Jeff Jardine

Will Coulter speech be the spark Latinos need to get politically active?

There’s nothing like a little divisiveness to cap off a unity event, I always say. Well, I don’t always say that. But this time. ...

Following the Latino Community Roundtable’s 16th Cesar Chavez Unity Luncheon on Thursday, some folks who attended told us the room buzzed when Stanislaus County Supervisors Terry Withrow and Jim DeMartini abruptly stood up and left while former Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueño spoke.

Both men said they had commitments that afternoon. Withrow is a CPA and it is, after all, tax season. DeMartini is a farmer. But Withrow also told me he hastened his departure because Madueño directed her comments specifically at him, which he felt was disingenuous on her part.

“Terry said, ‘I’ve heard enough. I’m outta here’,” said DeMartini, a 20-year member of the Latino Community Roundtable. “I said, ‘I’ll go with you.’ (Madueño) wasn’t even on the agenda (as a speaker).”

The comments that offended Withrow? That Madueño was offended by his comments – the ones he made during a supervisors’ meeting March 14. A steady parade of people, many of them Latino, used the public comment period that day to criticize the local Republican Party’s choice of right-wing shock-value pundit and self-proclaimed racist Ann Coulter as guest speaker for their April 28 Lincoln Day Dinner.

Granted, the all-Republican board of supervisors has no say regarding whom the local GOP group chooses for its annual event. DeMartini, though, heads the Republican Central Committee, and in that role made the announcement that she will appear here. It is their dinner. They can invite whomever they want. And others have the right to be disgusted by their choice, as are those who addressed the board that day.

Withrow later told The Bee he appreciates their passion, but would rather see them put their efforts into helping this community than worrying about outsiders who come and go.

That angered Madueño, who said so during her talk Thursday. Without identifying Withrow specifically, she singled out his comments and why they bothered her.

“I’m out in this community every day, working to make it a better place,” she told me Friday. “Unfortunately, (Withrow) walked out when I said that. If he’d have stayed, he’d have heard the rest, that today we stand united to work together and unite our community.”

What to make of all this? A few things.

First, the unity thing has a long way to go. Some folks are planning to protest outside Modesto Center Plaza when Coulter – who has been critical of the Mexican culture as one that condones child rape – appears in April. The group of Latino leaders who organized the parade of speakers at the board meeting met with Modesto police Friday morning. They will not protest as a group, Madueño said, though some members might protest as individuals. Authorities want to make sure everyone – protesters and anyone protesting the protesters – keeps it peaceful.

Secondly, some folks are thin-skinned (See aforementioned snit between Withrow and Madueño. In the old days, boxers would soaked their head and hands daily in a brine solution to toughen their skin. I don’t know if that works with egos, but it might be worth a try).

And finally, we’re still waiting for the Latino community to flex its political muscle. Many times over the years – no more so than the November election – the candidates and issues in theory should have compelled registered Latinos to vote. The numbers never match the expectations. Coulter’s appearance, though, might be the wake-up call Latinos needed, Oscar Cabello said. A district manager for Wells Fargo Bank and the unity event’s keynote speaker, Cabello sees this as a crucial time for Latinos here to get involved.

“We’re 41 percent of Stanislaus County,” he said. “Why don’t we have elected officials? Why don’t we get out to vote? We’re not contributing to campaigns.”

He and other prominent Latinos say they need to be finding and grooming Latino candidates to run in local council and district elections, be appointed to local boards and commissions and begin establishing a political presence.

They weren’t prepared when Modesto went to district elections rather than open seats in 2009. District 2, on the city’s west side, was structured to be represented by a Latino. Instead, 67-year-old Dave Geer won and held the seat until Tony Madrigal took over took in 2013; four Latinos ran to replace Geer that year.

None among the county supervisors is Latino.

“We need to be mobilizing people,” Cabello said. “We’ve got to be doing more than registering voters. We need to educate them to vote. We need to stop passing the buck and take ownership. That’s why they (politicians) don’t respect us. We’re not voting. We’re not active.”

To be active – to become a powerful voting bloc – is the best and perhaps the only practical way to demand a seat at the political table, and unity events won’t seem so divisive.