One day in mid-October, Madelin Martinez opened the front door of her home in Highlandtown to find a white and navy blue-colored campaign flyer wedged in the doorframe.
What is typically a common occurrence in the weeks before an election turned remarkable when Martinez realized the mailer was written in Spanish.
“Robbyn sabe que el cuidado de la salud es un derecho del ser humano,” read the flyer from Democratic candidate Del. Robbyn Lewis — in English, “Robbyn knows that health care is a human right.”
“It’s the first one I’ve ever seen [in Spanish], and I got so excited,” said Martinez, who has lived in Highlandtown since 2016 and serves as the executive director of Maryland Legislative Latino Caucus, an organization of 67 state lawmakers, including one Republican.
For Martinez, the flyer was a sign of how the growth of Latino residents in Baltimore and across the state is influencing campaigns.
Compared to some other states, the Latino population in Maryland is still emerging. Significant growth in Latino residents in past decades — driven by immigration from Central and South America — is making the state’s Latino voters a group that can no longer be ignored by candidates and campaigns, community leaders say.
Nearly 6% of eligible Maryland voters are Latino, according to Pew Research Center. Latino residents now make up 12% of the population in the state, up from about 8% in 2010. The largest communities are concentrated in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, which are about 20% Latino. Every county in the state saw an increase in Latino residents between 2010 and 2020.
Moore seems to have a lot of traction in Latino communities, said Martinez, who emphasized her observations about the governor’s race represent her personal opinion only, and not the perspectives of the Latino Caucus.
Moore’s campaign slogan of “leave no one behind” seems to resonate with Latino voters, she said, as well as the fact that both Moore and his running mate, Lt. governor candidate Aruna Miller, have immigrant roots. Miller immigrated to the U.S. from India with her family at a young age and Moore’s mother and grandparents came from Jamaica.
Moore’s opponent, Cox, on the other hand, has decried county and city “sanctuary” policies that protect undocumented immigrants and aligned himself with former President Donald Trump, whose administration pushed to build a wall along the southern U.S. border, restricted asylum eligibility for for those fleeing violence or political unrest, separated immigrant parents facing criminal prosecution from their children, and reduced the number of legal immigrants.
The majority of registered voters of any race say they support Moore for governor, according to September polling by The Washington Post and University of Maryland. Support for Moore is especially high among Black voters (78%) and “non-white” — a category that includes Black, Asian and Latino — voters (71%), as compared to white voters (53%), according to the poll. A September Goucher College Poll in partnership with The Baltimore Banner and WYPR found similar results: More than half of voters surveyed whose race was neither white nor Black had a favorable view of Moore, while 52% had an unfavorable view of Cox.
Gabriela Lemus, executive director of Maryland Latinos Unidos, said the the support for Moore reflects the national trend — more than 60% of Latino voters identify with the Democratic party, as compared to about 30% who identify as Republicans.
However, even as Latino voters tend to skew Democratic, many are swing voters, according to Lemus. Campaigns need to make a more concentrated effort to reach Maryland’s Latino residents if they’re to gain their votes, she said.
Moore’s campaign appears to have made a targeted effort to reach out to Latino communities, observed Lemus, who has seen the Democratic candidate for governor at several events hosted by Latino organizations.
The issues Latino voters care most about are similar to other voters, according to Flavio Rogerio Hickel Jr., an assistant professor of political science at Washington College in Chestertown, where he specializes in race and ethnic politics.
Economy, healthcare, education and crime are their main concerns, Hickel said. Latino voters are not singularly focused on immigration, he said, contrary to what some may believe.
Latino voters are “incredibly diverse and [it’s] less easy to paint in a broad brush what Latinos are going to do than we have in the past,” Hickel said.
National origin, religion and generation are dividing lines that influence Latino residents’ political beliefs, Hickel said. For example, evangelicals tend to vote Republican and atheists or agnostics tend to vote Democrat.
Despite the considerable growth in Latino residents in Maryland over the past decade, voters have yet to gain the same political influence to sway statewide elections as they have at the national level, Lemus said. She noted that Democratic hopeful for governor Tom Perez, a son of Dominican Republic immigrants and a candidate endorsed by Latino organizations, such as the Spanish-language newspaper El Tiempo Latino, CASA in Action, and Latino Victory Fund, finished second to Moore in the primary.
“I think the [Maryland Latino] community’s still finding its identity,” she said.
A challenge Latino Maryland residents face is “invisibility,” she said.
“There is not universal language access,” she said. “There is not representation anywhere near the numbers we have. There is not a sense of urgency to address the matters we raise.”
At the same time, Lemus recognized the significant legislative work done by CASA, an organization that represents Latino, immigrant and working-class members in Maryland and across the country and has helped push through laws such as the Healthy Babies Equity Act, which expanded Medicaid to cover prenatal and postpartum care for parents regardless of their immigration status.
To see the power of Latino voters in Maryland, look to the local level, Lemus said.
Monica Casañas won her election for the mayor of Colmar Manor, a small Anacostia River town on the Washington, D.C., and Maryland border, with a mere four votes. Casañas said she decided to run for office because she was frustrated by the lack of elected Latinos in her community, where 60% of the population are Spanish-speaking immigrants.
The main platform of Casañas’ campaign was to allow noncitizen residents of her town to vote in local elections, following in the footsteps of a few other cities in Maryland, such as Takoma Park.
“At the end of the day, we want people to vote on pothole repair in our community,” Casañas said during a talk hosted by Maryland Latinos Unidos in October. “That’s not a big deal. We want everyone to have a voice at the table.”
Though many Latino immigrants may not be citizens, that doesn’t mean candidates can ignore them, Casañas said. She said parents have a strong influence on their citizen children.
“You get them to get their kids to vote,” she said. ”Noncitizens who have citizens in their families are getting the chancla out,” referring to flip-flops or slippers that some parents wave around when reprimanding their children.
Hector Garcia, a Howard County resident who led an organization that served immigrants and refugees for nearly a decade, said Latino voters in his community want better access to health care, improved educational attainment, and more information about public benefits and social services.
Over the years, Garcia estimates he has helped about 1,000 immigrants apply for citizenship and register to vote.
“It’s a fight worth fighting,” Garcia said. “We need voices and we need unity so that we can influence decisions that are made and candidates we want to support.”
Though many Latino residents seem to mostly stick with others from the same national background, “The power of the Latino community, as it continues to unite, can actually affect the result of an election,” Garcia said.
Martinez, the executive director of the Latino Caucus, said limited Latino representation in leadership throughout the state is an issue the group is working on.
It’s important to to get the message out that every vote matters, she said.
“Many come from countries where voting doesn’t really make a difference,” she said. “But it does here.”
Martinez encourages parents to make voting a rite of passage for their children, like celebrating a quinceañera, a party thrown on a girl’s 15th birthday to mark her transition into adulthood.
“Get them registered to vote, encourage them,” she said. “That’s the only way we’re going to have a voice.”