Why Democrats’ climate goals can test their Latin appeal

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BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) – At a recent house party near the US-Mexico border, the conversation with Democratic congressional candidate Rochelle Garza shifted from schools and taxes to immigration and efforts to convert an old railway line in a hiking trail.

One thing that didn’t come to light this Friday night about Domino’s Corona beers and flatbed pizza: The Democrats’ effort in Washington to use a massive federal spending program to fight climate change.

“It’s not that the district is more moderate or moderately more conservative,” said Garza, 36, an immigration lawyer running for the House seat held by retired centrist Democrat Filemon Vela. “Speaking of how you’re going to have a meaningful impact on families and make families and communities healthier, I think it means a lot more to people than some of these burning issues. “

Democrats nationwide are poised to go further than ever on the environment as part of the massive spending program they are trying to push through Congress. President Joe Biden has traveled the country sounding the alarm, blaming a warming planet for the devastation caused by California ravaged by forest fires To New York devastated by hurricanes and warning of a “red code for humanity”.

But this focus could create political problems in energy-rich regions. This includes South Texas, where many Latino voters turned on Democrats in last year’s presidential election and winning them back could prove critical to the party’s hopes of retaining control of Congress during the mid-term of 2022.

“They really make it easier for us,” said Mayra Flores, a 35-year-old respiratory care practitioner and organizer of Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign. Flores is also running for Vela’s seat and argues Democrats are forcing the Texans to choose from. between their jobs in the energy sector and the fight against climate change.

Trump won 38% of the Latino national vote last year, 10 percentage points more than in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. Some of his most dramatic gains have come in heavily Hispanic regions that produce large amounts of oil and gas, including the district that Garza and Flores want to represent.

It stretches from Brownsville, where there are proposals to build liquefied natural gas terminals for export, more than 240 kilometers north to sparsely populated parts of the Eagle Ford Shale dependent on hydraulic fracturing.

Last year, Biden won Cameron County, which encompasses Brownsville and is roughly 90% Hispanic. But Trump’s voting margin there increased by 20 percentage points from 2016. Further north, Trump toppled the oil and gas-producing, but still heavily Hispanic, counties of Jim Wells and Kleberg.

“We are very dependent on oil and gas. This is the reason why you saw these numbers, ”said Flores, who was born in Mexico, arrived in the United States at the age of 6 and picked cotton every summer after the age of 12. years. ”That’s what people do. This is where they work.

Biden signed an executive order ending new federal oil and gas leases, although he was blocked by a court decision this summer.

Spending package debated in Congress seeks to push efforts to fight climate change in overdrive, however. It includes language on instituting high fees for polluters and tax incentives for clean energy and electric cars, while introducing new requirements that make the country’s electricity grid more dependent on renewable energy sources.

Rolando Lozano, a 62-year-old manager at an electricity company, was one of more than 200 people who recently filled a community center in the border town of Harlingen, west of Brownsville, to see Flores and d ‘other Latino Republican candidates. He said Democrats have moved so far to the left that “it sounds anti-American.”

“It’s almost glaring on the faces of the citizens,” Lozano said. “You can call it by any other name, but basically it sounds wrong.”

This feeling is far from universal among Hispanics, however. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll in September found that 58% of Hispanics say they approve of Biden’s handling of climate change, while 38% disapprove of it.

Amanda Davé, community public health campaign project manager in Brownsville, grew up in Houston, where her father worked in the oil and gas industry. But she thinks that protecting the environment is more important than appeasing energy interests.

“They are trying to get this message across, ‘We bring jobs. We bring jobs. We bring jobs. But a lot of people now see it as, they’re trying to exploit our natural resources, ”said Davé, 35, who attended the party at Garza’s house. “I think there’s an awareness growing around how to protect what’s here. What makes it special.

Yet Gabriel Sanchez, executive director of the Center for Social Policy at the University of New Mexico, said threats from climate change are traditionally more pressing concerns among Latinos than the general population – unless they are. are presented in terms of job losses. He said that in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and other power-producing states, “you’ve had stress for a while.”

“Latinos are extremely aware of climate change and support almost all progressive policies that exist to curb it,” Sanchez said. “But you juxtapose that with a potential loss of jobs, that’s when you start to see a much more even distribution of attitudes.”

Potential conflicts between energy-related jobs and environmental changes could also affect the adjacent House neighborhood, where Democratic Vicente Gonzalez – who founded the House Oil and Gas Caucus and urged the Biden administration not to go too far to the left on environmental issues – was re-elected by less than 3 percentage points in 2020. Fast-growing Texas wins two new seats in Congress after the 2020 census, and the Republican-controlled legislature has proposed redistribution maps that make Gonzalez’s territory redder.

The same tension has already helped decide a House seat that rocked Republican last year. In New Mexico, Republican Yvette Herrell defeated outgoing Democrat Xochitl Torres Small in a traditionally conservative party district which is approximately 55% Hispanic and includes part of the petroleum-rich Permian Basin.

During the last presidential debate last year, Biden vowed to “transition” the country away from fossil fuels. Torres Small replied that it was wrong to “demonize” the energy industry and denounced the idea of ​​banning hydraulic fracturing, but still lost.

Flores says that commentary on Biden’s debate still reverberates in South Texas as well.

“I see this rise of the Republican Party,” said Flores, who campaigns under the slogan “Make America Godly Again”. “People are going to vote to get their jobs back. “

Garza believes efforts to tackle climate change can create well-paying jobs, noting that the district has already added wind farms and could take advantage of more opportunities in solar power.

“These are natural resources that we can easily take advantage of to create jobs,” Garza said. In the midst of the previous Trump administration immigration crackdown, she approached groups of immigrants waiting on bridges between Mexico and the United States and gave presentations on the rights of asylum seekers.

“I think it’s about focusing on the opportunities that we have,” Garza said of the National Democrats’ environmental push. “Republicans love to preach death. “

Daniel Canales, 33, who is in between jobs but attended the Harlingen Tories event, said he and others were not opposed to new, more environmentally friendly jobs, but often had struggling with the Democrats’ ideological message.

“The problem is, Democrats seem too urban. They are too fixated on the issues where they live, ”Canales said. “It doesn’t mean much here. “

Will Weissert, The Associated Press



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