• • •
A new-found sense of power, affirmation and purpose is surging through Lee County minority communities in the wake of an election that brought home the reality of their growing political clout, and with it, the responsibility to keep the momentum going.
Even though Mitt Romney won Southwest Florida, raw vote numbers supplied by the Lee County Supervisor of Elections Office show double-digit increases among black and Hispanic voters in the Nov. 6 presidential election, and a slight decrease in white voters, as compared with the 2008 election.
The tally: black: 14.7 percent increase; Hispanic: nearly 17.9 percent increase; white: minus .3 percent decrease.
In Collier County, the hike was even greater, with a 26.7 percent increase in the black vote and a 20.7 percent increase in the Hispanic vote. The white vote increased by 3 percent.
Minority community leaders expressed delight at the increased numbers and said a concentrated push to get out the vote, by President Obama’s re-election campaign and local, grassroots voter drives, were reasons for the hike. The strategy worked despite the furor over a shortage of ballot scanners and long waits at various precincts.
“Based on the two choices we had for president, we knew it was important to get out and vote,” said James Muwakkil, president of the Lee County NAACP Chapter. The vote to re-elect Obama was a refusal to go backwards, he said.
If Romney won, they feared gains like Roe vs. Wade would be in danger; Planned Parenthood would cease to exist; the Affordable Health Care Act, (dubbed “Obamacare”), would be rolled back; seniors and families who have Medicaid would end up using vouchers; and Pell grants for poor students would be in jeopardy, he said. “Those are things that minorities and not just minorities, whites too, all of those are things that we need.”
Blacks need to give themselves a pat on the back, Muwakkil said.
“We are aware of the stigma that is attached to the African-American community as people who don’t vote. It was important this time that we got it right, and we got it right,” Muwakkil said. “We got the best candidate and we did what we needed to do to get to the polls and we didn’t waiver.”
In the Hispanic community, there was a big effort this year to make people aware of their responsibility, said Israel Suarez, executive director of the Nations Association Charities. “We know our potential.”
Peter Bergerson, FGCU political science professor, said the rise in minority voting numbers somewhat surprised him. The Obama campaign targeted Lee and minority groups within the county, he said. Look at number of visits the Obama campaign made to Lee, from the president to Michele Obama to Vice President Joe Biden, he said. The Romney campaign sent Paul Ryan, vice presidential candidate, for one visit.
For Hispanics, Romney’s stance against Obama’s policy that allows young illegal immigrants to avoid deportation for the next two years if they meet certain criteria also hurt, Bergerson said.
The Obama campaign also was successful in painting an image of Romney as not caring, not in tune, “kind of a rich white guy that they couldn’t or wouldn’t relate to,” he said.
Bergerson and Nancy McGovern, a Republican state committeewoman, believed the drop in the white vote in Lee also may have had more to do with voters’ perception of the Republican candidate. “I cannot account for the deficit in the white count other than perhaps some were not thrilled with Romney,” McGovern said.
McGovern said minorities find the policies of Obama and the Democratic party more favorable right now, including assistance programs and helping the poor. The black and Hispanic communities were hit in the recession, as were others, and she believes minorities wanted to continue the programs in place.
“I do think we are just as compassionate, but they don’t see it that way at this point,” said McGovern, who lives in south Fort Myers. “We’ve got some work to do.”
In Lee, blacks grew from 6.6 percent of the population to 8.3 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census. Hispanics nearly doubled from 9.5 percent to 18.3 percent in that same 10-year span.
Alice Washington of the Charleston Park Community Center, took at least 65 people to Precinct 1 during early voting and on election day. Washington helped in a campaign to register voters, even going house to house.
State Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, said the increased numbers are fruits of efforts made over the past few years by the NAACP, and the result of a strong ground game by the Democratic National Committee.
Sandra McClinton, Lee Democratic chairwoman, said she believes there was an attempt at voter suppression, particularly in reducing the amount of time to vote early, and it backfired. Hispanics had been motivated to vote by racial profiling and immigration issues, she said. “The African Americans, they were just determined not to be disenfranchised.”