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Joe Biden must follow Bernie Sanders’ example and aggressively court Latinos

Winning the Latino vote is crucial not only in the race for president. It could help Democrats flip Senate seats in their favor. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders greet each other before they participate in the last Democratic presidential primary in March.
Evan Vucci/AP

Joe Biden and the Democratic Party should have learned a lot from Sen. Bernie Sanders about courting the Latino vote.

Sanders’ outreach to Latinos during the presidential primary campaign was ambitious and successful. They gave him great momentum early in the presidential primary season, especially in Nevada. They also helped him carry California.

Biden became the presumptive nominee, but Sanders offered him valuable lessons on how to mobilize the Latino vote, especially the younger Latino vote.

For starters, Sanders campaigned in Latino communities. “He created a persona — Tío Bernie — and it wasn’t a fake one,” Louis DeSipio, a University of California, Irvine, professor of Latino studies and political science, said in a phone interview.

Greater economic equality was a big part of Sanders’ platform, which hits home with younger, underpaid Americans but also fits in the “Latino aspirational dream,” DeSipio said.

Biden must deliver a similar message in the heartland and to communities of color across the country.

Sanders had the support of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young first-term progressive from the Bronx. Where Republicans and moderates see a firebrand, young Hispanics see a role model.

Biden has to get AOC enthusiastically on board. She would be a terrific ambassador for Biden’s campaign at a time when we’re seeing too little of him because of the coronavirus.

“Most presidential candidates have too big an ego to share the stage,” DeSipio said. “I don’t think that’s the case with Biden.”

To my mind, Biden should pick an African American woman for vice president. It would be a momentous acknowledgment of the support he has received from African Americans. It wouldn’t surprise me if he chooses Sen. Kamala Harris or former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

Yet, he must look to Latinos for high profile advisory roles and as potential Cabinet members. Former Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro, who served in the Obama administration, immediately comes to mind.

Winning the Latino vote is crucial not only in the presidential race. It could help Democrats flip Senate seats in their favor.

In Arizona, where more than 2.3 million Latinos live, Democratic Senate candidate Mark Kelly leads Republican incumbent Martha McSally in recent polls. In Colorado, where nearly 22% of the population is Latino, former governor and Democratic presidential candidate John Hickenlooper could oust Republican Sen. Cory Gardner.

I was reminded by Stephen Nuño-Perez, a senior analyst at the political opinion research firm Latino Decisions, that Democrats also shouldn’t count out the importance of Latinos in North Carolina or Georgia, where Senate races are expected to be tight.

Latinos make up about 10% of the population in each of those states. But if they were to join a broader coalition of progressive whites and African Americans, you could see Republicans ousted.

Nuño-Perez described a greater unity between African-Americans and Latinos in Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina than what I’ve seen in Chicago.

In those Southern states, “if you’re African American, and you hear an anti-immigrant message … it’s an easy indicator on where [the speaker] stands on race.”

Conservatives keep trying to divide African Americans and Latinos with anti-immigrant messages. “African Americans are keen to that,” Nuño-Perez said, describing the thinking of those who talk that way. “ ‘You don’t care about being anti-immigrant. You care about being pro-white.’ ”

Sanders’ success in winning over Latinos (except in Florida), initially surprised me because he once came off as anti-immigrant. In 2007, Sanders helped kill an immigration bill that would have put millions of undocumented immigrants on the path to citizenship.

But many Sanders supporters are too young to remember it. They remember well that Biden was vice president under Barack Obama, who was known as the deporter-in-chief.

That’s a big reason why Biden has a lot of work to do to win over Latinos. It would be a terrible mistake to take them for granted.

Marlen Garcia is a member of the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board.