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Martin O’Malley's stop at the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington DC on Wednesday for a question and answer session is part of a larger effort to appeal to a vital and growing sector of the American electorate and perhaps eat into the overwhelming support currently enjoyed by Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
The event is one of his first as a candidate and signals the importance Hispanic voters will be in his newly-launched presidential campaign. At the question and answer session led by the Chamber's CEO, Javier Palomarez that touched on everything from how he will inspire voters to education, government regulation and immigration, O'Malley refused to criticize Clinton and instead focused on his own record as governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore.
On immigration, he insisted that he "would never give up" efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform through Congress, adding that he would also use his executive authority to ensure families stay together should he win the White House.
"You do it by leading and putting your political caliptal on the line," he said. "There’s no magic wand."
O'Malley, who is 50 points behind Clinton in the polls, has come out strongly in favor of issues important to many Latinos. And immigration advocates, who remember Clinton’s past missteps on the issue, have taken notice. They say O’Malley has a strong track record from his time as governor.
“It’s not just words but actual actions,” Cesar Vargas, co-director of the Dream Action Coalition, said. “It’s a day and night difference from O’Malley and Secretary Clinton.”
As governor, O’Malley implemented some of the reforms that immigration advocates wanted. For instance, he allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. That’s an issue that flummoxed Clinton’s campaign in 2008 when she fumbled the issue and angered immigration proponents when she came out against it.
As governor, O’Malley also successfully pushed to pass the Maryland DREAM Act, a bill that enables undocumented youth to attend college paying in-state tuition.
And last summer when tens of thousands of young undocumented immigrants crossed the border, O’Malley said they should be treated like refugees and opposed sending them back to their home country. Clinton, meanwhile, said the children should be sent back.
O’Malley has made immigrant issues central to his candidacy. With the growing number of Latino voters, appealing to Hispanic voters could be a boon to his candidacy.
In the 2014 election, 25.2 million Latinos were eligible to vote, the highest number ever. It’s an increase of 3.9 million people since the 2010 election according to the Pew Research Center. And in the 2012 election, 10 percent of the electorate was Hispanic with more than 70 percent voting for President Obama.
He included Dreamers in his announcement speech in Baltimore on Saturday. One Dreamer introduced him and spoke about the virtues of the former Maryland Governor.
In his speech, O’Malley called for immigration reform that legalizes the 11 million undocumented residents living in the U.S. He also criticized a common position among Republican presidential candidates that the border must be secured before immigration policy is addressed.
“Because the enduring symbol of our nation is not the barbed wire fence - it is the Statue of Liberty,” he said.
“You have to give props to O’Malley,” Frank Sharry, executive director of the America’s Voice, said.
But while immigration proponents are offering praise of O’Malley, he still has an uphill battle against Clinton with Hispanic voters.
Latinos have a history of supporting Clinton in the past. Despite her position in the 2008 election on drivers’ licenses, Latinos overwhelmingly backed her over challenger Barack Obama. According to Pew, Hispanics voted for Clinton by nearly a two-to-one margin. Latinos also voted overwhelmingly for her husband, Bill Clinton, in the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections where he received 61 and 72 percent support respectively.
Sharry said that when Clinton has made it more difficult for O’Malley to make deep inroads with the demographic.
He points to her hiring of Dreamer Lorella Praeli as her Latino outreach director and her announcement in Nevada that she would go further than President Obama’s executive action giving families of undocumented immigrants reprieve from deportation.
“I think this is one of the issues he hoped to have a lane to himself, but that lane has gotten a lot narrower," Sherry said, adding that she has given a “real strong indication that she’s serious about (immigration issues.)”
Regardless of who comes out on top in the Democratic primary, Democratic strategist Doug Thornell said the Democratic candidates’ positions on immigration issues puts them in a good place with the electorate.
“It’s a good frame against what the Republicans want done - they have an extreme view about how to address the immigration issue,” Thornell said.
Sharry added: “We love the idea that candidates are leaning in on the immigration issue.”