WALLA WALLA -- For probably the first time in local politics, two candidates for state representative faced off in a debate in front of a primarily Latino audience, held Sunday afternoon at St. Patrick Catholic Church Nativity Hall.Alfred Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8325.
"I heard about it in the church. So I came to hear about what is going on," Guillermo Andrade said in his native Spanish. The grape and apple crop worker is a registered voter, but in Mexico. And that's OK for debate organizer Pedro Galvao, because this political forum was about encouraging the entire Latino community to become politically active, even Mexican nationals like Andrade who can't vote here.
"Get politically involved and vote if you can," Galvao said, pointing out there are already about 1,600 registered Latino voters in Walla Walla County. But he also estimated fewer than 150 of those registered voters actually vote.
"I highly doubt (turnout) is more than 10 percent vote," he said.
So on Sunday, Galvao -- a Whitman College senior working on a project to increase Latino voter turnout -- held his second Latino political forum and his first Latino community political debate between 16th District state representative candidates Laura Grant and Terry Nealey.
For the most part the debate was mild. Topics included minim wage, bilingual education, agriculture, labor laws and economics. And for the most part both candidates had congruent answers, which led to very little debate.
Laura Grant read her entire introduction in a labored but respectable Spanish, while Nealey made use of the interpreter for his introduction. And both candidates spoke in their native language for the remainder of the debate, which lasted about an hour. Afterward, both were also positive about reaching out to their Latino constituents, even those who can't vote.
"They are a good portion of who we represent ... but we want to represent all Latinos, not just the ones registered to vote," Grant said
"The are becoming more of an economic force. So we will all need to pay attention to them," Nealey added.
About 40 people showed up for the political debate. But unlike the first political forum organized by Galvao this summer, this time the audience was made up primarily of Latinos, many of whom spoke only Spanish.
"Most were Latino, and they stayed," Galvao said in an excited tone. After months of canvassing the Latino neighborhoods of Walla Walla and meeting with small groups of Latino neighbors, Sunday's debate was encouraging, he added.
"They were interested. A lot of them submitted questions. We created a political space for them," Galvao said.
In addition to creating space, the debate also created a connection between Latinos and politicians.
"I am just starting to learn about them. I am not very involved. But I thought it would be good to hear what is going on," Andrade said.
For Galvao, reaching the entire Latino community, even those who cannot vote, is key to building more political awareness.
"There are 1,600 (Latino) people already on the (Walla Walla County registered voter) roster. So what would I do, add 200 more to the people who won't vote?" Galvao said, adding that his goal is to both get currently registered Latino voters to vote and to help those who can't legally vote to know they still can be heard.
"By familiarizing with one another, they are at least able to connect and have their needs known," he said.