February 11, 2011 | The Gazette | Original Article

Rise in minorities a boon for Democrats, party says

The number of non-Hispanic white Marylanders is shrinking, according to U.S. Census data released Thursday — a trend that some experts say could weaken the state's Republican party.

At least one Republican, however, believes the growing number of Hispanic residents actually could strengthen the argument against illegal immigration — a traditionally Republican cause.

At the same time, Democrats say they are hoping to build on the growing strength of the state's minorities by encouraging more Hispanic and black candidates to run for elected office. Their focus also is on encouraging those populations to turn out to vote, they say.

"The Republican Party's strength in Maryland has always been among the white population," said Todd Eberly, interim director of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College.

Maryland's population is now 45 percent minority — with the highest concentration of minorities in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Ten years ago about 38 percent of the state was minority.

The largest spike was in the state's Hispanic population, which more than doubled in the past decade, to 470,632. Roughly one in 12 Marylanders is now Hispanic. According to the census, people of Hispanic origin may be of various races.

About one-third of the state's Hispanics live in Montgomery County.

"It's the largest-growing population in Maryland," said Travis Tazelaar, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. "That is going to directly affect all of our future elections, especially with how quickly the population is growing."

He expects that the number of Hispanics registered to vote also will increase.

However, in 2010, 113,000 of Maryland's Latino residents were eligible to vote, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center — a number that represented 2.9 percent of all eligible voters.

Of those, 82,000 were registered to vote, Tazelaar said. It is unclear how many identified as Democrats or Republicans.

Still, if Republicans can't find a way to broaden their appeal, the party could lose key seats in statewide elections, Eberly said. While Republicans say their message appeals to minority voters, Eberly disagrees.

"I'm not saying the Republicans haven't tried," he said. "But the numbers show they haven't been succeeding."

The tea party movement — which is considered an offshoot of the Republican Party — also has hurt the party's image among many minorities who oppose the tea party's stance on social issues, Eberly said.

The new census data could be a potential boon to the Democratic Party, which already connects with Hispanic voters, Tazelaar said.

"If anything, (the state) is potentially going to get bluer in the future," he said.

Maryland Republican Party Chairman Alex Mooney disagrees.

"For the Democrats to assume large segments of the population will blindly vote Democrat based on their ethnic background is extremely arrogant," he said. "Marylanders, regardless of race and social economic background, want their politicians to provide real solutions to end our state's record unemployment and out-of-control budget deficit, something Maryland Democrats have failed to do."

Mooney points to the Republican Party's election of the state's first black lieutenant governor, Michael Steele.

Del. Patrick L. McDonough (R-Dist. 7) of Middle River said the growth in the state's Hispanic population — much of which he believes comes from an influx of illegal immigrants — will actually fuel his push for anti-illegal immigration reforms.

"This should be a warning bell to the state of Maryland that we have a serious illegal immigration problem," McDonough said of the census data. "It just proves it has been getting worse. And I've been saying it for eight years."

He said more people are angry over the state's illegal immigrant population — particularly its cost, which he estimates to be about $2 billion annually.

"It's going to bankrupt the state," he said.

Gustavo Torres, president of CASA in Action, the political arm of Casa of Maryland, said the state's population of illegal immigrants — estimated to be about 300,000 — is declining. Census officials say that illegal immigrants are included in the Maryland census data, but the number is not tracked.

Torres said the group's focus will be on registering more Hispanic residents to vote, electing more Hispanic lawmakers to the state General Assembly and putting more pressure on non-Hispanic lawmakers to engage the growing population.

"The face of Maryland has changed and legislators and political parties that don't recognize those shifts by working for passage of policies that respect our families and community are relegating themselves to electoral irrelevance," he said.

Maryland has three Latino representatives in the General Assembly: Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Dist. 47) of Cheverly; Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Dist. 21) of College Park; and Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Dist. 18) of Chevy Chase.

"It's almost embarrassing that I'm the only Latina representing Montgomery County in the state legislature," said Gutierrez, the first Latina elected to state office. "We should have a lot more."

Ramirez and Peña-Melnyk represent districts in Prince George's County.

Torres said his group is planning a leadership academy to prepare Hispanic residents and immigrants to run for elected office. He predicts that the academy will be in place before the 2012 election cycle.