First presidential debate didn't move NCR panel of Latino Catholics

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Sept. 27 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. (CNS/Joe Raedle pool via Reuters)
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Sept. 27 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. (CNS/Joe Raedle pool via Reuters)

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A panel of Latino Catholics NCR polled to assess the first presidential debate of the 2016 election season were largely unmoved by Monday night's event. One even found it rather boring, especially after the immense pre-event hype.

For those who already favored either Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton or Republican candidate Donald Trump, the 90-minute debate reinforced and confirmed their choice, and the undecideds expressed disappointment, as well as hope that the next debate would give them something to move them off center.

To assemble its panel, NCR contacted six individuals from different geographic regions, political leanings, ages and professions. The group, though, shared three common traits: All were Latino Catholics who plan to vote in the Nov. 8 election.

The six individuals -- three men and three women ranging in age from 36 to 82 -- watched the debate separately and then spoke with an NCR reporter afterward.

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"I don't know that I saw anything that I didn't expect," Catalina Velarde, 36, told NCR. "I wish Hillary Clinton had been more forceful in countering Donald Trump's accusations and called him out on his lies, but other than that that it is pretty much what I expected to see."

Velarde, an immigration lawyer from Overland Park, Kan., is a declared Clinton supporter.

"Trump won the debate," said Raul Gomez, 51, a construction executive in Birmingham, Ala., who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and plans to vote for Trump Nov. 8.


"Hillary has had much more experience as a politician and much more debating than Trump, so I'll give Trump the win. … Trump means what he says. I think he really wants to improve the country and he may not be able to articulate it the way a normal politician would, but I definitely think he and his message come across, so I give him the win," said Gomez, whose parents emigrated from Mexico.

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Raul Gomez

"I was really hoping for something completely different but what I heard tonight, I was disappointed," said 46-year-old Jesus Abrego from Beaumont, Texas. Abrego, who is director of Hispanic Ministry for the Beaumont diocese, is an undecided voter and, "unfortunately," he said, last night's debate didn't help him make a choice. "I'm really looking forward to the next debate because I haven't made up my mind. I didn't see anything really striking" on Monday night.

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Elba Iris Lozada, 64, of Queens, N.Y., voted for President Barack Obama and plans to vote for Clinton. She told NCR that the debate did not change her mind.

"I expected worse attacks. They were pretty civil with each other," said Lozada, a native Puerto Rican and a retired financial coordinator at a Manhattan ad firm. "I expected [Trump] to be more nasty," she said, adding she felt that in the personal barbs department Clinton prevailed by keeping her cool even when attacked.

Sally Ortega-Bravo, 60, of Phoenix, a Clinton supporter, gave the Democratic candidate the win. Trump "seemed to be angry, he was very [insulting]. I think he lacked a lot of respect."

She added, "I felt uneasy inside" by the facial expressions Trump made throughout the debate.

In contrast, "Clinton was well-prepared," said the parent and family liaison with Loyola Academy, a middle school program attached to Jesuit-run Brophy College Preparatory High School. "I felt like her answers proved that she had the knowledge and experience to be our president. I felt that she was in control of the debate."

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Catalina Velarde and Sally Ortega-Bravo

But undecided voter and retired chaplain John W. Hitchman, 82, of Garden City, Idaho, declared the debate a tie. Both candidates were prepared, but he said it was "a 50-50 outcome."

Asked if the debate had helped him decide between candidates, Hitchman was succinct: "Not at all. I will wait for the next debate."

NCR asked each panel member to name three issues that caused them most concern. All six cited economic issues, with job creation a high priority. Five of the panelists said immigration reform was an important issue and four said race relations need the candidates' attention, two specifically citing police brutality as part of this issue. Also mentioned as key issues were national security and the need to support families.

The panel had mixed feelings about how well the candidates addressed these issues, their satisfaction or dissatisfaction most often tracking with the candidate the interviewee favored.

Jobs -- top concern of panel

Lozada said both candidates were strong on the need to promote American jobs. She liked Clinton's proposals, but felt Trump suffers credibility issues on this topic. "Wasn't he the one who has all his company's clothes made in Mexico?" she asked.

Ortega-Bravo also has doubts about Trump running for president on his business acumen. "The fact of not paying his workers, and he responded by, what did he say, 'That's business'? … That's not business. That's him not paying so that there's more change in his pockets."

Abrego said he was also glad to see both candidates focus on job creation. "We need to do a better job of creating jobs and I think that everyone would agree with that." Good jobs are key to stable families, he said, but he didn't say which candidate's proposals were most convincing.

Gomez believes that Trump has a program that will stop companies from leaving the United States and likes his talk of renegotiating "trade agreements that have not really helped us."

He said the Trump team took "a long time" to get to the "why and what he would do to stop them from leaving," but they finally came up with a plan of lower corporate taxes and incentives to stay.

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Velarde said she was "very happy that [Clinton] talked about income inequality. Raising the minimum wage to a livable wage, making equal pay, those are very much issues that I like to hear."

She also said she was glad to see Clinton countering Trump's "trickle-down economics," and mentioning "several times that it has been consistently proven to be a failed economic policy."

Immigration reform

"I was surprised that there wasn't really more talk about immigration; obviously, it's a big issue because I think immigration has to be addressed as a country," said Trump supporter Gomez, whose parents came from Mexico. "There's too many people living in the shadows, which really bothers me more than them being undocumented."

"Obviously they're here to work because the demand is here for them to be employed; so we have to accept responsibility as a country that they're here because the demand for cheap labor exists, so let's accept it," he said.

Velarde, a Clinton supporter, had a similar response. "I wish immigration had been mentioned more." A first-generation immigrant herself, Velarde became a citizen her senior year of high school, she said. "I know it's personal to me. I don't know if some people would say it's important to the nation as a whole but I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on immigration reform and the refugee crisis around the world."

The undecided Abrego, a migrant from Mexico who became a citizen 10 years ago, said, "I haven't really seen any productive discussion on immigration reform from either party." He said Trump's talk of building a wall on the southern border and what he has said about Mexico isn't influencing his vote. "Every nation has the right to protect its borders. I believe our immigration system is broken and it needs to be fixed. How, I really don't know."

Lozada has some sympathy for candidate Trump's views that "many illegal immigrants use the system," for example, getting free health care at publicly financed hospitals. "Who do you choose to help? The people who are legally here?" she asked.

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Gomez acknowledged that Trump's talk about immigration is causing the candidate trouble in some quarters. "I was thinking Hillary was going to try to bring it up and reel him in, because I think most people would not agree with Trump in terms of rounding up 11 million people and deporting them.

"I think it's unreasonable and inhumane and I don't see that happening, but I do agree with building a wall and securing the border and then addressing the people that are here."

His advice to Trump: "Let's separate the good people who have been working from the people who have criminal records; let's take the criminals, deport them, but keep all the people that have been law-abiding individuals and give them work permits and let's allow them to stay and begin addressing that."

Race relations

Velarde sees Trump's immigration talk based in racism. "As somebody from Mexico and as an immigration attorney, to vote for somebody that pretty much launched his campaign calling Mexicans rapists and drug dealers, that was pretty clear that I would never be a Donald Trump supporter. And nothing he has said has ever swayed me to his direction in any sense."

"I think [racism] is probably too big of a topic to tackle in a two-minute bite," she said, "but I feel that [Clinton] sees the bigger picture of it and actually wants to try and find a solution."

Ortega-Bravo, too, took exception to Trump's statements on race: "On race relations, I felt that he was very disrespectful."

She continued: "When he spoke of law and order, he shows no respect for the process: paying his taxes, even on the treaties we have. He has no idea how the legal system works, and that I know because when he stated about the stop-and-frisk, for example, it's a type of social profiling."

Trump's talk of "stop-and-frisk" as remedy for urban violence did not set well with Ortega-Bravo. "I find it very similar to the SB 1070, which failed here in Arizona," she said, referring to a controversial 2010 law that required police officers to stop, detain or arrest individuals suspected of being in the country illegally, as well as permitted the request of immigration papers. The law has since been largely gutted through court decisions and settlements.

"All that did was separate families. And that was pretty much stop-and-frisk," she said. "That was horrible. We saw it firsthand here."

Abrego believes that race relations are an important national and local issue. "You have to remember, I live in southeast Texas and the race issue is something we have to do a better job on. The church, we do a good job, a pretty decent job on bringing people of diverse backgrounds together. As a nation, we should do a better job of bringing people to the table and discuss our differences. Instead of dividing us, we need to celebrate our differences."

But asked if any candidates impressed him when they talked about race, Abrego said, "Not really."

When discussing race and divisiveness, Gomez urges an examination of root causes. "At the root of that are Democratic-controlled cities that have really not improved the life of minorities," he said. He points out he is a former Democrat, but switched parties out of disappointment with Obama.

"Trump makes good points about the Democrats only wanting the votes of Hispanics and African-Americans, and not really doing anything for them. I believe that, I've seen that, I was born in Chicago, and I saw the indoctrination of why people in urban areas were Democrats without free will, or without being given a choice and really not providing or improving their lives. … Black Lives Matter and protesters are a result of the lack of attention, [which] urban areas [are] not getting."

Temperament and presidential bearing

Though just one (Ortega-Bravo) of the panelists used the word "temperament," it was clear that all were judging the candidates on temperament and how they thought each would act in the presidential office.

Velarde liked how Clinton carried herself during the debate: "She was actually giving clear statements. Being concise. He was being the opposite. Rambling. Changing the subject. Being accusatory. Everything different. The complete opposite of Hillary Clinton but typical of Donald Trump."

Hitchman wasn't as convinced by Clinton's demeanor. "The stress of Hillary to show Trump as a person of bad character -- she invested too much in the effort in disqualifying Trump instead of a direct criticism of his program."

Lozada said Trump scared her when the subject veered into nuclear arms. "If he becomes president, we will be in trouble," she said. "You wouldn't feel safe to have him as president."

Gomez was hard on his candidate: "Toward the end there it got a little out of control; Trump got drawn into some areas he didn't really have to get into. Bringing up Rosie O'Donnell's name in a presidential debate … you've gone back to cold tactics, and he really needed to be more presidential; I think he fell for that one. …

"I'm sure a lot of people told him to just maintain his presidential demeanor, and he sort of lost it at the end." Still, he said, I'd rather take a Trump over any liar like [Clinton] any day. She's just untrustworthy. She's been in this too long, and she really has no record of anything showing what she's done."

Ortega-Bravo, on the other hand, said Clinton's answers were "intelligently made. Her demeanor was very professional [and] positive."

"And I love what she said when she responded to him that she did prepare for the debate and that she prepared to be president of the United States. That was a good comeback, to kind of put him in his place, but in a good way."

Catholicism and the election

Because all the panelists were Catholics, NCR asked each how their religion has affected how they view the candidates and this election.

"My religion has a lot to do with the way I see and perceive politicians. I believe in family values and I promote them," Abrego said. But he said he wasn't convinced either candidate or party was doing a good job of expressing family values. "Life is sacred from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death," he said. Both parties "are so far from embracing that."

Gomez also said he considers his faith when deciding how to vote. "Part of what's wrong with what we're doing as a country [is in regards to] family and morals, and I think the dominance of the past eight years of progressive and social change has really separated our families, has really lowered the standards of the family roles and marriage."

"Whether it's supporting gay marriage, supporting transgender [people], those are elements that are destroying the family structure," he said. "It's all tied back to our faith."

Ortega-Bravo said that she leans "more toward the humane part" of her Catholic faith and she believes that Clinton "shows that she respects human dignity within the person, within our country. … I don't believe [Trump] does."

Trump, she said, "never speaks about the poor," and he doesn't "blink an eye" when he talks about splitting up families through deportation. "He just insults the immigrants, the Muslims, the African-Americans, the Mexicans -- he's just very [insulting]. And I don't think that's very Catholic or healthy."

Lozada said that she views voting as about being an American citizen, not so much as a religious Catholic. "You want a president who is concerned for everyone, not just our religion," said Lozada, who calls herself "a churchgoer."

Velarde said she feels "the social justice pull" on her vote. As an immigration lawyer, she deals daily with "different races, nationalities, religions and life experiences. I mean that is pretty central to my life. A lot of the issues of income inequality or criminal justice are just issues that I see every day. So this is very important to me to have a president who considers those issues thoughtfully."

Hitchman said that he follows "the principles of the social teaching of the church, but I don't get any specific [candidate's] name from the church." When choosing a candidate, he said he looks for the one who "assures better the common good, [and] respect of persons and peace."

But after the first debate, Hitchman still doesn't know who that is.

[NCR editor Dennis Coday wrote this story based on interviews conducted by NCR staff writers Brian Roewe and Soli Salgado, NCR Bertelsen interns Kristen Daniels and Traci Badalucco, and NCR contributors Peter Feuerherd and Amy Morris Young.]

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story misstated the name of Sally Ortega-Bravo and her job title

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