,500 of the 237,000 Venezuelans who live in Florida are in deportation proceedings, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Democrats are also trying to convince Latino voters that prominent left-wing figures such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist running for president, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York don’t represent the views of everyone in the party.

To be sure, some of the Democratic presidential candidates advocate sweeping new programs to expand the federal government’s role in health care, and at least two top-tier candidates — Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — have directly put the ultra-rich on notice over wealth taxes to combat income inequality.

But none are proposing the socialism of Latin American countries where authoritarian governments have seized banks and nationalized major industries.

Biden campaign spokeswoman Isabel Aldunate said Republicans were seeking to “capitalize on the traumatizing past that many South Florida Latinos experienced.”

Warren has said her proposals are aimed at saving people money, even though every time she mentions them, “there´s somebody who wants to call me a socialist or a radical.”

Opinion columns written by Gillum and other strategists have appeared on The Miami Herald and multiple Spanish newspapers. Advocacy group Alianza for Progress held a seminar recently to talk about how Latinos react to the socialist name-calling and suggest how to change the narrative.

“We have to claim our stake in this, and to say unapologetically that we believe in capitalism, except we believe in a more compassionate form of it,” Gillum said.

Even small improvements with Latino voters can have a big impact in the swing state.

Hispanics make up about 16% percent of the electorate in Florida. According to AP VoteCast, a nationwide survey of the U.S. electorate, 44% of Florida Latinos voting in the 2018 midterms voted for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, compared to the 32% of Latino voters who supported Republican House candidates nationally. Much of that difference was driven by Cuban voters in Florida, 57% of whom voted for DeSantis.

Several political strategists said Democratic candidates took the Latino vote for granted in 2018, failing to mobilize early enough and not using enough Spanish.

“You cannot go to a sword fight with a spoon,” said Evelyn Perez-Verdia, a Colombian-American political consultant who worked with Gillum’s campaign.

Florida Democrats have trained 150 Spanish-speaking surrogates influential in Hispanic media and created a legislative affairs group of Puerto Ricans focusing on rebuilding the island after Hurricane Maria. But Republicans have outpaced Democrats by adding 23,000 voters affiliated to their party between January and September — more than double what Democrats have added, according to state elections data.

Camacho’s show “Democracia al Dia,” or “Democracy Up to Date,” airs on Actualidad Radio every Saturday. He invites guests to discuss topics such as the impeachment proceedings, and rules aimed at denying green cards to low-income immigrants.

Camacho says his birthplace doesn’t dictate his politics, and that he has aligned with the Democrats in the U.S. despite opposing leftists in Venezuela.

“I can celebrate that they (Republicans) are backing the Venezuelan opposition, but I won’t support other policies that I think are absurd,” Camacho said.

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