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LIBRE Initiative plays long game to bring Latinos to the political right

Gerardo Lora (left) and Niko Goldstein knock on doors in south Charlotte for the LIBRE Initiative earlier this month.
Steve Harrison
Gerardo Lora (left) and Niko Goldstein knock on doors in south Charlotte for the LIBRA Initiative earlier this month.

One Friday afternoon this month, about a dozen volunteers and staff of the LIBRE Initiative met in a University City office.

They were going door-knocking the next day, and Cecilia Navas was giving them their assignments: Kannapolis, Ballantyne and central Charlotte.

The next day, two paid staffers drove their red Jeep through Blakeney in south Charlotte, going door-to-door, using a cellphone app that shows them where Latino voters live.

One was Niko Goldstein, whose mom is from Ecuador and whose father is from Israel. The other was Gerardo Lora, a U.S. military retiree who is originally from the Dominican Republic.

It was hard work in heat well past 90 degrees. Most people weren’t home. Some didn’t want to talk.

Finally, there was a win: an elderly man in a townhome, with a Virgin Mary statue in his garden.

Goldstein — reading from his phone — asked the man in Spanish his biggest concern: education, inflation or health care.

Goldstein was surprised it wasn’t health care, given that the main is retired.

“His was inflation,” he said. “But that’s very common. Everyone is dying to get their opinion on what inflation is impacting them.”

Depending on the response, the cell phone app produces a new question.

“So the next question is if he supports increasing taxes or government spending to try to fix the economy even if it causes inflation,” Goldstein said. “And then the prompt asks him about health care questions, asking him who he thinks should have the most say in the type of health care he gets — his family or the government?”

The questions don’t mention Biden or Trump. They do not encourage someone to vote one way or another, and — in these questions at least — they don’t even talk about the election.

Libre Initiative staff members met in University City office building.
Steve Harrison/WFAE
LIBRE Initiative staff members met in an office building in University City.

Playing the ultimate long game

What the LIBRE Initiative is doing is trying to identify Latinos who are predisposed to center-right political ideas — and to get them engaged with meet-ups and seminars.

In North Carolina, 10% of the population identifies as Latino.

Only 4% of registered voters are Hispanic. In recent elections, they usually make up about 2% of the voting pool.

(It’s likely there are more Latinos voting. An increasing number of people registering to vote aren’t picking a political party or listing their race or ethnicity.)

The hope is that as Latinos increasingly flex their political muscle, they turn out to be a conservative bloc, not part of the Democratic coalition like strategists often assume they will be.

It’s the ultimate long game.

Jeffrey Baldwin, strategic director for the LIBRE Initiative in North Carolina, immigrated to the United States from Guatemala when he was 14. He said LIBRE Initiative is looking for Latinos who can come to events focused on issues like the economy.

“This year and even last year the top priority we heard about is the economy,” he said. “That’s what more people are concerned about. The increase in prices of groceries and gas and that’s what we are doing several events across the state about, about the economy and Bidenomics.”

The LIBRE Initiative was started in 2011, with backing from the conservative benefactors Charles Koch and his late brother David Koch. It's affiliated with the Koch group Americans for Prosperity, and the two share a small office in University City.

In the past, LIBRE Initiative opposed Obamacare. It’s critical of Biden’s economic policies.

The group supports school choice and making some immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally citizens. It’s against proposals to end birthright citizenship.

Six years ago, Democrat and Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto criticized LIBRE Initiative in a speech on the Senate floor.

“What the Koch brothers and their web of dark money organizations like Libre are doing is deceiving Latinos in supporting the very same politicians who are working against Latino families,” she said.

Stances on immigration issues

In its door-knocking, LIBRE Initiative didn’t ask about immigration — but it’s a big issue.

This year, former president Trump has not only called for more border security, but also to round up and deport 15-20 million people he says are in the country illegally.

In an interview, Baldwin was asked whether that idea, opposed by some Republicans, makes him uncomfortable.

“Personally I think we need to find out who is in our country and to make sure we don’t have anyone who is trying to do us harm,” Baldwin said. “What I think should happen is to try and implement policies that try to become law. Because I think that’s the problem — it’s either too far on one side, or too far on the other, instead of listening to the people.”

Despite that rhetoric from Trump, polls show the ex-president has more support among Latino voters than he had in 2020 when exit polls showed Biden getting 66% of their vote.

In North Carolina, the Biden campaign said it’s “knocking on doors and investing earlier than ever, including in Latino communities, to meet voters where they are, communicate what's at stake in this election and highlight the stark contrast between President Biden’s work to support our community with Trump’s attacks on our families.”

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.