Defeat Bush movement spurs mass voter sign-up

Leaders of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance had a busy day planned for Aug. 21. After winding up their national board meeting in Las Vegas, half of the 40 board members were going to work a voter registration table in the city’s busy Chinatown Plaza. The other 20 were set to staff a voter registration booth amidst hula dancing and lei making at the grand opening of L&L Hawaiian Barbecue. But before that, they were to start the day along with a couple hundred other labor and community voter activists at an 8:30 a.m. rally at the AFL-CIO hall. The aim, said APALA board member Rozita Lee, was to rev folks up and give them the information they need to get out the vote in Nevada. These Las Vegas events are part of thousands of voter registration, education, mobilization and “vote protection” activities spreading like wildfire across America — in “red” states as well as “blue,” in tiny towns, leafy suburbs and gritty cities. They are evidence of, and seek to translate into votes, a smoldering grassroots rejection of the Bush administration. Harnessing the Internet along with old-fashioned shoe leather and a determined, no-business-as-usual army of experienced organizers, new groups like Voices for Working Families, America Coming Together, MoveOn.org, and Young Voter Alliance are working with organized labor, the NAACP, women’s organizations, environmental groups and a host of others under the umbrella “America Votes.” Rozita Lee is Nevada assistant state director for Voices for Working Families, which aims to involve the “millions of people of color, women and young people [who] are not registered to vote.” Voices is focusing on seven key states “to reach a million voters … to register, educate, mobilize and protect their right to vote at the polls … to raise a unified voice for social and economic justice.” “We go to grocery stores, malls, ethnic markets, festivals,” especially focusing on Hispanic, African American and Asian Pacific communities, Lee told the World from the Voices Las Vegas office. Through voter registration and information tables and phone calls, they have already reached more than 45,000 homes. Lee, a 25-year Las Vegas resident, was born in Hawaii to Filipino parents. There are at least 50,000 Hawaiians in Nevada today, she noted. Most have come in the last eight years, seeking jobs, a result of the downturn in Hawaii’s tourist-dependent economy. So Las Vegas Voices for Working Families is spending a lot of time at Hawaiian festivals and islander events. Lee is also president of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations, which includes some 300 groups. How does she do it all? At 69, she has 11 grandchildren and even a great-grandson. “I’m doing it because of them,” she said. “It’s for their future.” “What’s so nice is that we have about 20 young people working with us,” Lee said. The 16- and 17-year-olds knew very little about government when they got involved this spring. They will continue to work for Voices part-time in the fall when they return to school, informed and energized. “I’ve seen such growth and maturity,” Lee said. “It warms my heart.” Two thousand miles away in Miami, 18-year-old Leo Urena, from the Bronx, has spent the past month and a half working as a canvasser for Voices. “What I’m into is empowering people my age, people of my color, who are Hispanics and Blacks, to go out to vote,” he told the World. Urena’s home is the largely Black and Hispanic East Crotona Park neighborhood in the Bronx. “My community is being ignored completely.” For example, he said, “If you go to Manhattan the parks are a lot nicer. In my neighborhood the parks are ignored, there’s garbage on the ground.” It makes people feel bad about themselves, he said. But, he realized, it’s no surprise that officials “don’t care about us, because we’re not even voting.” So far, Urena has personally registered about 350 voters. “It feels great,” he said. In 2000, the Florida vote was decided by only 560 votes, he noted. “I’m halfway there,” he exclaimed. “I’ll probably get that number by myself.” When he goes back to school in September, he plans to “inform my high school peers to register and vote.” Asked what he’s learned from his summer experience, Urena responded, “That I can change the country. One ‘meaningless’ individual from the Bronx can change the country. It’s one vote at a time. So if I vote, it means something. If another person votes, that means something.” The author can be reached at suewebb@pww.org.