April 24, 2011 | Ledger-Enquirer | Original Article

Growth of Hispanics changing politics in Columbus

WASHINGTON -- When a diverse group of political kingmakers in Columbus first approached Evelyn “Mimi” Woodson more than a decade ago about running for the city council, the tennis shoes- and blue-jeans wearing, former candy storeowner turned grassroots activist scoffed.

After all, she was a political novice. She was a Latina in the deep South -- a region of the country where the states run red, the good ol’ boy network runs deep and the politics are often colored by a black-white racial dynamic.

She ran. She won. She made history.

“It was a big challenge at first,” said Woodson, who was the first Latina in Georgia elected to a city council. “When I would bring up a Latino issue, I would get criticized for focusing on Latino issues. I told them I represent all the people, doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.”

Huge surges among Hispanic populations in the deep South could mean a political sea-change over the next two decades as immigrants become naturalized, and they and their American-born children register to vote, political and demographics experts say.

The states with some of the largest percentages in Hispanic population growth make up a large swath of the Southeast -- Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, according to an analysis of the most recent census figures by the Pew Hispanic Center.

In all of those states, the percentage of Hispanics nearly doubled.

In Georgia, that population grew by 96 percent over the past decade, according to the Pew study. In Georgia, only 23 percent of the Latino population is currently eligible to vote -- compared with 42 percent nationwide, figures that reflect the state’s high numbers of young Hispanics and new immigrants, said Mark Hugo Lopez, the associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center.

However, in Georgia, as in many parts of the country, “there are a number of campaigns to continue to focus on people who are here illegally to become citizens,” Lopez said. “There continue to be efforts to get them naturalized and registered to vote.”

In parts of Woodson’s Muscogee County-based district, which includes bedroom communities near Fort Benning, a sprawling military installation near Columbus, the Hispanic population increased by 44.6 percent compared to a 5.4 percent increase among blacks and an 8.5 percent decrease among whites.

Woodson said she thinks her election, as well as the subsequent elections of Hispanic state representatives Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, and David Casas, R-Lilburn, foreshadows things to come.

The two state lawmakers represent complete opposite ends of the spectrum politically -- Marin voted against, and Casas voted for, a recently passed immigration bill that contains language on verifying the citizenship of new hires and criminals that’s very similar to an Arizona law being challenged in court. Yet both lawmakers represent parts of Gwinnett county, an area of Georgia that has experienced a huge boom in Hispanic population growth.

“The Latino population is still in play politically,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “With the secular realignment of whites in the South to the Republican party, Democrats could be at an advantage. Now that there is a third racial group entering the fray, you’ll see both groups vying for this group.”

However, no group votes monolithically, and both political parties have work to do.

Hispanic voters are nearly three times more prevalent in states that gained congressional seats and electoral college votes in the 2010 reapportionment than they are in states that lost seats, according to an analysis of census data by the Pew Hispanic Center. Based on averages reflecting congressional gains and losses, 15.2 percent of the eligible voter population in states that gained seats is Hispanic, compared with 5.4 percent of eligible voters in those states that lost seats, the study showed.

Georgia gained a seat, as did South Carolina. Florida gained two seats, and Texas gained four.

“There’s certainly opportunity with the redistricting that’s coming up to make sure the Latino vote isn’t diluted in any way,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of GALEO, a nonprofit and non-partisan organization focused on Georgia’s growing Latino population.

Latino elected officials and activists predict anti-immigration laws and concerns about redistricting will galvanize that group to become politically active, in much the same way that the civil rights movement spurred African Americans in the South to register to vote and run for public office.