New Mexico Gubernatorial Candidates Debate in Spanish

October 7, 2014 AT 10:45 AM

Political rivals for New Mexico governor faced off in a Spanish debate Monday, a rare event that nonetheless marked an emerging trend as Republicans and Democrats around the U.S. court Hispanic voters.

The debate and others like it acknowledge the ability of the growing and increasingly independent voting bloc to swing an election.

Spanish forums have been held recently in California and Texas, and Florida has one scheduled Friday. Other notable Spanish debates include a 2010 event in California and a 2007 Democratic presidential forum.

Most candidates, including New Mexico Democrat Gary King, use translators. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, however, answered in Spanish.

The forum, sponsored by KLUZ-TV Univision Nuevo Mexico, covered topics including the economy, education and a state law that allows immigrants in the country illegally to have a driver’s license.

“It’s not a problem of immigration. It’s a problem of security,” Martinez said in Spanish.

King disagreed with the governor’s desire to repeal the law. “I’m concerned about making two classes of citizens” if the program is dropped, he said in English.

About 47 percent of New Mexico’s population is Hispanic, and the state’s bilingual culture runs so deeply that some government agencies begin meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance in English and Spanish.

The debate provided Martinez “an opportunity to connect and appear comfortable,” said Matt Barreto, co-founder of a nonpartisan Latino political research firm and University of Washington political science professor.

Martinez, the nation’s first Hispanic woman elected governor, often takes positions that align with national Republicans, which can put her at odds with Hispanic voters, the majority of whom are Democrats.

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