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The Latino effect: Will it be felt in 2008 race?

For years, a wave has been building in California politics.

Whether it crashes this year could make a big difference in policy and representation in this polyglot state.

For now, Latinos, who by some estimates will make up the largest ethnic group in the state in less than 15 years, still are a wild card when guessing at how elections play out this year and in the future.

In 2006, legislation that was perceived as anti-immigrant compelled thousands of Latinos to hit the streets in California and nationwide to protest.

At the time, leaders of the movement said the next step would be a surge in voting registration and participation, to turn their cause into reality.

There's evidence that there was a corresponding uptick in political involvement, with a record 7 million Latinos voting nationwide in 2006.

But this year's presidential race might be a stronger bellwether. With immigration largely a federal issue, and the legislative battle over illegal immigration in flux, the next president will have a huge role in how that discussion evolves.

The chief executive officer of El Concilio, an outreach group for Spanish speakers with offices in Modesto and Stockton, said immigration is one of several issues that may drive Latinos to the polls.

El Concilio CEO Jose Rodriguez said Latinos list education, along with immigration, as their top issues on surveys. Concerns about health care also are strong, he added.

"There are a large number of uninsured Latinos," he said. "And the small-business owners hear about health care for everyone and wonder how much it's going to cost them."

Pocketbook issues related to employment and wages also are important, said Virginia Madueño, a small-business owner and Riverbank city councilwoman.

Many Latinos who worked in construction and related fields are out of work because of the housing downturn.

Talking about opportunities can be an opening for a presidential candidate who wants Latino votes, she said.

A Republican -- or even a third-party candidate -- who speaks to what voters like her are interested in can overcome any stigma attached to the party among Latinos, she said.

"We're becoming a more educated, vigilant community," she said.

Rodriguez, though, said much of the enmity represented in the 2006 protests still is aimed at Republicans, fairly or not.

When California voters passed Proposition 187 in 1994, many experts said the anti-immigrant tone used in ads for the measure pushed many Latinos to the Democratic Party. Rodriguez said that's happening again.

Although that won't affect elections much in Democratic-leaning California, he said, it could be a sea change in more right-leaning states, such as Colorado and Nevada, with big Latino populations.

For Latino voters in all states and regions, the barriers to political participation are twofold: the relative youth of the Latino vote and the new citizenship status for many voters.

According to a Public Policy Institute of California study,

55 percent of all Latino voters are under the age of 45, still approaching the years in which they're most likely to vote. Thousands more are younger than 18 but will be eligible for voter registration in the next decade.

Rodriguez said new Latino citizens might want to vote but aren't familiar with how to register or where to cast ballots.

Still, he, Madueño and others in the Latino community expect that voice to be heard more loudly in elections to come.

The true sign of arrival, some said, goes beyond votes to Latinos running for office and making their opinions heard in policy debates.

Dale Butler, a Modesto resident involved with Latino outreach programs, said both parties need to do a better job of asking Latinos: What do you think?

"If you talk about immigration, looking at both parties this last year, nothing happened," he said. "Where do you point fingers to?

"The parties have to do more to bring Latinos in. That's what's lacking in politics in general."

Bee staff writer Ben van der Meer can be reached at bvandermeer@modbee.com or 578-2331.

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