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Hispanics Reap Greater Clout, But Where Will They Use It??

By Alfredo S. Lanier

March 25, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE. All Rights Reserved.

Democratic Party officials getting ready to celebrate the latest Census Bureau figures may want to put away the maracas and call off the mariachis for a while: Attracting the burgeoning Hispanic population into the party by no means will be a sure or an easy thing.

The increase in the Hispanic population during the last decade astonished everyone, Hispanic researchers included. "We had been talking about Hispanics overtaking African-Americans as the largest minority group in the country in 2010 and then in 2005," said Armando Triana, chief planning officer for the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science in Chicago. "Then, all of a sudden, the time is now."

Census data released earlier this month showed a dramatic jump in the nation's Hispanic population, from 22.4 million to 35.3 million during the last decade, an increase of 58 percent. If one makes additional adjustments for the number of respondents of African descent who also identified themselves as being Hispanic, and for the number of illegal immigrants who did not respond to the census, the number of Hispanics nationwide easily surpasses that of African-Americans.

In the Chicago area, the figures were no less dramatic. The number of Hispanics increased by approximately 572,000, to 1.4 million, a result of higher fertility rates among Hispanic families and immigration. In Chicago, the growth in the Hispanic population more than offset declines in the number of both non-Hispanic blacks and whites, to allow the city to post its first population gain in decades, about 112,000 people.

Indeed, the district- and ward-reshuffling conga has already begun in Chicago. Latino politicians are touting anywhere from two to four new Hispanic wards, in addition to the existing seven. Mayor Richard M. Daley suggested that, ahem, the present City Council configuration looks fine for now. But it looks as if Ald. Edward Burke (14th) might want to polish his espanol--and fast: Hispanics in his ward now outnumber whites 58,000 to 14,000.

There's no danger that Chicago Hispanics will be seduced by the GOP--the party here has been fossilized for eons--but elsewhere in the nation, the political formulas are far more fluid.

"Neither party has demonstrated that it can understand Latino issues," said Cecilia Munoz, spokeswoman of the National Council of La Raza in Washington. "Candidates are going to have to do far more than talk a little Spanish and conduct outreach efforts."

In national elections, the percentage of African-Americans who vote Republican has remained steady at around 10 percent. Hispanic support of the GOP, however, has fluctuated between 30 percent and 40 percent nationwide, with wide variations among the different regions and Hispanic national groups.

In the Florida election cliffhanger, Cuban-Americans, still fuming about Eliangate, voted solidly for Bush. Yet in the 1996 presidential election, many of the same Cubans, then angry and fearful of the GOP's anti-immigrant crusade, had favored President Bill Clinton.

Though their strong anti-communism might make them seem natural allies of the GOP, Cubans in South Florida for many years voted Democratic, according to Maria Torres, political science professor at DePaul University. "In the late 1970s, when the Democrats were taking the Cubans for granted, the national GOP set up an ethnic office and went to work to attract the Cubans," she said.

Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas), one of only a handful of Hispanic Republicans in Congress, said he finds the assumption that all Hispanics are Democrats-waiting-to-happen "an insulting stereotype." He pointed to the substantial Hispanic support for moderate Republicans such as Mayors Richard Riordan in Los Angeles and Rudolph Giuliani in New York, and Sens. John McCain and Pete Domenici in Arizona and New Mexico. Bonilla's seat, representing a relatively poor district that borders Mexico and is more than 60 percent Hispanic, is also considered safe.

Democratic and Republican analysts agree that the GOP's anti-immigrant crusade during the 1990s was a megablunder that cost the party huge numbers of Hispanic votes.

"The Republicans could make significant inroads in the Hispanic vote if they can somehow get past their apparent war against immigrants," said Sergio Bendixen, head of a Miami-based Hispanic marketing research firm.

The anti-immigration campaign, started by California Gov. Pete Wilson and his Proposition 187 to deny immigrants certain public benefits, was quickly adopted by the GOP in other parts of the country. It culminated in the immigration reform legislation, one of the toughest ever, passed by Congress in 1996.

The ghost of Prop. 187

Not surprisingly, Democrats never tire of waving the bloody shirt of Proposition 187 in front of Hispanic audiences, and usually to great effect.

"There are opportunities for both parties," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.). "But Democrats clearly have a leg up with Hispanics, particularly among those who were here in the 1990s and survived all the xenophobia of the GOP."

But even Gutierrez admits that the Draconian 1996 immigration law presents a problem for Democrats also--Clinton signed it--a fact Hispanic leaders remember well. So much for a Democratic trump card.

In the person of George W. Bush, Democrats have another challenge: A Republican president who grew up among Hispanics, has Hispanic relatives and is perceived by some Hispanics as "family." Bush charmed audiences during his campaign appearances in Spanish-language television stations, and his first foreign trip was to visit Mexico's fellow rancher-president, Vicente Fox.

"He is the type of guy who knows how to hug the men and kiss the women," said pollster Bendixen about Bush's natural rapport with Hispanics and the GOP's "charm offensive to capture the Hispanic vote."

Yet Hispanics' relative poverty, particularly among the Mexican-Americans, who make up about two-thirds of the Latin population nationwide and in the Chicago area, makes it hard for them to swallow some of the GOP's laissez-faire potions.

"It's going to be an uphill battle for the GOP," predicted James Gimpel, professor of government at the University of Maryland. "Republicans may have a lot in common with Catholic Hispanics as far as family values and pro-life issues, but those are not as strong as the financial and workplace issues that will drive Hispanics toward the Democratic Party."

Gutierrez added that, for example, 56 percent of all Hispanic families do not stand to benefit from President Bush's proposed tax-cut plan. These families don't earn enough.

Education issues

Better education is a top issue for Hispanics--who are near the bottom of the school achievement scale and have one of the highest dropout rates nationwide--and it's also a priority for the Bush administration. But analysts say Republican solutions such as privatization and increased testing are not likely to help Hispanics.

DePaul's Torres said that GOP proposals won't reach Hispanic schoolchildren and that even some of Texas' much-touted school-reform initiatives in Texas were not initiated by Bush when he was governor.

Torres also cautioned that it will take several years for a voting bloc to gel one way or the other, given the recent arrival and lack of U.S. citizenship of many Hispanics counted in the census. Between now and then, she said, the best advice would be for "neither party to take the Latino vote for granted."

Alfredo S. Lanier is a Tribune reporter who covers national and international affairs.

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