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Washington Journal: Minorities Look For More Political Power

Washington, 30 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Women, Muslims and Hispanic Americans are among some of America's largest minorities now being actively courted by candidates for the upcoming U.S. elections.

With many national and local races running very close, candidates are now focusing on minorities to help swing the vote in their favor.

Women are being particularly targeted in this election because they have proven to be a powerful force in American politics. According to Kim Gandy, Executive Vice-President for the National Organization for Women -- a U.S. women's rights organization -- there are slightly more registered women voters in the U.S. than men.

Gandy told RFE/RL that women are about 53 percent of registered voters in every jurisdiction in the United States. But she says men traditionally turn out in larger numbers to vote than women.

Gandy says a prime example of how powerful women voters can be occurred in 1992. She says women flexed their voter muscle by backing a record number of female candidates in local, state and national elections.

Explains Gandy: "What we saw in 1992 was that women were angry, they felt as if they had been left out. There were few women in Congress. So, women turned out (to vote) in disproportionately large numbers."

In 1988 there were only 59 women in the U.S. House of Representatives and two in the Senate. But in 1992, female voters helped sweep 106 women into the House and 11 into the Senate. Currently, there are 121 women in the House and 10 in the Senate.

But Gandy says women often need to be rallied to vote. And that could be hard this year in light of U.S. President Bill Clinton's confession of an improper sexual relationship with a young White House intern. Gandy says that many women are angry and turned off by the President's behavior -- something that may make them even more reluctant to vote.

In fact, a poll conducted last June by EMILY's List -- a U.S. political fundraising organization -- indicated that women are less likely to vote in the upcoming elections than men, in part because of the Clinton scandal. This could hurt Democrats because the majority of women voters and congressional candidates are Democrats.

Another minority group proving to have growing political power in the U.S. is the American Muslim community.

According to Hedieh Marahmadi, General Secretary of the Islamic Supreme Council of America, there are about 8 million Muslims in the United States. She estimates that nearly half of those are registered voters.

She says Muslims have worked hard to build a strong infrastructure in the U.S. so that they can become a part of America's everyday life.

Explains Marahmadi: "I think that like any other minority, the first objective is to get itself rooted -- to build its own infrastructure. I think the American Muslim community has done that. We've built mosques, we've built centers, we've built educational institutions. So now, it is our responsibility as a community to get involved and integrated into the system."

She says there has been a lot of debate in America whether or not Muslims should get involved in U.S. politics and whether Islamic doctrines even support such participation. But she says most Muslim leaders decided it is their civic duty to vote and participate fully in America's democracy.

As a result, Marahmadi says Muslims are registering to vote and entering political life in the U.S. in record numbers. In fact, she says there are so many Muslims now working on Capitol Hill -- the location of Congress -- that Friday prayers are now being offered in a congressional office building.

Currently there are no Muslim representatives in either the U.S. House of Representatives or the Senate. There is, however, one Muslim woman candidate running for a congressional seat in California.

Marahmadi says American political candidates are becoming more and more interested in Muslims as a potential voter bloc.

She explains: "Not only are (Muslims) a voting force, but they are an economic source. (Muslims) are a real strong economic source for elected officials because they are well-educated and they're an affluent community."

But the fastest-growing voter base in the U.S. is the Latinos -- or Americans of Hispanic descent. Hispanic Americans are largely from Mexico, Central and South America.

Lydia Camarilla is the Executive Director of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project -- a national, nonpartisan, non-profit organization focusing on increasing Latino participation in America's democracy. She told RFE/RL that there are nationally 6.6 million Latinos already registered to vote in the 1998 elections, with that number expected to be at 9 million by the year 2000 elections.

Says Camarilla: "The Latino electorate is the youngest and fastest growing electorate in the country. Both parties, and particularly the (Republican Party) are aggressively courting the Latino vote because it is the electorate of the future. Parties (which) want to be in control and have the power base need to start really working toward, not only courting, but making the Latino community part of its base."

She says that the Latino vote has been fairly independent in the past, although in the 1996 presidential elections, 77 percent of the Latino vote went for Clinton.

Camarilla says that the Latino vote in the upcoming elections is being watched very carefully by both parties for its national implications in the year 2000. Latinos make up a large voting bloc in some of the most important and electorate-rich states in the U.S., such as California and Texas.

Camarilla says that there are currently 2.1 million Latinos registered to vote in California and 1.8 million in Texas -- a formidable voting bloc in both states.

She concludes: "If both parties are serious about having the Latino vote be part of their base or mix, they have to really consider the issues that are relevant and important to Latinos like bilingual education, jobs, trade -- everything that has to do with who we are as a people."

(Another in RFE/RL's series previewing the 1998 general election in the US)