Sotomayor and the Evolution of Latino Politics

From the moment of her nomination in May, it was clear that, barring some unforeseen scandal, Sonia Sotomayor would be confirmed to the Supreme Court. It was equally clear that her nomination would take on huge symbolic significance. She was portrayed as someone who embodies the values of grit, faith, family, and friendship, and as a living example of the power of the American dream. For Latinos, in particular, she was a sign of long-awaited change. "To have her ascend to the highest court in the land, it is such a strong feeling of belonging," says Lillian Rodríguez López, president of the Hispanic Federation. Sotomayor's nomination was "recognition of the contributions our communities…have made to the United States."

At the White House reception in Sotomayor's honor on Aug. 12, President Obama paid tribute to the power of her story. "This moment is not just about her," he said. "It's about every child who will grow up thinking to him- or herself, 'If Sonia Sotomayor can make it, then maybe I can, too.' " That line, which drew the most prolonged applause of Obama's short speech, provided a perfect setup for Sotomayor's own applause line: "It is this nation's faith in a more perfect union that allows a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx to stand here now."

To say Sotomayor's story is compelling is an understatement; every chapter is worthy of Hollywood. At her Senate confirmation hearings, she sat calmly through days of tendentious questions, refusing to let on that she was in excruciating pain due to an ill-fitting cast on her broken ankle. When she finally did let her feelings show, it was at her moment of triumph. After the Senate voted to confirm her, Sotomayor collapsed in tears into the arms of Theresa Bartenope, her longtime aide. Later, during a celebration at her home, surrounded by well-wishers, she beamed, announcing: "I have the best friends in the world. There is not anybody as blessed as me."

But there is also a story beyond Sotomayor, one that helps explain why her appointment elicited such excitement. That story has to do with the state of American politics and the role that Latinos play in it. Even before her nomination, various groups—including the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, chaired by New York Congresswoman Nydia M. Velázquez—approached influentials inside and outside the White House arguing that it was time to name a Hispanic to the court. And once Sotomayor was tapped, those same groups engaged in what was essentially a full-time effort to counter the inevitable criticisms that came her way. In the process, they forged a new coalition—not just among Latinos, but among African-Americans, Asians, and liberal whites—that aspires to become a new political force.

Indeed, some have suggested that senators who voted against confirming Sotomayor may soon feel the coalition's fury as Latinos and their allies mobilize to turn the lawmakers out of office. But that seems unlikely. Of the anti-Sotomayor senators expected to run for reelection in 2010, virtually none come from a state with a large Hispanic population. California has a massive Latino population, but no Republican senators, and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas isn't up for reelection until 2012. Who knows what issues will be in play at that point?

"It's quite clear the Republicans made a decision that it was…important for them to try to keep their base together, even if it meant losing Latino votes," says César Perales, president of –Latino Justice PRLDEF (an organization that once counted Sotomayor as a board member). The danger for Republicans is not in the short term, or even, necessarily, for the senators who voted against Sotomayor. It is in the impression left by one action after another signaling that those who aren't already part of the base need not apply. "The message they keep sending out is that they're not really interested in supporting our communities," says Karen Narasaki, executive director of the Asian American Justice Center. And eventually, says Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, "they're going to run out of their base to work with."

The future, of course, is unknowable. But we do know, in America, that the future will be more Latino. We also know that, even before the Sotomayor dust-up, Republicans had alienated many Latinos—largely because of concerns with Republican policies, particularly on immigration. A survey by the Pew Hispanic Center last year found 65 percent of registered Latino voters leaning toward the Democrats and only 26 percent to the Republicans; it was the largest partisan gap reported in the past 10 years. The attacks on Sotomayor will likely drive even more Latinos from the party. That's a risky strategy for a party with a demographically shrinking base facing a newly energized coalition. For though it may pay off today, it could easily spell disaster tomorrow.