WASHINGTON _ President Barack Obama came to the biggest Latino political event of Hispanic Heritage Month in better standing with Hispanics than last year, while Republicans were struggling for footing in the community and order in their leadership after a tumultous day.
A year ago the atmosphere was tense when Obama showed up at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala. He had delayed taking action on immigration and was being called the “deporter-in-chief” by Latinos and immigration advocates.
But this year Obama had a warm welcome and could talk about immigration as a champion, not someone who had let the community down.
“Our greatness comes from a dream that says if you work hard you can build a better life for your family,” Obama said. “I’m gonna spend every day I have left in this office, fighting to restore that dream, so everyone that works hard can get it.”
Obama also touted the decrease in unemployment among Latinos, the higher numbers of Hispanics enrolled in healthcare and lower dropout rates.
Obama didn't miss an opportunity to remind the Latino audience of recent anti-immigrant rhetoric from the GOP field that has not played well in the Latino community.
“Leadership is not fanning the flames of intolerance and then acting all surprised when a fire breaks out,” Obama said, “saying clearly inflammatory things and then saying, ‘Well that’s not what I meant,’ until you do it again and again and again.”
Democratic strategist Larry Gonzalez said Obama was “obviously free. He’s not up for re-election."
“He’s in a better place especially after the Daca and Dapa executive orders. Health care has been a real boon as more data comes out that Latinos are becoming insured where they were once uninsured,” Gonzalez said. “People like him.”
But Obama’s appearance almost took second place to the news that Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., removed himself from the race for Speaker in the Republican-controlled House just a few hours before the CHCI event began. And Democrats made good use of it at the Hispanic gala and capitalized on the more troubled relationship that some GOP candidates' rhetoric has created.
Democratic strategist Chuck Rocha said the GOP’s scramble for a new House speaker and the campaign rhetoric of Trump and some of its other candidates creates a narrative of chaos that Democrats can use.
“We as Democrats talk about Republicans being crazy, but the Republicans are always trying to pull themselves to the middle so they can win a general election, but they get pulled right back by the Donald Trump crazies and that’s why I’m thinking (McCarthy’s withdrawal) will have a big impact,” Rocha said.
Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, which works to turn out the Latino vote and advocates for the community, said the GOP chaos in the House shows the community and the public “the real problem in Washington is the disarray that we can see in the Republican party (and) that it’s no wonder that we can’t accomplish anything.”
“It shows that there’s one political party that cannot find a way to do what they really want to do or get an agreement to what they really want to do,” he said.
Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton made a brief appearance to give an award to renowned Chef Jose Andrés and make a pitch for her presidential candidacy.
She said Latinos had transformed American culture, including music, food, arts and sports but many people “don’t see that Latinos are not strangers. They are not intruders.”
“That gap between who Latinos are and who some people say you are, that’s a problem,” she said. She aimed her rhetoric at GOP frontrunner Donald Trump and Jeb Bush.
“We need people who will stand up to this ugly rhetoric and extreme thinking. We will say with our words and our actions, ‘Basta, Enough, End This.’”
She didn’t stop her speech as a protester tried to interrupt with shouts. His lone protest was difficult over her speech and the chattering audience.
United We Dream Action, an advocacy group for young immigrants who arrived or remained in the country illegally, identified him as Juan Carlos Ramos. The group said he was protesting Clinton’s acceptance of campaign funds from private prison corporations who run immigration detention centers.
Republicans issued a news release after Clinton’s comments painting her as flip flopping on immigration and other issues.
“Each time Hillary Clinton addresses a Latino audience she gives the same empty promises she won’t and can’t keep, just like President Obama,” Republican Party spokeswoman Ruth Guerra said. “Just this week Hillary flip-flopped on several issues including immigration and free trade, reinforcing that she will do or say anything to get elected.”
Hillary Clinton's national political director, Amanda Rentería, told NBC after Clinton's speech that the campaign was seeing a more energetic and unified Latino community than even a year ago, mainly in response to anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric.
"As my parents said, 'M'ija, this is your civil rights moment," said Renteria.