Democracy as trench warfare that's Antonio Gonzalez's trade. He leads the nation's oldest and largest nonpartisan Latino political machine the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP) and its policy arm, the William C. Velasquez Institute. His is gritty, unglamorous work mounting sign-up booths at bodegas, analyzing census tracts, training school-board candidates. But the results have been spectacular. When veteran community organizer Gonzalez, 48, took over the group in 1994, only 5 million Hispanics were registered nationwide. Today there are 9.3 million. In the last presidential election, 81.5% of them cast ballots, compared with 88.5% of all voters.
The Los Angeles based Gonzalez, whose Mexican immigrant father loaded trucks at a Coca-Cola plant in Orange, Calif., raises his $4 million annual budget from foundations and corporations, including State Farm and nbc's Telemundo Communications. SVREP ran about 300 voter-registration and -turnout campaigns in 14 states last year, with more than 700 paid staff and 10,000 volunteers. If Republicans complain that his registrants vote mostly Democratic, Gonzalez points to Florida, where an ambitious SVREP effort fueled a high G.O.P. turnout among Latinos in the 2004 presidential race. "Chipping away, pushing, prodding we've created a new culture of participation," he says. "Before, we had no [Latino] Senators, Governors, assembly speakers or big-city mayors. Now we do." The next challenge? "Our voters want to know, 'How do we fix our schools, our parks, our health care, our jobs?' We have to come up with solutions to raise our people from the bottom of the ladder." Apropos, Gonzalez was influential in turning out California voters to approve more than $30 billion in new school bonds since 2002, and he's revving up for a statewide pre-K initiative.