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Latinos Seek To Leverage Growing Poltical Muscle

They flexed their muscle at the ballot box last month, but it’s been the rise of their ability to raise large sums of money that has been equally-as-pivotal in the rapid Latino accumulation of political might.

The Futuro Fund, organized by television star Eva Lon­goria, San Antonio architectural-design-firm owner Henry Muñoz III and San Juan lawyer Andres W. Lopez, pulled in upward of $30 million toward President Obama’s re-election and is one of several Hispanic organizations that have begun making waves in a political system where cash and access equate to policy influence.

“We wanted to make sure the Latino community stops being a number and starts being looked at as a market,” Longoria said in an interview with the Washington Post. “It may have been a shock to some, but not if you look at trends in Hispanic buying power.”

Now the three are pondering how to build a Latino political organization that will help shape the national debate – not only on such issues as immigration laws and Puerto Rico statehood, but also on education and economic opportunity for Latinos.

“If we are ever going to get what we want, we have to be politically involved,” Muñoz said. “Politics has a currency. It has votes and money. Our community has been known for votes, and now it has to be known for money.”

The group still has some work to do towards that end as an Associated Press survey found that while Hispanics account for 16 percent of the population, less than four percent of itemized political contributions (those of $200 or more) during the 2012 campaign hailed from predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods.

It is understandable, given that the median household income for Hispanics in the 2010 Census was $37,759, compared with $54,620 for non-

Hispanic whites. Hispanics have also been hit harder by the recession, with unemployment rates higher than the national average.

In recent weeks, Muñoz and Lopez have been quietly making the rounds in Washington, tapping their contacts, including at the White House, and soliciting advice. Among the possibilities they are considering is setting up a Latino research and advocacy center modeled on a liberal powerhouse, the Center for American Progress.

Though there are already a number of established Hispanic organizations, most grew not from politics but from the civil rights movement. Activists say they are not as influential as they could be and often struggle for funding.

Many of those groups have also criticized Obama for not living up to his promise to provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in this country.

Longoria, a ninth-generation American, said the new organization’s agenda would reach beyond immigration.

“I understand how immigration bumps against everything,” she said. “It touches the economy, and it touches jobs, and it touches educational outcomes and achievement gaps as well. But that’s just a part of the bigger pie chart of our concerns.”

Muñoz, Lopez and Longoria got to know one another when they served on a commission exploring the possibility of building a Latino-American museum on the Mall. From that friendship grew an idea they presented at Obama campaign headquarters in June 2011: Allocate one staffer and some time on the candidate’s schedule, they promised, and they could bring in $12 million.

The Futuro Fund’s first big event was an October 2011 fundraiser that brought Obama to the home of movie stars Antonio Banderas and Melanie Griffith.

Some who had donated before were persuaded to give more.

Ralph Patino, a lawyer in Coral Gables, Fla., wrote a $30,000 check in 2008, but both he and his wife gave maximum contributions of $75,800 this time. He even persuaded a Republican Latino friend to switch sides and write a six-figure check to the Obama effort.

“We have the power of the purse,” he said. “We have the power of the vote, and we want to be included. This was perfect.”

The Futuro Fund organizers also insisted on having a voice in campaign strategy. Muñoz, for instance, persuaded Obama’s top strategists to give the keynote speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention to his hometown mayor, Julian Castro.

He noted that the Republicans were training a spotlight on such up-and-coming Hispanic leaders as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.

The Futuro Fund organizers also traveled the country, making contacts and soliciting ideas from other Latinos.

Messina predicted that future presidential campaigns will be jockeying for favor with the network that Longoria, Muñoz and Lopez have developed.

“Success garners many friends, and they’re going to have a lot of candidate friends,” Messina said.

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