SAN ANTONIO — Javier Paz of El Paso, Texas, has been volunteer organizing for Joe Biden from before Super Tuesday.
“The stakes are so high. This is about saving our country," Paz, a high school history teacher and a 2020 Democratic National Convention delegate, said. "We feel we are soldiers this time. We are fighting to save America.”
Democrats entered the third day of their virtual convention Wednesday. Usually the crowded, high-profile conventions help fire up the party activists and get them ready to double down on the work of calling up voters and turning them out at the polls. This year, there are a record 32 million Latinos who are eligible to vote — more than 13 percent of the electorate, although only about 12.7 million voted in the 2016 election.
Whether a virtual convention can deliver the same charge as the in-person events is still up for question, but coming after national protests following the death of George Floyd and tens of thousands of deaths from COVID-19, Paz and other Latino Democrats say they don’t need to rely on the convention to be supercharged against President Donald Trump.
“This time, it’s like our democracy really is at stake and I just feel, as a history teacher, I see signs, the rise of authoritarianism,” he said.
Paz volunteered for Hillary Clinton’s campaigns in 2008 and 2016. In those years, he didn’t fear that an election loss would mean “the end of the world,” he said.
It's different now.
A particularly poignant moment in the convention thus far for Paz was hearing from Kristin Urquiza, whose father, Mark Anthony Urquiza, died from COVID-19. She told the millions of Americans watching that her father had voted for Trump, and believed the president “when he said coronavirus was going to disappear."
In a recent poll of Latinos, 73 percent of the respondents agreed with the statement that Trump ignored early warning signs of the coronavirus and downplayed its seriousness.
“The COVID situation is complicating everything," Paz said. "People are scared to vote, but also that issue is hurting the president."
"Now he's attacking the post office ... What else can he do to us?"
Paz said although he would have liked to have been in Milwaukee with other Democrats and seen the political celebrities, he and others know the urgency of ending Trump’s time in the White House. “People are signing up like crazy” to help elect Biden, he said.
“It’s not so much pro-Biden. They like Biden too and we are getting Bernie supporters but they really just don’t like Trump,” he said. “He’s just such a danger.”
Biden has ground to make up with Latinos, according to recent polls that show him behind in their support compared to Hillary Clinton at the same time in the 2016 campaign. Clinton won 66 percent of Latino voters in 2016, matching Obama's 2008 share of Hispanic voters. But in 2012, 71 percent of Latinos supported Obama.
In a recent Latino Decisions poll, 66 percent of Latinos said they support Biden, 24 percent support Trump and 10 percent are undecided.
The convention usually provides some increase in support but there has been criticism that the party is featuring too few Latino leaders in prominent speaking roles, including no speaking role for Julián Castro, who gave the 2012 Democratic convention keynote speech and was the only Democratic Latino presidential candidate this election cycle.
Actor, philanthropist and activist Eva Longoria hosted on the first day of the convention and other Latino office holders and general voters also got some air time. One of the party's most prominent Latinas, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., spoke briefly to second the nomination of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, in accordance with party rules.
Rose Marie DeHoyos. 75, of San Antonio, had been selected to serve as a whip for the convention, a role she was looking forward to filling. She’s has been volunteering in political campaigns and with the party since 2008, starting just after retiring because she was looking for something to do.
Now she said, working on campaigns and getting out voters is a passion so intense she pushed aside fears of the coronavirus to help work the polls for the July runoff in Texas, which has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases this summer. She too believes the country needs saving.
"We can’t let this continue – there’s no way. I feel like our country is deteriorating so much and to keep him in there every day, now he’s attacking the post office, what will he think of next?" she said. "What else can he do to us? It's like he doesn’t really care about us."
"Everything is very personal"
On Aug. 3, El Paso marked one year since a gunman drove nearly 700 miles and opened fire in a Walmart. Twenty-three people were killed in the massacre that has been blamed in part on Trump’s immigration policies and rhetoric.
On Tuesday night, Rep. Veronica Escobar, who represents El Paso in Congress, announced Texas' roll call votes for the convention. Before she did, she reminded convention watchers of the “domestic terrorist” who infiltrated her city: “His motive was racism and xenophobia,” she said. “In the face of continuing gun violence, we demand change.”
The El Paso shooting has been sandwiched between immigration policies that have been tested and launched in the city, including separating children from their parents and forcing people to wait outside the United States while their asylum claims are adjudicated.
Paz said he and others who formed the grassroots group had worked at Annunciation House, which sheltered hundreds of migrant families as they were released by Border Patrol agents.
“Everything is very personal and I think that’s why it’s so much easier this time around to just ask somebody for help and everyone is saying 'yes, yes, sign me up,'” he said, adding that many former Bernie Sanders supporters are joining in.
Trump is doing "what dictators do"
In Florida, Trump’s campaign has hammered a message that paints Biden and other Democrats as socialists and sympathizers with Cuba as they work to shore up the president’s support in the state, particularly with Cuban American and other Latino voters.
Millie Herrera, 62, a convention delegate from South Florida who fled Cuba when she was 10, said it is Trump’s governing style that is more reminiscent of Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro, the country’s former President Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
“He’s ignoring the Constitution. His attempts at breaking the law, threatening the free press, that’s what dictators do,” she said.
In the critical swing state of Florida, Biden’s lead with Latinos is smaller, 55 percent to 41 percent, compared to Arizona where he leads 63 percent to Trump’s 29 percent.
On Tuesday afternoon in a virtual convention-related event, Biden appealed directly to Latino voters in a conversation with "Hamilton" composer Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“He has failed Latinos to satisfy the right wing of his party,” Biden said, adding the Trump administration had separated children at the border, neglected Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and through its “repeated attacks on Dreamers,” referring to young immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
Biden said that in this election there’s an “urgency of being engaged” because Latinos are facing “multiple crises at once,” including the health and economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as racial injustice. “We need a leader who can take on all of these,” he said.
Despite a different kind of convention this year, DeHoyos said momentum is on their side. “Right now, people are knocking at our doors at the Democratic office, asking for Biden signs, giving us money, ‘How can we help? What do you want us to do?'” she said. “It’s so much more now because they want him out.”