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Democrats take their message to Latinos at political conference

Swings at Trump, a Spanish curse word and pledges on health care and immigration as eight Democrats jostled for Latino support in 2020.
Image: Julian Castro speaks on stage at the Presidential Candidate Forum hosted by NALEO
Julián Castro at the presidential candidate forum hosted by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Miami on Friday. Carlo Allegri / Reuters

MIAMI — Eight of the 20-something Democratic presidential candidates took pledges Friday to improve access to health care and take swift action on immigration at the largest Latino political gathering of the year.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont took some of the heaviest swings at President Donald Trump at the presidential candidate forum organized by Telemundo and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO, a bipartisan group that promotes Latino citizenship and works to increase Latinos in public office.

“Trump wants to divide us up. We will bring our people together around an agenda that works for all people and not just the 1 percent,” Sanders said.

Sanders mocked Trump for calling him crazy in an interview with Telemundo, the president’s first with a Spanish-language network since taking office in 2016. “He called ME crazy!” Sanders said earning laughs.

Eric Swalwell Jr., a California congressman, warned the audience about Trump: “There is nothing this president won’t do to hold you back.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts used the opportunity to pitch her plan to eliminate private prisons and detention facilities that she unveiled earlier Friday. She said 73 percent of people held because of their immigration status are held in for-profit detention centers that making more money the more they lock people up.

The speed-dating-style forum followed President Donald Trump’s campaign kickoff on Tuesday in Orlando, Florida, a swing state where the Latino vote is in play for both parties.

The Democrats largely focused on raising their profiles with the Latino group. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas showed off their bilingual skills, sprinkling in a few words and phrases in Spanish.

Republicans issued a news release during the forum criticizing the candidates as being out of touch with South Floridians, particularly Cubans and Venezuelans — segments of the Latino community where the GOP hopes to increase its share of Hispanic votes.

They labeled the Democrats socialists, citing policies on Cuba and Venezuela, a view that former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper seemed to share regarding some of his Democratic rivals.

“President Trump is fueling a national crisis of division in this country that is moving the country backward, but socialism is not the answer,” Hickenlooper said in his opening remarks.

He went on to describe Colorado’s bipartisan success building the state’s economy, getting “near universal health coverage and assisting and protecting immigrants under his guidance.

There were several pledges from candidates to quickly tackle immigration in their first days or year in office and to abandon Trump’s immigration approach.

Julián Castro, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was first among the candidates to release an immigration reform policy. He said the lesson of the Obama era, when Democrats were in charge, is to not wait to pass immigration reform.

He also said his administration would not let immigration reform be thwarted by a Senate filibuster.

Given a choice between fixing the broken immigration system and “some 60-vote rule that is not in the Constitution” and has been violated repeatedly by both parties, “I’m going to choose fixing our broken immigration system in 2021," said Castro, the only Latino in the race.

Climate change, health care and the economy as well as the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census were among some of the other issues addressed.

O’Rourke told the crowd he wants future generations to be proud of what the country has done on climate change and not have to ask, “Who were those 'pendejos' who gave up this great opportunity that we have?’”

“Let us be great. Let us not be pendejos,” O’Rourke said using a Spanish curse word.

Buttigieg earned some of the loudest applause when he said that the country needs a secretary of education “who actually believes in public education.”

Castro also got laughs and applause when he told the audience he looks forward to ushering Trump out of the White House with an “Adiós.”

Some of the candidates were confronted with previous statements and positions they’ve held on immigration and other issues.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota was reminded that she voted in 2006 for a Republican amendment to a bill that would have made English the nation’s official language, for building a fence on the border and opposing Social Security for immigrants in the country without permanent legal status.

Klobuchar said that most Democrats voted for those measures, which were in a bill sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. But she said she would not vote for a similar English language amendment “now that I know” its effect on the community.

She said she has been a leader in changing legislation to reflect how the country has evolved on immigration.

Every candidate was asked how they’d rectify the census if it included a question asking about citizenship. The census will have been completed by the time a new president is inaugurated, and the Supreme Court is now considering a challenge to the inclusion of such a question on the census.

Hickenlooper and Sanders said they’d look to Congress to fix things, and Sanders said Congress could take steps now. O’Rourke, Castro and Swalwell said they’d seek a recount or take action to get an accurate count.

“We’ll recount if we have to. We’ll count until we get it right,” Swalwell said.

Trump declined an invitation to participate at the forum, according to NALEO.

The organization's president, Arturo Vargas, took issue, saying, "Anyone who seeks to be president of the United States needs a collaboration with this constituency.”