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From Allentown to the White House: How a Pa. radio host is playing an outsized role in the 2024 presidential election

By Lindsay Weber, The Morning Call
Published: June 3, 2024, 6:00am

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — As a former host for mainstream corporate radio stations across the country, Victor Martinez was told to stay away from politics while on air.

While working for a Washington, D.C., radio station in 2016, a large immigration-related protest was planned in the city. But corporate leaders told Martinez and the other radio personalities, “don’t get involved.”

“Those (radio) companies are very, ‘Stay away from anything, just play music and give away your concert tickets, and that’s it,” Martinez said in an interview with The Morning Call.

When Martinez purchased what is now La Mega Radio station in Allentown in 2017, it was his opportunity to define his own rules as a radio host.

Now, Martinez is an outspoken advocate for Pennsylvania Latinos, seeking to inspire them to vote and run for office. National political leaders are starting to take note: He has been interviewed by CNN about Latino voters, and broadcast his morning talk show from the White House in February. Vice President Kamala Harris called in to a recent show, where she discussed the economy, reproductive rights and immigration.

“It’s about time, right? That’s my first reaction, you know,” Martinez said of fielding calls from top Democratic officials. “When you look at the 2020 election where Biden won by 80,000 votes, in such a close election in such a now swing state, we could make a difference.”

Pennsylvania’s 600,000 Latino voters are a key voting bloc targeted by Democrats and Republicans alike, and the Lehigh Valley has one of the largest Latino populations statewide. The voting age population in the Lehigh Valley’s congressional district is 16% Latino, the second highest among Pennsylvania congressional districts, and many of these voters are in Allentown, which is more than 50% Latino.

Martinez wants to make sure those voters are not ignored.

Politics in Puerto Rico

Martinez was born in Jersey City but spent most of his childhood in Puerto Rico. He is a graduate of Florida Memorial University and spent 30 years as a TV and radio host across the United States, including in Philadelphia, D.C., Orlando and Atlanta, until he bought La Mega seven years ago.

Martinez grew up in a political family, he said, and recalled the national enthusiasm in his native Puerto Rico for election day, a national holiday where most schools and workplaces are closed.

“Literally everybody goes out and votes,” Martinez said. “You see the people outside in caravans and the flags from the different political parties. It’s literally a national holiday.”

It’s a different story for Puerto Ricans living in the mainland U.S., who are born U.S. citizens and have the right to vote. Martinez says many of them do not know to register in the States and are not familiar with the two-party system. Many often are more attached to the political goings-on in their hometown, even when they’ve lived in the mainland for years.

While an average of more than 80% of Puerto Ricans turn out to vote on the island, the margins are much lower in the continental United States, according to a report from the Scholars Strategy Network.

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“I call it the ‘grandfather syndrome,’” Martinez said. “My grandfather has been living in Florida for 30 years. He is now almost 90. If you call him right now, he will tell you that he’s about to go back to Puerto Rico any minute. ‘Any day now, I’m going back.’ ‘But Grandpa, you’ve been here for 30 years, you’ve been saying that for 30 years, but you never leave, you have never left.’”

The percentage of Latinos expected to vote in this presidential election has increased compared to 2020, but Martinez says he still often needs to encourage his peers to register and go to the polls, especially in local races that see lower turnout overall.

“It’s OK if you want to leave, it’s OK if you’re preparing to leave. But in the meantime, your kids are going to school here. Your grandkids are going to school here, you’re driving through these roads, you’re paying the taxes here,” Martinez said. “So it’s OK if you wanna leave, but in the meantime, get involved here.”

He’s trying to change that. It’s why he takes calls from the White House, CNN and other prominent political leaders. It’s why he has advocated for Latino candidates and redistricting that allows Latinos a large voting bloc. It’s why he’s vocally supported several Latino candidates for local office, including Enid Santiago, who ran for state representative in 2022, and Julio Guridy, who ran for Allentown mayor in 2021.

“He had a very good understanding of what I wanted to do for the city,” said Guridy, who is now director of the Allentown Housing Authority. “I think the idea that he and I agree upon all the time is that we’ve got to make sure we mobilize the Hispanic community to get out the vote … but also that the community, the Hispanic community, gets more immersed into the political process that we have in the U.S.”

Martinez himself ran for county commissioner in 2023, which he said he did not so much because he intended to win — he did little to no traditional campaigning like door knocking and flyers, he said — but to try and encourage other prospective Latino candidates. He came in sixth of out of seven Democratic candidates in the primary election vying for four spots on the ballot.

“When I was running for county commissioner, I was constantly telling people on the radio, ‘I’m not doing any campaigning. I’m not knocking on doors, I’m doing this so I can put my money where my mouth is,” Martinez said. “I keep telling you to get involved. Well, guess what? I’m going to get involved.”

Gaining national attention

An estimated 200,000 listeners tune in to Martinez’s Spanish-language morning show, El Relajo de la Manana, a weekday talk show that touches on pop culture, news and politics. In addition to Allentown, the show is syndicated across stations in Reading, Philadelphia and Harrisburg.

He said only around 30 minutes of the four-hour morning show are spent talking about politics — which could be anything from national election news to local school board meetings — but this portion often gets the most listener feedback and engagement.

“I was going to make it a point that, within the entertainment, I was going to try to find some balance, where I can insert trying to educate the community, trying to inform the community and get involved in the community,” Martinez said.

While Martinez is a Democrat, and has supported Democratic candidates, he said he encourages Latinos to get involved politically regardless of their party affiliation.

“One of the things that I constantly tell people on the radio is: register to vote,” Martinez said. “When Republicans are in power, we need to make sure that we have representation there, and vice versa. When Democrats are in power, we need to make sure that we have representation there. So again, if you want to register as Republican, that’s fine. I just want you to register. I just want you to vote.”

The majority of Latinos — around six in 10 — are Democrats or lean Democrat, according to Pew Research, but Republicans have made gains with Latino voters in recent years: In 2020, 32% of Latino voters voted for Trump, a 4% increase from his performance in 2016.

Democrats appear to be attempting to win back those voters, however: prominent figures including Harris, Gov Josh Shapiro and Sen. Bob Casey have granted Martinez interviews in recent months. The Biden-Harris campaign said the two candidates have participated in more than 10 interviews on widely syndicated radio stations that cater primarily to Black or Hispanic audiences.

On the other hand, Martinez said he has heard “nothing” from the Trump campaign. He also said that the Biden campaign has bought ads on the radio station, whereas the Trump campaign has not.

Republicans’ lack of a tangible plan to court Pennsylvania Latino voters is as a missed opportunity, Martinez said. He said the same thing about Democrats in a 2013 opinion piece for The Morning Call.

He said he would “jump” at the opportunity to interview Trump, or any other Republican candidate, on air if given the chance.

The future of Latino politics

The Lehigh Valley has a significant Latino population, mostly in its urban centers — for example, Allentown’s populace is more than 55% Latino. But despite that, all of the legislators that represent the Lehigh Valley in Harrisburg are white, and Pennsylvania has never elected a Latino senator or governor.

Martinez sees Cuban political power in Florida as something for Pennsylvania Latinos to aspire to; for example, the state has elected two Cuban senators — Marco Rubio and Mel Martinez — to statewide office, and a large amount of local elected officials in Miami, the state’s largest city, are Cuban as well.

There is no reason why Pennsylvania Latinos should not share that same political power, he believes. It’s why he allows his radio show to become a sounding board for prospective politicians on both sides of the aisle — because he wants to see Latinos civically and politically engaged, no matter who they choose to vote for.

“They have become such a powerhouse because they vote in such a big numbers that they are respected by both parties,” Martinez said. “So I tell my audience, look at that. We have economic power. We have political power, we’re just not using it.”