Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Talking to Teddy in 2008

The only time I ever met Sen. Ted Kennedy was last year when he came to Santa Fe Community College in late January to campaign for Barack Obama in the New Mexico Democratic Caucus. After a speech we sat down for a brief talk -- mainly about old-time New Mexico poltiicos.

I couldn't find it on the New Mexican's Web site, so I dug and it to post here.

R.I.P. Teddy.

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
February 1, 2008

About 300 people crammed into the Jemez Room at Santa Fe Community College on Thursday to hear U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy give a rousing speech on behalf of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, who is competing in next week's Democratic presidential caucus.

Kennedy's talk frequently was interrupted by applause, several standing ovations and, at one point, a hearty shout of "Viva Kennedy" from former Lt. Gov. Roberto Mondragon.

Immediately before his speech, as he walked into the room, Kennedy, D-Mass., immediately recognized former Gov. Jerry Apodaca, who was sitting in the front row. "Jerry, how are you?" he said as he went to shake his hand. Earlier this week, Apodaca said he had decided to support Obama only after seeing Kennedy's endorsement.

Obama supporters hope there are a lot more people like Apodaca in a state in which many see the Hispanic vote leaning toward Sen. Hillary Clinton. They hope shouts of "Viva Kennedy" turn into shouts of "Viva Obama."

Ever since the days when Kennedy's brother John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president, the family has been revered in many parts of the state, especially among Hispanics of Northern New Mexico.

Kennedy, interviewed after the speech, said he has fond memories of campaigning in New Mexico during the past several decades. He talked about an afternoon campaign event at La Fonda for former New Mexico U.S. Sen. Clinton P. Anderson in the mid-1960s. He also talked about another campaign trip when he came across former New Mexico

U.S. Sen. Dennis Chavez playing cards with a group of friends in some little house in some Northern New Mexico community.

"Here's this man who I'd just seen speaking on the floor of the Senate just as comfortable playing cards in this little house, " he said.

But with a few exceptions like Apodaca and Mondragon, it appears the old guard Hispanic Democratic establishment is backing Clinton.

Clinton carried the Hispanic vote in the recent Nevada caucus by a 2-to-1 ratio.

In his Santa Fe speech, Kennedy openly appealed to Hispanic voters. He noted 70,000 Hispanic military members have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In an interview after the speech, he spoke of the immigration issue, saying that during the national immigrant protests of 2006, the only U.S. senators to attend were Obama and himself. "That was a courageous decision for Barack, " he said. "Just like it was a courageous decision for him to speak out against the Iraq war from the beginning."

Undocumented immigrants, he said, have qualities Americans admire -- hard work and devotion to family. But he said the immigration debate in the Senate last year "bordered on racism."

Asked about Clinton's seeming to have more Hispanic support, Kennedy said in Obama's home state of Illinois, he won 75 percent of the Hispanic vote. "When people get to know him, they trust and support him, " he said.

But he admitted in the New Mexico contest -- which in reality got under way just this month, after Gov. Bill Richardson dropped out of the race -- voters haven't had a lot of time to get to know Obama before Tuesday's caucus.

Kennedy said he had not been in contact with New Mexico Hispanic leaders on Obama's behalf.

When told former Rio Arriba political boss Emilio Naranjo -- a longtime Kennedy supporter -- is backing Clinton for president, Kennedy grinned. "In 1960, when I was here campaigning for my brother (John F. Kennedy), Emilio was backing Lyndon Johnson. But I've been back time and time again, and Emilio always treats me well."

Earlier in the day, Kennedy spoke at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

Although there have been no public polls of New Mexico Democrats in recent months, Lonna Atkeson, a University of New Mexico political science professor, said Wednesday that it makes sense that Hispanics would tend to support Clinton rather than Obama.

She said a study she did of 2004 Democratic caucus-goers in the state showed Hispanics tended to identify themselves more as party members and tended to be more conservative than non-Hispanic caucus-goers.

"Hillary Clinton early on was identified as the favorite of the party establishment, " Atkeson said. "And she's seen as more conservative than Obama. So it makes sense that Hispanics would tend to support her."

Former state Sen. Fabian Chavez of Santa Fe is a longtime Kennedy admirer, but he's supporting Clinton. He said Wednesday that he believes Clinton has the best experience for the job.

But there's another reason older Hispanics might be backing Clinton more than Obama.

"It's his youth, " said Chavez, 83. He said he was talking with a friend at the Capitol on Thursday about the presidential race. "He said, 'I like Obama, but when I see his picture, I see a kid.' "