How And Why Conservatives Are Trying To Bring Colorado Latinos Into Their Fold

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Photo: Libre Initiative volunteers with tablets canvassing in Aurora
Three Libre volunteers get ready to canvass in Aurora on May 20, 2016.

On an otherwise quiet neighborhood street in Aurora, about a dozen volunteers huddled in small groups one Friday night in May. They held tablets showing a map with dots that pinpointed Latino households nearby.

The volunteers were all Latino themselves, mostly millennials, and they wore matching grey t-shirts with the message, "Freedom drives progress." Many also wore yellow plastic sunglasses with the word "Libre" printed on the side.

The Libre Institute deploys these bands of volunteers to knock on doors almost every night in the Denver area, according to the group's Colorado field director, Isabel Ontiveros. On this Friday, executive director Daniel Garza was also in town from his home base in Texas.

"Election season is an important time when people are paying attention," Garza said, "And so we kind of want to leverage that opportunity to drive a conversation, help to set a priority on certain issues and policies."

Photo: Singer at Libre event
A singer called Nadia performs at a Libre Institute brunch in Aurora on May 21, 2016.

Latinos are a sought-after group this election year. They are expected to represent nearly 15 percent of voters in Colorado, and as their numbers grow here and around the country, new interest groups have emerged to try to win their support. That includes Libre, though the group is looking far beyond the 2016 election.

In fact, when people answered their doors, Libre representatives did not mention the election or any candidate. When Ontiveros knocked on one door she was greeted by an elderly woman with short, grey hair named Marie Pena. Ontiveros asked two questions scripted on the tablet.

"The U.S. government is collecting more of your tax dollars and spending more of your hard-earned money than ever before," Ontiveros read. "Do you think that the government and politicians should cut spending or increase spending?"

"Well cut spending, of course," Pena answered.

"Cut it of course!" Ontiveros said, chuckling.

Then Ontiveros talked about the growing national debt, and she got Pena's email address, to add to Libre’s vast database. Daniel Garza said Libre is trying to reach five million Latinos in person and over the phone this election year, and Pena will count as one.

"Look, I mean, bottom line, at the end of the day, an organization’s influence is as powerful as the size of its community," Garza explained. "Si uno tiene pueblo. If you have that community behind you, and they agree with you, then the politicians who are elected to represent us have to listen to us , or we’ll remove them. It’s that simple."

Garza helped found Libre in 2011 after working in the George W. Bush White House. Now, Ontiveros said, Libre is in 11 states, and it operates both the 501(c)(4) Libre Initiative and the 501(c)(3) Libre Institute, which is common among both conservative and liberal politically active groups that want to educate voters and engage in advocacy.

While Libre is officially non-partisan, but as Garza suggested, it does get political.

In 2014 the group ran advertisements in Spanish and English against Colorado’s then-incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat who was up for reelection. Democrats in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and North Carolina were also targeted in 2014. Garza said he was not sure yet if Libre will target Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who's up for reelection this year.

A significant portion of the group's funding comes from Freedom Partners, part of Charles and David Koch’s network of influence. That draws criticism from other groups, like the left-leaning Latino Victory Project. Earlier this year it wrote that Libre's, “deceiving tactics belie an agenda that simply advances the Koch brothers’ financial interests, at the expense of Latinos and their families.”

Garza rejected the idea that Libre is a "Koch front group."

"For the longest time, the Latino left would criticize the conservative side for not engaging Latinos, for not doing outreach to Latinos. And now that we are, they criticize us. And you can’t have it both ways," he said. Garza believes that lessening government regulation, for example, is in Latinos' best interest, because he believes Latinos are increasingly entrepreneurial.

Photo: Libre field director Isabel Ontiveros laughs while canvassing in Aurora
Libre's field director in Colorado, Isabel Ontiveros, canvassed with volunteers on May 20, 2016.

Given that Latinos are expected to be a third of Colorado's population by 2040, Libre takes a long-term approach to try to court their support for a lifetime, says Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University. She leads a team of researchers studying Libre and other conservative movements.

"The Libre Initiative, in our research, uses very creative methods to do soft outreach and just build ties that can pay off in the future," Skocpol said.

That "soft outreach" includes English and GED courses, health check-ups, and backpack giveaways at the start of the school year. Garza says those services can help Latinos get jobs and find success, which is one of Libre's goals. The events, including a brunch on Saturday morning after canvassing, also give Libre an audience for their messages.

In a conference room at Aurora Community College recently, a few dozen people sat at round tables, and while they ate, they listened to Garza speak in Spanish about his personal history as the son of immigrant farmworkers, and about self-determination and the need to limit government influence. For more than a half-hour before he took the podium, a singer named Nadia belted about the power of God and how lucky they are to live in the United States.

Some people in the audience swayed their arms and sang along at what felt like a church service. Such events can build trust in the long-term, but this year, the presumptive Republican nominee for president looms over conservatives' outreach to Latinos. Daniel Garza brushed off the idea that Donald Trump's rhetoric about Latinos makes his efforts harder.

"My job isn’t to elect Republicans. My job is to drive ideas," Garza said. "We have recruited thousands of volunteers. We have sold-out events. So we’re pleased with the kind of reaction we’re getting from the Latino community."

Libre has been around for five years, and Harvard’s researchers say it’s too early to tell whether the group’s strategies will work to make the country, and its leaders, more conservative.