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Latinos in Pennsylvania worry the Biden campaign’s outreach is coming too late

Latino leaders in the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia said that prior to two weeks ago, there was little outreach — in person or otherwise.

Former Reading Councilman Angel Figueroa, left, with Allentown Councilman Julio Guridy, during the opening of a Biden campaign office Tuesday in Allentown.
Former Reading Councilman Angel Figueroa, left, with Allentown Councilman Julio Guridy, during the opening of a Biden campaign office Tuesday in Allentown.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

ALLENTOWN — A handwritten “Latinos For Biden” sign directed about a dozen people into the campaign’s newly opened office in Allentown on Tuesday night. Julio Guridy greeted people at the door with a smile, thanked them for coming, and asked them to please keep their masks on and stay spaced out once inside.

Behind his polite greeting was a sense of worry.

The office opening, coming just two weeks before Election Day, concerned Guridy, a city councilman in Allentown for the last 20 years. He has organized political outreach here for decades and said there’s been next to no presence from Joe Biden’s campaign in the Latino community.

“We are the majority of Latinos in Pennsylvania," Guridy said of the Lehigh Valley, which includes Allentown, Bethlehem, and Reading. “We were not getting any support."

The Biden campaign is funding the office, which will offer stipends of $15 an hour to people who canvass the area every day from 1 to 5 p.m. ahead of Nov. 3. It also has a separate satellite office a few blocks away used for staff. A caravan is planned for Saturday to drum up support for the campaign, and Spanish-language radio and TV stations now feature a steady stream of Biden ads.

But Latino leaders in the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia said that prior to two weeks ago, there was little outreach — in person or otherwise. And there’s concern that this final push could be coming too late to attract support from a voting bloc that has traditionally been difficult to turn out.

“At the end of the day I’m here talking to you in Allentown with a fully funded effort,” former Reading Councilman Angel Figueroa said at the office opening Tuesday. “But I would encourage you that after we win this election we have a much larger conversation about not waiting this long.”

Philadelphia City Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez said Biden’s campaign “gets mad at me for speaking out." But, she said, "I don’t want there to be a scenario where we lose and my community gets blamed for their lack of engagement.”

“They want to do everything on TV,” Quiñones-Sánchez said of the campaign. "When they pivoted to field they waited until the last minute — literally we just got people on the street this week.”

The Biden campaign acknowledged most outreach had been virtual across the campaign until this month, when canvassing started. But the campaign stressed it has been reaching out in other ways, through weekly Latino phone banks and virtual events. During a visit to Philadelphia last month, Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.), Biden’s running mate, held a meet-and-greet with community leaders at Taller Puertorriqueno, in the largely Puerto Rican neighborhood of Kensington.

“We’re running the most robust Latino outreach program any presidential campaign has ever had in Pennsylvania," Sinceré Harris, the Biden campaign’s senior adviser in Pennsylvania, said in a statement. "In addition to our robust organizing and outreach efforts, we’ve made historic investments in paid communications across all platforms that launched in the summer.”

Still, some local Latino leaders said they fear not enough has been done in a region that could be key to the state — and toward a demographic Trump is targeting.

“There are people in MAGA hats knocking on doors in the barrio right now,” former Philadelphia Councilmember Angel Ortiz said of GOP work in North Philadelphia. “You got people looking around like, what is going on?"

Ortiz stressed that things now feel as if they’ve shifted into “full-court-press mode,” but with not much time to appeal to voters.

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Latinos make up about 5% of Pennsylvania’s eligible voting population, but as is the case across the United States, tend to turn out at lower rates. Some of the highest concentrations of Latinos in Pennsylvania live in the Lehigh Valley, Hazleton, and Philadelphia.

All surveys suggest that Biden will easily win the Latino vote, although turnout and the size of that advantage will be important in key states. Nationally, Trump is polling slightly higher among Latinos than he did in 2016, and surveys show him neck-and-neck with Biden in Florida overall, home to a large number of Cuban Americans, who tend to lean more conservative. Puerto Rican voters, who make up a large percentage of the Latino population in Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley, tend to lean more Democratic.

Polls show Biden holding a steady lead over Trump in the high single digits in Pennsylvania. But Trump won the state by less than 1 percent of the vote in 2016, and if the race tightens in the closing days, any small shifts could make a difference.

“I always hear, ‘Puerto Ricans don’t turn out to vote. Latinos don’t vote,’" Ortiz said. "Well God— if you don’t touch them, if you don’t put the resources in — of course we’re not going to come out to vote.”

Ortiz said there has been a behind-the-scenes push to get more resources from the campaign, which came to a head with a Zoom meeting a few weeks ago. He said polls out of Florida that showed Latino support for Biden slumping there seemed to help shift things into higher gear.

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The Latinos for Biden office in Philadelphia just opened this week in North Philadelphia, in the 43rd Ward Democratic committee’s headquarters, with some money from the campaign.

Quiñones-Sánchez said she and others had to push to make it happen. She said Latinos, specifically seniors, are looking for guidance on voting and she’s been directing them in the meantime to the city’s voting access centers.

And Quiñones-Sánchez said she’s encouraged the Biden campaign to connect with Democrats running for state legislature, who know the Latino communities in their districts — like Janet Diaz, a Democrat running against a Republican state senator in Lancaster County. “I told them, ‘She knows her win number. You should be riding her wave,’” Quiñones-Sánchez said. “But they’ve been slow to embrace her.”

Guridy, of Allentown, said he hears from Latinos in the Lehigh Valley who are supporting Trump and worries the president’s campaign outreach could be making inroads. Earlier this month Eric Trump hosted an event called “Latinos for Trump: Praise, Prayer, and Patriotism” in North Philadelphia.

“The issue of taking for granted that Hispanics are going to vote one party or another needs to be eliminated,” he said. “Trump is appealing to people in my community.”

Victor Martinez, owner and host of the La Mega Radio Station based in Allentown, said local community organizations are accustomed to a more visible campaign, but the pandemic has changed that. "You have local groups feeling they’re being left behind because it’s not a typical campaign,” he said.

Martinez said Biden ads started airing about three weeks ago. Last week, Martinez had Harris on the show.

“The Trump campaign hasn’t spent one dollar on the radio," Martinez said. "They haven’t provided anyone to interview. Zero, they’ve done zero outreach at all.”

» READ MORE: Trump held his own in Bucks County in 2016. But it might be slipping away in 2020.

Several outside political action committees have also been helping Biden’s cause, including Nuestro PAC and Priorities USA, which have made multimillion-dollar buys to run ads targeting Latinos in Pennsylvania.

Labor organizations and outside community groups have also been working to turn out Latino voters.

Vanessa Maria Graber, an organizer with Philly Boricuas, a grassroots group that formed last year, has been registering Latino voters in Philadelphia, along with the ACLU and other community groups for months.

Boricua, which is nonpartisan, spends as much time trying to help prospective voters understand how to vote as helping them register, Graber said.

“In Puerto Rico, there’s super-high voter turnout. People come here, they want to vote,” she said. But lack of access to Spanish-language materials makes it challenging.

“I think they’ve relied entirely too much on a digital strategy, which doesn’t help people who are affected by the digital divide," she said of the Biden campaign. "There’s a need for in-person outreach, with Spanish speakers, which is why we’re out here doing it.”