Latina Lawmakers Dodge an Obama Unity Appeal

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Loretta Sanchez

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–In an attempt to unify the Democratic Party after the bitter and protracted primary battle, Sen. Barack Obama reached out this week to the two dozen members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

But five of the six Democratic Latinas did not attend the Tuesday night meeting with their party’s presidential nominee at the offices of the Democratic National Committee on Capitol Hill, according to their spokespeople.

The poor showing suggests Obama may have trouble winning over Sen. Hillary Clinton’s Latina loyalists, many of whom received special attention throughout the primaries from Dolores Huerta, a co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America who co-chaired the Clinton campaign’s Hispanic outreach effort.

“It definitely shows he needs to be more aggressive in courting the Latina vote,” said Lizette Olmos, a spokesperson for the League of United Latin American Citizens, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

Martha Burk, author of the just-released book “Your Money and Your Life: The High Stakes for Women Voters in ’08 and Beyond,” also thinks Obama has to do more.

Women’s rights advocates were miffed last week when the Obama campaign requested a meeting with leaders of mainstream women’s rights groups but did not send the candidate. In response, leaders of groups such as the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority Foundation, Business and Professional Women USA, the American Association of University Women, Mana, a national Latina Organization, and the National Congress of Black Women, sent lower-level representatives to the meeting.

“The women felt like they need to be meeting with the candidate,” said Burk, who formerly led the National Council of Women’s Organizations. “He meets with labor, he meets with religious groups, and he has not reached out to women’s groups and he needs to do that.”

Important Inroads

Rep. Linda Sanchez, a staunch Obama supporter and the only Latina to show up at Tuesday’s meeting, said most of her colleagues did not attend because of circumstances beyond their control. Several were flying in from California and could not make the meeting and another had a family obligation, she said.

But she acknowledged reluctance on the part of some Latinas–including her sister, Rep. Loretta Sanchez–who supported Clinton in embracing Obama.

“Some of the women that were supporting Hillary Clinton have a very emotional attachment to her, some have had long working relationships with the Clintons, as did my sister.” But once Latinas learn more about Obama, they will jump on board, she predicted. “I think they ultimately understand the prize is this November.”

Obama has made some import inroads with other female leaders.

Cecile Richards, the daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York, and Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY’s List, an influential political action committee that endorses pro-choice Democratic women, have both rallied behind Obama.

“If she were still around she would suit up and campaign for Senator Obama in the farthest corner of the farthest state,” Richards wrote June 10 in a blog about her late mother. “Mom would see in him a leader with a long and consistent record for standing up for women’s health care, a man raised by a single mother, a father of two daughters and a husband who supports women’s rights 100 percent.”

Obama spokesperson Michael Ortiz said his boss has made several efforts to reach out to women in recent weeks.

A June 11 Gallup poll conducted June 5-9 showed 51 percent of registered female voters back Obama and 38 percent favor presumptive GOP nominee Arizona Sen. John McCain. Obama’s 13-point lead among registered women represents a five-point jump since the end of May, before Clinton conceded.

Obama, meanwhile, has made some effort to highlight issues of concern to women.

On June 15, Obama, the son of a single mother, spoke about the impact of so-called deadbeat dads on women in a Father’s Day speech at a Chicago church.

“We need to help all the mothers out there who are raising these kids by themselves,” Obama said. Children, he added, “see when you are ignoring or mistreating your wife. They see when you are inconsiderate at home, or when you are distant, or when you are thinking only about yourself.”

Raising a Rare Subject

Cheryl O’Donnell, a spokesperson for the National Network to End Domestic Violence in Washington, D.C., praised Obama for addressing the issue of mistreatment of women, a subject that she said rarely comes up on the presidential campaign trail.

“It’s new that pretty much any person that’s seeking elected office at this point is talking about it,” O’Donnell said. “Even if it’s just mentioning it in a speech, that’s not done very often.”

In his speech, Obama called on Congress to expand programs that pay registered nurses to visit expectant and new mothers and underscored the need for enhanced maternity and paternity leave and paid sick leave.

On Thursday, the House is scheduled to vote on legislation to give federal workers four weeks of paid parental leave; it has drawn a veto threat from the Bush administration.

Obama’s Sunday speech followed his introduction of a bill on June 13 aimed at curbing a “national epidemic” of absentee fathers that would target single mothers by helping them collect child support payments and strengthen domestic violence prevention programs.

“As fathers, we need to teach our boys what makes you a man is not just having a child, it’s having the courage to raise a child,” Obama said when he introduced the bill.

In a May 1 letter to Steven Preston, head of the Small Business Administration, Obama called on the Bush administration to rectify discrimination against female-owned-businesses, which are underrepresented in government contract awards.

And on April 23, Obama voted for the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which would reverse a Supreme Court decision making it harder for women to sue employers for discrimination.

‘Pay Discrimination Wrong’

“Today, too many women are still earning less than men for doing the same work, making it harder for working families to make ends meet, harder for single mothers to climb out of poverty, and harder for elderly women to afford their retirement,” Obama said after a meeting with Lilly Ledbetter in the Capitol Building. “That kind of pay discrimination is wrong and has no place in the United States of America.”

But Burk would like Obama to do more for women, such as restoring language supporting the Equal Rights Amendment to the party platform.

“I think he needs to get better versed in the issues women care about, and he needs to come out with some signature initiatives that will appeal to women,” she said.

Spokespeople for other House Latinas who did not attend the meeting–Reps. Hilda Solis, Lucille Roybal-Allard and Grace Napolitano of California and Nydia Velazquez of New York–said their bosses could not attend because of scheduling conflicts.

But that was not the case for Loretta Sanchez. She told Congressional Quarterly that the Obama campaign “called to set up a call. I said ‘He can come over and see me.'”

One of Clinton’s most loyal constituencies, Latinas came out in droves for Clinton in the nomination battle. On Feb. 5, when more than 20 states held Super Tuesday nominating contests, Latinas backed Clinton by a 35-point margin, with 67 percent voting for Clinton and 32 percent for Obama.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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