Local demographics geeks surely took note of this recently released U.S. Census Bureau statistic: From 2000 to 2010, Davidson County’s Hispanic population increased approximately 134 percent.
Whether that boom results in a corresponding rise in local Latino political clout as the Aug. 4 election for Metro Council approaches is a source of debate that is likely to stretch well beyond Election Day.
Those who follow local politics say many of the county’s approximately 61,000 Latinos — up from 26,000 in 2000 — are either not eligible to vote or eligible but not registered. In contrast, these same people stress that 61,000 represents 9.7 percent of Davidson County’s roughly 626,000 residents, yielding both a general constituency base — particularly for those people running as at-large candidates — and a future voting bloc that cannot be ignored.
Mike Pigott, a veteran follower of Metro politics and founding partner of Nashville-based PR firm McNeely, Pigott & Fox, said that despite the strong Hispanic population growth, “the percentage of that population that are eligible voting citizens is still fairly small.”
“That said, the candidates are taking [the views of Latinos] seriously because the days when they are voting citizens is right around the corner,” Pigott said.
No doubt, the days when Hispanics offer respectable numbers within many of the county’s 35 Metro Council districts are already here. For the 2007 election, Davidson County had six council districts with Hispanic populations of 8 percent or higher. In contrast, and depending on whether the Metro Council approves a proposed new district map, the 2011 election could see a Davidson County with 15 districts whose Hispanic populations are 8 percent or higher.
In 2007, Hispanics made up 14.8 percent of District 13, the highest concentration in a council district. With the proposed map, eight districts offer Hispanic populations of more than 13 percent. The most significant number is 40 percent for District 30.
The numbers alone are impressive, regardless of who votes on Aug. 4. But they’re not necessarily an accurate gauge for how local Latinos might vote or influence their council representatives.
John Lamb, editor of the website Hispanic Nashville, said the United States, now home to more than 50 million Hispanics, has had a critical mass of Latinos for some time.
“I think only recently has that expectation or anticipation [of Hispanic political participation and clout] played out in reality in certain pockets of the nation,” Lamb said. “You could say it played out in the 2008 presidential election and in specific 2010 elections.
“But until 2008, people were saying it was coming, and the perception was that it fizzled,” Lamb said. “If you use that as a guide, it’s hard to judge if we’re just starting the conversation in Nashville.”
Yuri Cunza, president of the Nashville Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said that conversation is under way.
“The goal of the chamber is to raise awareness about the importance of voting,” Cunza said. “That’s how we will have a solid presence and influence on the affairs of [Metro government].”
Cunza, who said he won’t pursue a council seat despite continuing to draw attention, doesn’t know the percentage of Davidson County Hispanics who are eligible to vote and actually registered. Some sources say the number is no more than 5 percent. For example, in 2008, just 1.4 percent of Tennessee voters (34,000 people) were Hispanic, despite the state being more than 4 percent Latino at that time, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Still, the chamber leader said many of Davidson County’s Hispanics “are excited about playing a more prominent role in local politics.”
Only one Hispanic to date, Fabian Bedne, is running for a Metro Council seat. But Cunza said that when assessing future local Latino influence, one must look beyond voters.
There are about 1,500 Davidson County-based businesses registered to and owned by Hispanics. Cunza said he is not aware of figures from 2000, but added that number likely was much smaller then. Many of the current businesses involve accounting, law and marketing, industries in which owners tend to be
politically active and influential.
“There has been exponential growth that is clearly visible,” he said.
Hispanic Nashville’s Lamb said it’s almost impossible to predict how Hispanic voters might influence elections in the near future.
“I don’t know that anybody is assuming that there is going to be a new voting bloc,” Lamb said. “But again, looking back to the 2008 election, there was a concerted effort to register Davidson County voters who weren’t previously active and engaged.”
The Davidson County Election Commission does not keep track of the ethnicity of registered voters. And Pigott said one would need to “dig into the census numbers” to determine what percentage are citizens and voting age.
Clearly, the ramifications of Hispanic growth go beyond Davidson County.
The 2010 census shows that Tennessee is home to about 6.35 million people, with 290,000 Hispanics representing 4.6 percent of the total population.
Middle Tennessee has five of the state’s 10 counties most populated by Hispanics: Davidson, Montgomery, Rutherford, Sumner and Williamson.
The state’s overall population boom among Latinos mirrors Nashville’s at about 134 percent.
“Anybody who has political aspirations or is already in office is starting to take the numbers seriously,” Pigott said. “You need to have a dialogue today.”