ALLENTOWN — Victor Martinez opened his radio lines to callers, interested in who Latino voters concentrated in Allentown, Bethlehem, and Reading liked of the Democratic candidates for president.
The answers might have been predictable. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders coasted to victory in Nevada on Saturday, largely by capturing more than half of Latino voters there. Former Vice President Joe Biden also polls well with the community.
But most of Martinez’s callers on Thursday named a third candidate: Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor.
The scope of Sanders’ support in Nevada, the first time a significant number of Latinos have voted in the presidential contest, may have masked another factor for Democrats: Bloomberg, who hasn’t been on the ballot yet, is also doing well with Latino voters, virtually tied for second in a recent national poll from Univision.
Bloomberg came up often in Inquirer interviews with Pennsylvania Latino voters last week. Forty-nine percent of the state’s Latino population is Puerto Rican, and many moved here from New York. Pennsylvania has the third highest number of Puerto Ricans after New York and Florida.
“West Coast Latinos are very different from East Coast Latinos,” said Martinez, the radio host and a community activist in Allentown, who likes Biden and Bloomberg. “The priorities are different. For West Coast Latinos, it may be more of immigration policy vs. East Coast, there’s a lot of Puerto Ricans — we’re U.S. citizens so it might be other issues getting more attention here.”
And Latinos are in no way a voting monolith. With two months until the April 28 Pennsylvania primary, interviews with Latinos in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and the Lehigh Valley showed interest in several candidates, though Sanders has the clear national lead.
“We think Latino voters are immigrant voters,” said Michael Jones-Correa, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist who focuses on Latino politics. “There’s a big bloc of voters in Philadelphia in particular who are Puerto Ricans and their concerns, while overlapping, are not all about migration issues.”
Latinos, like all Americans, are concerned about education, health care, and jobs, and Puerto Ricans are more likely to be concerned about the Trump administration’s response to natural disasters that have devastated the island, Jones-Correa said.
In the Lehigh Valley, Bloomberg supporters said they felt an affinity for him as former New Yorkers, and liked his support for making Puerto Rico the 51st state. Several voters also credited him for speaking Spanish. Bloomberg’s campaign, which is entirely self-funded, has aired about $17.6 million in TV and radio ads in Pennsylvania, according to the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics, making his paid messaging far more prevalent than his competitors'. Several of Bloomberg’s spots highlight immigrants or Trump’s record on immigration.
“I’m biased because I’m from New York, but I like Bloomberg," said Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz, owner of Mi Casa Su Casa Cafe in Reading. Cepeda-Freytiz, who is also on the city council, is undecided but strongly considering Bloomberg because she lived in Washington Heights when he was mayor.
"The changes he made, they were very visible,” she said of the Republican turned independent turned Democrat. "He cleaned things up. And when you see his ads, he’s talking about Puerto Rico becoming a state, advocating for equal pay, women, and again, he’s a politician but the promises and what he’s talking about are enticing.”
Former Philadelphia City Councilmember Angel Ortiz, the first Latino on the legislative body, backs Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. He finds it hard to believe that Latinos will get behind Bloomberg in large numbers once he’s vetted more closely, particularly given his record on stop-and-frisk policing.
Other Latino voters interviewed Thursday said they couldn’t get past the policy.
“It worries me,” said Tony Velasquez, 42, of Allentown. “Who’s to say he’s not going to implement it again? This time for the whole nation? I don’t think an apology is good enough.”
While Bloomberg may be getting an early look, Sanders is by far the most admired Democratic presidential candidate among Latinos nationally.
According to the Univision poll, 64% view Sanders favorably and 24% unfavorably. Bloomberg had the second-best rating with 55% seeing him positively and 24% negatively.
In 2016, Latinos helped Sanders carry Berks County, which includes Reading. Sanders beat Hilary Clinton in 30 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties in the primary that year. Trump would go on to win all those counties.
Sara Alicia Huerta Long was head of Latinx outreach for the Sanders 2016 campaign in Berks. and said that momentum has only grown, aided by social justice movements that overlap with Sanders volunteers.
“For New York transplants — that’s still a sense of home there and that’s something we all hold on to so much being immigrants in a new land,” she said of Bloomberg’s appeal. “But I think overall we only see one candidate who has support that turns into real organizing. The passion is real for Bernie and doesn’t exist for Bloomberg.”
Sanders recently received the endorsements of two national immigrant rights groups, Mijente and Make the Road Action, both with active chapters in Pennsylvania.
Biden also has backers among Latinos. Last week, he got the endorsement of the Latino Victory Fund, a progressive political organization that cited his immigration reform proposal. Biden has fought off criticism, though, about the three million people deported during the Obama administration. Earlier this month, he said deporting so many people without criminal records was a “big mistake.”
“Joe Biden, for me, he’s the only candidate that can connect with the whole world," said Santos Hurtado, of Reading. “The person with the political vocation is Biden.”
Giovanni Nieves, 22, an organizer with the Sunrise movement, which fights climate change and endorsed Sanders, likes the Vermont senator’s consistency and his Medicare for All plan. Nieves’ family had to declare bankruptcy after a car accident left his father, a college librarian, drowning in medical bills.
“People connect with him on a personal level," said Nieves, a student at Kutztown University. “There’s definitely Sanders energy here. As the primary gets closer, you’re going to see that more and more.”
Erika Almirón, former head of Juntos, an immigrants rights group in Philadelphia, also supports Sanders, who she thinks has done the most outreach to Latinos. Sanders’ campaign staff also includes many Latinos and activists.
Latinos make up 3.2% of Pennsylvania’s population, compared with 30% in Nevada and the nationwide average of 8.9%. There were 440,000 Latino eligible voters in Pennsylvania in 2016 — the 10th largest statewide number in the U.S.
But in a state won by such small margins, high turnout from Latinos, who break more strongly Democratic, could help Democrats win the general election. Driving that interest by enticing Latinos to vote in the primary is the first step, Almirón said.
“People say we’ve got to tackle swing voters and I think the opposite is true,” said Almirón, who ran unsuccessfully for Philadelphia City Council last year. "You have to pull out the electorate and ... if you can actually excite Latino voters — they’re your swing voters.”
Fueled in part by enthusiasm among Latinos, Nevada approached 2008′s record caucus turnout. About half the electorate Saturday voted for the first time.
Before his segment on La Mega radio wrapped up, Martinez appealed to listeners in Spanish, “Whoever you like, whatever you feel: Vote. It’s the only way to add your voice to the conversation.”