MELROSE PARK (AP) — When Gov. Pat Quinn travels to Mexico this week, he'll be promoting Illinois as an ideal partner for business and trade, but the three-day trip could also boost the Chicago Democrat's standing with immigrant and Latino voters, key voting blocs in the 2014 gubernatorial election.
Quinn, who's scheduled to depart Wednesday, will be the first Illinois governor to visit Mexico in 13 years. He'll be traveling with a delegation of business and state agency leaders, with a focus on creating jobs and boosting exports. He's also scheduled to meet with Mexico's secretary of agriculture, the mayors of Mexico City and Patzcuaro and two state governors.
While Quinn sidestepped questions about the impact on the trip with Illinois voters, he said he is paying his way for the trip with his own campaign funds and he played up the importance of Illinois' Mexican diaspora, the largest immigrant group in the state.
"There's a lot of special ties that Illinois has to the people of Mexico and we want to strengthen those ties," he told reporters in suburban Chicago.
Leading experts in Illinois politics acknowledge that while the main purpose of Quinn's trip is not to produce campaign material to attract Hispanic voters, his visit to the southern U.S. neighbor will have some residual effect as he tries to win over the state's fastest growing voting bloc.
"We're not picking Mexico rather than Austria because we're courting the Hispanic vote, but there's absolutely no question that it creates the opportunity for the governor to be positively perceived by the Hispanic population," said Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "Hispanics are likely to pay more attention to this trade mission than others."
Quinn also announced details of the trip at a suburban Chicago so-called Welcoming Center, one of five under his Office Of New Americans, which provides services to immigrants. A report released by the group on Tuesday said that over 11,000 new Americans used services for legal help, translation and job training through the centers last year, when the office boosted its number of centers from two to five. The office has plans for another this year in Chicago.
Experts say the trip could bring Quinn — who's signed off on a number of immigrant-friendly laws during his tenure as governor — more votes next year. Earlier this year Illinois became the fourth state to approve issuing drivers' licenses to people living in the country illegally.
Hispanics cast 12 percent of Illinois' votes during the 2012 presidential election. Of those, 81 percent went for President Barack Obama. The United States Hispanic Leadership Institute, which publishes the Almanac of Latino Politics, has estimated there are more than 380,000 Hispanic registered voters in Illinois.
Campaigning for next year is already under way. Quinn has been appearing at black churches in Chicago to talk about violence, some of which haven't been on his public schedule. He'll be doing the same to reach out to Hispanics and immigrants.
Republicans already have vowed to boost their efforts toward reaching out to immigrant and minority voters after huge Election Day losses. Several high-profile Republicans have said they're considering challenging Quinn, who took office in 2009 after former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was convicted on federal corruption charges and ordered to serve a 14-year prison sentence.
The potential Republican contenders include U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford and state senators Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard. Also Quinn could see a primary challenge. Two prominent Chicago Democrats — former White House chief of staff Bill Daley and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan — have said they're considering running.
Mike McKeon, a Joliet-based pollster who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans, said Quinn needs to appeal to Hispanics to win re-election in 2014. McKeon said the number of Hispanic voters has grown by as much as 4 percent since 2010.
"It's smart for Quinn to do that (visit Mexico), that's the base he has to appeal to. That's a base that can probably swing the election one way or another," McKeon said.
The governor's office did not have a cost estimate of Quinn's trip to Mexico.
Quinn has played up such trips in the past as a way to boost business and exports — which have gone up in Illinois and other states.
He's made trips to China, Japan, Brazil, among other places and returned with announcements about business and jobs. Following a visit to China, he unveiled a $70 million trade deal on corn products.
Exports to Mexico from Illinois reached $6.4 billion in 2012. Exported goods include machinery, agriculture products, electronics and chemicals.
On the Mexico trip he'll be traveling with representatives from dozens of companies and state agencies. They include Motorola Solutions, GSG Consultants, Elan Technologies, Gino's East and the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
A large focus will be on introducing Illinois companies to potential water projects in Mexico, the governor said.
"We want to make sure we reach out to the people of Mexico about our companies that can do great things with respect to clean water and that creates jobs here in Illinois and helps people in Mexico," he said.
Garcia Cano reported from Springfield.
Associated Press writer John O'Connor contributed to this report from Springfield.