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Esto es tu Poder (This is Your Power)

The Idaho Democratic Party woos the state's Latinos

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According to the Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project, the median age of an Idaho Latino was 22 years old in 2011. Estefania Mondragon comes very close; she's the treasurer for the Idaho Democratic Latino Caucus and is 23 years old. She says she has been politically active--beginning with campus clubs, volunteer work and, finally, paid positions as a political operative--for five years.

"I think it's very interesting to see how we're growing up and becoming politically active. A lot of people are becoming more politically active and they see these injustices," she said, referring to the maze that is the U.S. immigration system. She's also quick to point to high dropout rates among Latinos and what she calls Idaho's resistance to accepting federal money to expand its Medicaid program. Now, Mondragon said, is a time for action.

"We have an election coming up, " she said. "That's an opportunity to really make our voices heard and that's the point of The Power of Your Vote: to make our voices heard and to reach out to power and power that aligns with us."

A Sunday, Sept. 21, march and rally from Ann Morrison Park to the Capitol steps will include speeches by Shirley Ringo, Democratic challenger to Idaho GOP Congressman Raul Labrador; Nels Mitchell, another Democrat, challenging Idaho GOP Sen. Jim Risch; a representative of gubernatorial candidate A.J. Balukoff; and yet another Democrat, Richard Stallings, running against Idaho GOP Congressman Mike Simpson. Event organizers said that The Power of Your Vote event is a chance for the Latino community to pair with the Idaho Democratic Party, which they said is "more responsive" than the GOP.

"I think the Latino community's views and the Democratic Party's views aren't mutually exclusive. They're on the right path," said Mondragon. "There's more of an intersection between the two."

Earlier this year, Labrador--thought by some commentators to be a potential trailblazer for immigration reform in Washington, D.C.--hinted that Republican House Speaker John Boehner should lose his position if he brought immigration reform to the House floor. During his ninth appearance on NBC's Meet the Press this past July, he told then-host David Gregory that America should take hard measures to "stem this tide" of tens of thousands of undocumented children entering the United States from Central America.

"I know it sounds harsh. I know it sounds difficult. We need to take a strong stance against what's happening," Labrador said.

During the same broadcast, Washington Post columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson pointed out that Labrador and other Republicans' antagonistic rhetoric about immigration was excessive.

"This is a delicate balance for Republicans," he said. "They need to be critical of the president without alienating a rising demographic group, and they have not been very good at that. When you go after kids and mothers, that's a long-term problem for the Republican Party."

That debate has taken root with the Idaho Democratic Latino Caucus and, by extension, the Idaho Democratic Party. Labrador's challenger, Shirley Ringo, characterizes her opponent's stance as "unproductive."

"I really feel that Raul Labrador has been one of the forces that has been preventing [immigration reform], and there are many in the Latino community who feel the same way," she said.

But immigration reform isn't just a political problem; it's a human one. The process by which the United States admits new citizens can often take decades to complete, separating families and leaving hundreds of thousands in legal limbo. It also continues to draw the attention of Idaho's agricultural industry, which has repeatedly called on the Gem State's congressional delegation to enact some kind of immigration reform.

"We would like to see quotas that provide a quantity of workforce that meets the demand," Milk Producers of Idaho President Brent Olmstead told Boise Weekly. "If we can set up a guest worker program, I think that is fair overall and will satisfy demand for employers."

Democrats also see their platform intersecting with the voting issues of Latinos on the issues of education and Medicare. Ringo, who was a teacher for 38 years before joining the Idaho Legislature in 1998, told BW that she sees education as a major voting issue among that demographic.

"For the [Idaho] Latino Caucus, I think that they really value educational opportunity," she said. "I want any public school to have solid teachers, and you have to have opportunities for students to get any support systems they need to succeed."

The problem of school funding is acute in Idaho, which consistently ranks poorly for per-student education funding. According to the Education Law Center, inequalities in Idaho's education system have resulted in boosts for spending on classroom technology, but teacher pay remains low, as does access to early childhood education. Particularly distasteful to Ringo is the state's use of merit pay--higher wages for teachers in high-performing classrooms.

"In order to be sure that we have the most solid teachers in all of the neighborhood schools, we want to take care that we don't have a compensation system where teachers in the more challenging positions are penalized. That could happen if we used test scores to decide how much to pay our teachers," she said.

Ringo has also indicated that raising the minimum wage--currently $7.25 an hour--could be a boon for the Latino community. Latinos make up 11 percent of Idaho's population but account for just 8 percent of the state's buying power, according to the U.S. Census and the Pew Research Center Hispanic Trends Project.

But Jennifer Martinez, Idaho Democratic Party Development director said Democratic candidates should be wary of treating Latinos as a monolithic voting bloc.

"Latino values are all about family, giving back to the community. They're very invested in that," she said. "And I don't think that's different from Idahoans in general."