By Maria Saporta
The growing economic and political clout of Georgia’s Latino population was on full display Thursday morning at the legislative breakfast of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
The breakfast was kicked off with welcoming remarks from Gov. Nathan Deal, who restated his financial commitment to education — a relatively safe topic for a governor running for re-election.
Other speakers at the breakfast included Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston and Cassius Butts, the regional administrator for the Small Business Administration.
The timing for Butts was particularly fortuitous. On Wednesday, President Barrack Obama nominated California banker Maria Contreras-Sweet to head up the U.S. Small Business Administration. Contreras-Sweet is a Mexican immigrant who founded a bilingual community bank to help fund small businesses in Latino neighborhoods.
Butts reached out to members of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce by saying the SBA stands ready to help them start, grow and strengthen their small businesses.
Tisha Tallman, president and CEO of the GHCC, said the state’s Hispanic population contributes about $17 billion to Georgia’s economy every year. Nationally, the Hispanic buying power totals $1.5 trillion dollars, she added.
Gabe Vaca, GHCC’s board chair who also is a director of enterprise account sales in the area of international services and the high tech sector, said there are more than 250 Hispanic chambers of commerce in the nation, but he said the Georgia Chamber was one of the strongest.
Although Deal and Ralston did not talk about immigration reform, Reed took the issue head on. The Atlanta mayor said there are 500,000 people of Hispanic descent living in Georgia, and they are vital to the state’s economy and to Atlanta’s economy.
That’s why Atlanta joined the “Welcome Cities” program — declaring itself to be an “immigrant friendly” community offering opportunities to all its citizens.
“Opportunity is in the DNA of the City of Atlanta,” Reed said. “I look forward to being part of the state in a changing tide. I’m not one who believes in immigrant bashing.”
He then quoted former President Bill Clinton as saying: “Folks who choose cooperation over conflict win all the time.”
Ralston grumbled about having to follow Reed, but then he spoke of his friendship with the Atlanta mayor. When he became House Speaker, Ralston said he knew “we needed to grow up and act like adults.”
Unlike the U.S. Congress in Washington, Ralston said: “We solve problems at the Gold Dome.” He credited some of the cooperation at the state house to the fact that there’s only one anteroom that is shared by Democrats and Republicans where donuts and beverages are served. In Washington, D.C., there are two anterooms, which reduces the opportunities for both parties to work together.
“I don’t know how it is where you come from,” Ralston said. “But where I come from in North Georgia, there is no difference between a Democratic donut and a Republican donut.”