There’s no doubt that political eyes are on the Latino voter, and if New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is right, the country will go the way of Florida, Colorado, New Mexico–all states where the Latino populations could swing a win for Barack Obama. Richardson gave a chuckle-filled speech during this afternoon’s luncheon celebrating former Denver mayor, and national co-chair of the Obama campaign, Federico PeÃ±a, hosted by the Latino Leaders’ Network. It was an impressive spectacle of national and local elected officials, community leaders, labor leaders, and, yes, Eva Longoria.
Longoria was not among the event’s speakers, but her home state of Texas was well represented by many, including PeÃ±a himself, who is a native of Brownsville. PeÃ±a, who was tapped as both Transportation Secretary and Energy Secretary during the respective Clinton administrations, seemed genuinely moved by the Latino Leaders’ honor, saying that of all the awards he’s claimed over the years, this one means the most to him. Current Mayor John Hickenlooper, looking quite a bit more relaxed than he has at other DNC events thus far, kicked off the gig by recognizing that a new generation of Denver began in 1983, the year PeÃ±a won the mayoral post, which he held until 1991. Texas Senator Leticia Van de Putte defied the host organization’s nonpartisan/bipartisan label in order to plug the message of “unity”–that is, to plea with lingering Hillary Clinton supporters to now ally themselves with Barack Obama. An overwhelming majority of polls in recent weeks have shown that the Latino vote has not hesitated to make the swap. As an added boost, the former Clinton-cabinet power trio of PeÃ±a, Richardson, and former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros (also in attendance) have thrown their collective heft behind Obama. Locally, Denver City Councilman Paul Lopez, a former community organizer himself, used his vacation time to travel as far as Puerto Rico to campaign for Obama. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa gave an unsurprisingly energetic tribute to PeÃ±a, and Richardson followed, relaying an anecdote that also appears in his book “Between Two Worlds.” According to the New Mexico governor, during the second Clinton administration the president fingered PeÃ±a for the Energy Secretary position but was having trouble tracking him down to ask. So Clinton called PeÃ±a’s pal Richardson to inquire about PeÃ±a’s whereabouts. Richardson claims PeÃ±a was hiding in a bathroom in the Dallas airport, trying to escape a post in the “snake pit.” PeÃ±a claims Richardson embellishes the story. Colorado Senator Ken Salazar followed Richardson by introducing PeÃ±a, but if Salazar’s preface was a bit lackluster compared to his heavy-hitting peers, his message–that PeÃ±a definitively changed the landscape for Latino politicians in Colorado–put a spotlight on how high Latinos have risen over the years, including Salazar’s own dubious climb to U.S. Senate. Back in 1983, PeÃ±a’s slogan was “Imagine a Great City.” That city has been realized and today is challenged with imagining a New West in which Latinos, Senator Salazar important among them, will take on considerable political influence and responsibility.