Posted on July 30, 2004

Using Old Playbook, Kerry Seeks Ethnic Vote

Peter Brownfeld,, Jul. 29

BOSTON — Four of the five ethnic caucuses that met Wednesday morning during the Democratic National Convention (search) come as no surprise to political watchers: African-Americans, Latinos, Asian Pacific Islanders and Native Americans generally gather at Democratic meetings.

But the “Ethnic American Caucus (search)” also held a rally to back the presumptive Democratic nominee, leaving its seemingly generic title open to questions about its purpose and goals.

Decades ago, ethnic blocs like Poles, Irish and Italians were key to winning elections. But now that these groups are mostly composed of second-, third- and fourth-generation Americans, it can be a challenge to get these people to vote along ethnic lines, said caucus organizers.

Still, they insist that some key issues can still rally Irish-Americans, Greek-Americans and others, and in a close election, gaining even a small edge with these groups can make the difference.

“There are 44 million Americans who identify themselves as Irish. If 10 percent identify themselves sufficiently to vote along those lines, that’s four million people. That’s enough to make the difference in an election,” Brian O’Dwyer, president of the National Democratic Ethnic Leadership Council (search), told

But identifying common threads to tie diverse ethnic groups together is not easy. Speakers during Wednesday’s caucus spoke generally about themes like “hard work” and “values.”

“You are the tireless advocates for the things that make our country special. … Often starting with just the clothes on their backs and a few dollars in their pockets, our parents and grandparents created the beautiful mosaic that is America today,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, whose family comes from Italy.

As caucus organizers and the Kerry campaign try to rally ethnic groups, their appeals seem strained at points, with few identifiable differences between the message for this group and the wider national message.

The Kerry-Edwards campaign distributed a letter to delegates at the caucus event that stated: “The generations before us that came to America as immigrants arrived with little more than hope and optimism for their future. They brought with them the values of family, faith, opportunity, responsibility and service. These are the values that bind our country together.”

Despite the vagueness, some niche issues do drive ethnic voters to the polls, activists insisted.

Christine Warnke, a Greek-American, said that in addition to the domestic issues all Americans are concerned about, her community is very interested in a resolution to the division in Cyprus.

Marilyn Piurek, a Polish-American and secretary of the National Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Council (search), said that her community does not diverge from the rest of America on domestic issues, but it does have a specific foreign policy agenda.

“Poles are the closest ally of the U.S. after Britain. Poland went into Iraq and in return has gotten nothing except body bags,” Piurek said.

Among her complaints are the low level of foreign aid Poland receives from the United States and the fact that Poles must go through an arduous visa process to visit America. The visa issue has been a long-standing Polish complaint especially since citizens from countries like France and Germany are exempt from having to apply for a visa.

“This administration has misrepresented itself as a friend of Poland,” Piurek said.

O’Dwyer also faulted the Bush administration for inaction, saying President Bush (search) squandered the successful efforts of Bill Clinton to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

“Literally thousands of people owe their lives to the fact that ethnic Americans stood up and said ‘enough is enough,’ and got Bill Clinton to bring peace to Northern Ireland. This [Bush] administration has literally paid no attention to the problems in Northern Ireland. … I ask you to think about your Irish brothers and sisters.”

Despite the criticism of Bush, members of ethnic groups said the Democrats also have more to do to convince their groups to vote for them. Activists said former Vice President Al Gore (search) failed to reach out to the ethnic community, a key factor they cite for his defeat in 2000.

“Given the closeness of the race, I think it could be reasonably said that the election was lost because there was not an outpouring of support from the ethnics. That’s not our fault. That’s the fault of the Gore campaign,” O’Dwyer said.

With nearly 500,000 Polish-Americans in Florida, Gore did not hold one event for them, Piurek said. In a non-partisan event planned for Polish-Americans in Washington before the last election, Gore was scheduled to attend, but he failed to show up and did not even send regrets.

“He did this to the Irish, to the Italians. … Gore doesn’t show up and that sends a huge message,” she said, adding that Polish-Americans are swing voters. They strongly backed Ronald Reagan for his anti-communism, but also supported Bill Clinton (search) because he pushed for Poland’s entry into NATO.

Piurek said the Kerry campaign has recognized that with 10 million Polish-Americans clustered in 11 swing states this year, they really could make the difference. The campaign has hired staff specifically to reach out to ethnic voters and is planning events around the country for Polish-Americans and others.

In general, the ethnic activists agreed that the Kerry campaign has done better than prior candidates to court them, and they pledged to work tirelessly to turn out the ethnic vote for the Democrat.

“We’ll have an Irish message, an Italian message, an Arab message, an Armenian message,” for voters, said Marty Dunleavy, executive director of the National Democratic Ethnic Leadership Council. He said he and his allies will be working to identify and contact ethnic Democrats across the country.

Caucus members said they found Boston — with its Irish and Italian heritage and its place as the home of recent immigrants from Puerto Rico, Brazil and elsewhere — to be an excellent location for the caucus and the Democratic convention.

“Boston is a great backdrop. It is a center for immigrants,” DeLauro said.