This could be the last round-up for Arizona's Sheriff Arpaio

Sat, Nov 8, 2008, 00:00

AMERICA:The power of the Hispanic vote, critical in increasing numbers of states, grows apace, writes Mark Hennessy

FOR YEARS, Sheriff Joe Arpaio has conducted a no-holds barred campaign to get rid of illegal immigrants from Maricopa county in Arizona, with the blessings of the local white population but to the fury of Hispanics.

Proudly dubbing himself as "America's toughest sheriff", Arpaio is no stranger to controversy, having in the past used tents in the desert to house 2,000 prison inmates, and ordered that all of them wear pink underwear.

He organises sweeps for illegals on a regular basis around Phoenix's Hispanic neighbourhoods. Cars are pulled over, people are stopped, searched and then speedily deported if found to be without papers.

Since last year, Maricopa county deputies have arrested nearly 15,000 illegals in such operations and picked up another 1,500 by other investigations - leading to a legal action early this summer alleging that sheriff is carrying out illegal racial profiling.

This week, he was easily re-elected, but life for the sheriff and others depending on votes for their jobs is likely to get tougher in coming years. The power of the Hispanic vote, critical in increasing numbers of states, grows apace in Arizona.

Hispanic voters, once targeted successfully by George W Bush, drifted away in large numbers from the Republicans to vote for Barack Obama in Tuesday's election, providing unexpectedly large margins of victory in three key states, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

Nationally, 10 million of them went to the polls and the number will become even more significant in coming years, with some estimates suggesting that the Hispanic population in the US could nearly double by 2106.

Two-thirds of those who did vote this time backed the Democrat, while 31 per cent opted for John McCain - compared to the 44 per cent share secured by Bush in 2004, a record for a Republican candidate.

The Latin-American voters were systematically targeted by the Obama campaign, which ignored many other ethnic groups, spending more than $20 million on radio and TV ads on Spanish-language channels.

In Colorado, the Hispanic share of the vote went from 8 per cent in 2004 to 13 per cent this year, while in Florida, a majority of Hispanics, once dominated by reliably Republican Cuban emigrés, backed a Democrat for the first time since 1988.

New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, himself the son of a Hispanic parent, declared: "The Latino vote came back to the Democratic Party after a brief flirtation with the Republicans. They turned out, erasing the fame of Latino voters as a sleeping giant and making them an actual giant."

The number of Hispanics voting in Richardson's state jumped from 32 per cent of the total in 2004 to 41 per cent; 69 per cent of them chose Obama - helping to give him a comfortable 14-point majority in a once-solid Republican state.

The changing demographics foretell a time when Arizona will go the same way and, subsequently, even Texas, even before Hispanics become the largest ethnic population in the wider US, as they are expected to become by mid-century.

In time, the Hispanics will expect their pound of flesh from the president-elect. Usually, they are fixated, for understandable reasons, on the issue of immigration and demands to ease the undeniable plight of some of their fellows.

McCain was sympathetic to them initially, but he lost support as he was forced to adopt a tough attitude to sealing borders in a bid to shore up support with his Republican base.

This time, the economic crisis took centre-stage for Hispanics, as it did for all other voting blocs, but, even so, exit polls showed that immigration remained "very important" for three-fifths of Mexican and Latin-American voters, if less so for US-born Hispanics.

New York University professor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco told the Harvard Review that both candidates were glad to put it to one side, for different reasons. "They decided to stay away from the topic, addressing other issues Hispanics are concerned with like the economy, education."

It will come back, though, and it will have to addressed by the Republican Party if it is to rebuild from the ashes left by Tuesday.

Jeb Bush, George W's brother and the former governor of Florida, has already warned his party it must broaden its base.

"I would suggest that conservatives need to do the math of the new demographics of the United States. We can't be anti-Hispanic, anti-young person, anti many things and be surprised when we don't win elections."

Obama's dominance among Hispanics was not inevitable, since he lost out badly in a fight with Hillary Clinton for the loyalties of those who are registered Democrats in his battle for the party's presidential nomination.

Then, they divided two-to-one in favour of Clinton, but three-quarters of those who supported Clinton subsequently backed the African-American in the biggest single shift of any ethnic group, and one that was not guaranteed, given past antipathy between African- Americans and Hispanics.

Obama is now likely to try and copper-fasten his popularity with Hispanics by promoting some of their community - perhaps even Bill Richardson - into high-profile Cabinet positions, and others in his administration.

Back in Arizona, Sheriff Arpaio may need to smell the changing political winds.

This time, he easily beat little-known opposition, and he may well do so again in the next election, but as the voters' colour changes, he will not be secure forever.