(WOMENSENEWS)–Karina Cabrera became a political activist by asking one question: How can I move up?

As an intern in the San Francisco’s board of elections, she decided to climb the stairs from her basement post and find out how to work in the upper level’s sleek city council offices.

She put the question to the speaker of the city council who wound up offering her an internship.

That was the first step in a staircase that led the 28-year-old to chair the Latina PAC, a New York City-based bipartisan political action committee for candidates committed to Latina-interest issues.

Because many Hispanic women are heads of households, Cabrera said those issues are consistently affordable education and health care, which, along with economy and jobs, correlate with Hispanics’ concerns as a whole.

“We believe strongly that more Latinas are voting and will, as soon as they’re empowered by it,” Cabrera said. “So we feel like it’s our job to empower them.”

A coalition of groups is working to galvanize Hispanic registration and voting.

They include the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights and advocacy group and the Los Angeles-based National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, which have partnered with Miami-based Mi Familia Vota, a Hispanic civic engagement group, and Univision, the Spanish-language media company, to launch “Ya es Hora, Ve y Vota!” (“It’s Time, Go Vote!”).

“It’s not a secret that Latino turnout is lower, but there’s been a marked improvement this year,” said Evan Bacalao, spokesperson for the NALEO Education Fund. “The Latino electorate is poised to potentially make a very big impact.” He said the campaign’s hotline has been flooded with calls asking where to register to vote.

Dampening Statistics

Nonetheless, efforts to fire up the Latina vote face dampening statistics.

In a 2004 fact sheet about unmarried women’s voting patterns, Women’s Voices, Women’s Vote, a Washington-based advocacy group, reported that 45 percent of Hispanic unmarried women voted in the 2004 election, the lowest percentage of any demographic group and followed by Hispanic married women, 54 percent of whom voted. Nearly as many Hispanic unmarried women, 44 percent, were not registered at all.

Latinas register as often and more heavily than other women, but vote less, according to Women’s Voices, Women Vote. Unmarried Latinas have the highest registration rates but vote least often.

Cabrera says politicians could be doing more to stir these voters.

“They’re courting on a more superficial level,” Cabrera said, “They’re going to events, they have more staffers that are reflective of our community, but is it translating into policy? I don’t know yet.”

Along with providing ongoing political training and briefings, the group is planning to hold a Latina political summit for potential voters before the 2008 election.

Cabrera says her political action committee plans to officially endorse Democrat Hillary Clinton in January.

But Cabrera says she withholds unconditional enthusiasm for any politician until the day comes when some of the underlying social problems besetting Latinas begin to change.

High Unemployment

In New York City, where Latina PAC is located, the unemployment rate for Latinas, at 7.9 percent, was nearly twice that of white women. Latinas consistently have the highest birth rate.

Fifty-one percent of Latina women become pregnant at least once before age 20, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy reported in 2006. This contributes to higher high-school dropout rates and lower incomes. Households headed by single women are 64 percent of Latino households below the poverty level.

“Our statistics remain the same. Our grim statistics remain the same,” Cabrera said. “Once they change our statistics in a positive light, that means these candidates, these elected officials are doing something.”

Cabrera said for the first few years, Latinas who come to the United States are preoccupied with finding a job, paying rent and taking care of their families. After these things are settled, she said, it’s time to tackle the voting process.

“As soon as they become acclimated, they’re starting to see a bit of the bigger picture,” Cabrera said. “Then they’re like, ‘Oh wow, oh I need to vote.'”

The size of the Hispanic electorate increased by 33 percent between 2002 to 2006 and Hispanic voters are expected to number 14 million in 2008, said Joe Garcia, vice president of the Washington-based NDN Hispanic Strategy Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.

TV Debates Draw Eyes

In a sign of strong political interest among Hispanics, the Univision debate among Republicans in early December garnered more viewers than previous English-only debates. A similar Spanish-language debate among Democrats in September also drew more viewers than any of the previous debates.

The Hispanic vote–previously assumed to be mainly Democratic–became a partisan wild card in 2004 when President George W. Bush drew support by talking about fixing immigration.

Immigration rose sharply among Hispanic interests since then, the Washington-based think tank Pew Hispanic Center Pew reported earlier this month; almost 80 percent of Hispanic registered voters consider it an “extremely” or “very” important issue, an increase from 63 percent in 2004. But the issue still lags behind education, health care, the economy and crime.

Primaries don’t often reflect general election voting patterns, but Nevada’s Jan. 16 caucus offers a peak at partisan sympathies among Hispanics, who formed 16 percent of the state’s electorate in 2006 and are considered to be in flux over immigration policy.

“They’re swing voters,” said Garcia.

To participate in Nevada’s GOP caucus state residents must register with the party by Dec. 19.

Democrats can register up until and at the caucus.

Alison Bowen is a New York City-based reporter covering the presidential campaign for Women’s eNews. Her work also appears in the New York Daily News.

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