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Politics & Government

Conservative Libre Initiative Plans to Court Latino Vote in Milwaukee

Marti Mikkelson
A teacher quizzes students during citizenship class.

Milwaukee’s Latino voters may find themselves being courted next year. A national conservative-leaning group, The Libre Initiative, plans to open a field office in town.

Backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, the initiative is designed to sway Latino voters in battleground states.

The group won’t be the only one reaching out to Latinos here in 2016, but it will be the newcomer and a competitor.

About a dozen adults are sitting at a conference table at Voces de la Frontera on the near south side in the heart of Milwaukee’s Latino neighborhood. They’re here for their weekly citizenship class. The teacher stands at the front, quizzing the students on American government.

One student is Eloisa Chavez. She came to Milwaukee from Mexico 20 years ago. She says it’s been a lengthy process, but she’ll finally become a U.S. citizen in February, and one American tradition she’s looking forward to is voting.

“I want to vote for president and I want to participate in everything here in the United States,” Chavez says.

Chavez says she’ll probably lean Democrat in 2016, and the number one issue on her mind is immigration. Ignacio Silva says he hasn’t yet decided whom he’ll vote for, but it will be the first time he gets to cast a ballot for president. Silva came to Milwaukee from Mexico 40 years ago and became a citizen in 2013. One issue he’s interested in is equality in the workplace.

“I want to see changes. I see that there’s a lot of discrimination and I see it at work all the time,” Silva says.

Silva and the others here tonight might get a call in coming weeks from the Libre Initiative, or find a representative knocking on the door. Spokeswoman Rachel Campos-Duffy says it plans an aggressive voter education campaign in Milwaukee because of the city’s large Latino population.

“We are a very important demographic, we’re growing, we are the new face of America and we very much understand that. Our field director, our CEO, our chief of staff, we’re all Hispanic so we have a love for our community,” Campos-Duffy says.

Campos-Duffy notes Milwaukee’s Latino neighborhoods are peppered with small businesses, and that’s one demographic her organization plans to court with its free-market ideology.

“This is a very entrepreneurial culture that very much wants to be in control of their destiny and we think that limited government, less regulation on small businesses, more opportunity and issues like school choice. These are issues that affect their ability to create their own American dream,” Campos-Duffy says.

“There’s one word to describe Libre and that word is malinche. In Spanish, that means a traitor to your people and that’s exactly what Libre is.”

That’s Christine Neumann-Ortiz, head of the activist group Voces de la Frontera. The left-leaning organization has been holding voter registration drives and educating Latino residents in Milwaukee since 2004. Neumann-Ortiz says she resents Libre’s impending presence in the city.

“They are backed by billionaires, this is not a grass roots effort and they are using that money to try to deceive Latino voters. The vast majority of Latinos support issues that will benefit working families and they support a strong commitment to immigrant rights and an end to deportations and criminalization of immigrants. That is not what Libre stands for and we have a deep commitment to exposing them,” Neumann-Ortiz says.

Neumann-Ortiz predicts a bitter fight for the Latino vote in Milwaukee, and says her group plans to double down on its efforts. She says those include voter registration drives and marches. The Libre Initiative hints at community gatherings of its own.