LAS VEGAS — Nevada state Assemblyman Ruben Kihuen, clad in a brand-new royal blue jersey with matching shorts, stepped onto a neighborhood soccer field here Thursday evening and launched a new front in the battle for the political loyalties of this city's rapidly growing Latino community.
Meet Los Democratas.
Sponsored by the Nevada Democratic Party and co-captained by Kihuen -- a 27-year-old former standout youth player who once harbored professional ambitions -- Los Democratas includes some of the top amateur soccer players in Las Vegas. The plan: to dominate the Azteca soccer league, the elite division of the city's 10,000-player Ligas Unidas.
But the real goal is to market, and party officials here are hoping Latino soccer fans will forge a connection not only with a soccer team but with a political agenda.
It's a rapidly expanding pool of potential voters. An influx of Latinos over the last 15 years has helped make Las Vegas one of the fastest-growing regions in the country; they account for about 25% of the state's residents. But for two key demographic reasons -- age and citizenship status -- Latinos account for 12.5% of Nevada's eligible voters, according to a Pew Hispanic Center analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau's 2005 American Community Survey.
Yet that percentage is significant: The state has only 137 more "active" Republican voters than Democratic voters, according to a March tally by the Nevada secretary of state's office. And with Latino voters registered at a rate that lags behind that of the electorate in general, state Democrats hope a soccer team flying the party colors will help the party make inroads -- particularly with new citizens and people just reaching voting age.
"We want the community to hear the name of the party," said Andres Ramirez, the Democrats' state outreach director. "It's branding. We want to brand the party name."
Success on the field -- and developing a reputation for fair and competitive play -- could help bolster the party's image among Latino fans, said Marie Lena Tupot, research director for ScenarioDNA Inc., a New York firm that specializes in branding.
"It's not whether they win or lose. The Democrats have more to prove in showing how they care about the sport and ultimately the community," she said. "It's an opportunity for them to take a leadership role. Sports are unpredictable. The Democrats need to demonstrate how they can ride its unpredictable nature."
As Los Democratas took the field Thursday against Los Escorpiones, party activists and workers from nearly all the Democratic presidential campaigns meandered through the crowd of more than 200 people. They handed out registration forms and campaign fliers to eligible voters, and bilingual sheets directing noncitizens to the nonprofit Citizenship Project.
Maria Elena Mendoza, who works for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's presidential campaign, said she found the fans receptive and willing to listen -- something that might have more to do with heightened interest in politics generally, with the war in Iraq, immigration and healthcare issues.
"I feel it's very different than other elections," Mendoza said, but she added that she and other organizers still had to overcome what she described as a tradition of political distance. "Hispanic people are more involved in their families" than in politics, she said.
At the corner of the field, Pedro Martinez, 18, sat with two younger friends, their backs to a chain-link fence and a taco wagon in the parking lot. A bruise of a thunderhead flashed ominously over the mountains to the west. A party volunteer approached the trio, gave his pitch about registering to vote and offered a flier. One of the teens asked for one in English.
"I only have Spanish right now," the volunteer said, then added, as if by explanation: "It's a soccer game, dude."
Martinez took a flier more out of politeness than curiosity -- demonstrating the hurdles political organizers face. Martinez's brother plays for Los Democratas, yet Martinez remains uninterested in politics. And he was skeptical that a name on a jersey and a flier in the hand would lead many young Latinos to register. "It's just a name," he said. "And this is just soccer."
But movements aren't necessarily built in major steps. Give it time, said Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics, a Las Vegas advocacy group.
"Initially, perhaps, the Democratas are going to be viewed as just another team. But eventually the message of why it was formed and what it's about will filter through," Romero said. "It's not going to be an overnight thing. But it shows that there's an outreach effort."
And any innovation can only be good, he said.