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Gannett News Service
Hispanics Lack Clout
Despite rising numbers, Latinos have little pull in Washington
By Sergio Bustos
April 8, 2001
WASHINGTON - When a group of Hispanic lawmakers finally got to meet with President Bush last week, group members pitched a short list of priorities they deemed of dire concern to the nation's 35 million Hispanics. They came away empty-handed.
"The Congressional Black Caucus walked away with a $1.5 billion commitment for historical Black colleges and universities over the next five years," said a frustrated Rep. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. "That would have been a good start for Hispanic-serving institutions."
The White House experience of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which represents members from California to New York, illustrates how little political clout Hispanics have in Washington.
Hispanics lawmakers are often seen but not heard on Capitol Hill, even though they represent a Hispanic population that has topped 35 million people, nearly equal to that of Blacks.
At last Monday's meeting, Bush told the lawmakers that his proposed tax cuts would help Hispanic small businesses and that his education plan would improve schools for everyone. He declined to support a proposal to grant amnesty to an estimated 6 million undocumented immigrants, most of whom are Hispanic.
All three issues were at the top of the caucus' agenda.
Political analysts say the lack of Hispanic firepower in Washington is rooted in the fact that most Hispanic lawmakers are Democrats at a time when Republicans control Congress and the White House.
Eighteen of 21 Hispanics in the House are Democrats. The Senate has no Hispanics. The caucus is composed entirely of Democrats, but considers itself bipartisan; the three House Republicans have refused to join.
"The caucus might as well be called the Congressional Hispanic Democratic Caucus," said James Garcia, editor of Politico, an online magazine that covers Hispanic politics.
Adding to the political silence: Hispanics represent a small voting bloc that does not share the same political allegiances.
Only about one in five U.S. Hispanics is registered to vote, compared with nearly half of Blacks and two-thirds of Anglos. A majority of Hispanics cannot vote because they are not U.S. citizens.
And most Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans tend to lean Democratic, while most Cuban-Americans side with Republicans. The three groups represent nearly eight in 10 U.S. Hispanics.
"When it comes down to Election Day, Hispanics just don't having the voting power of Blacks, let alone of Whites," Garcia said.
The difficulty Hispanic lawmakers had in getting a meeting with Bush and the fact that Bush met with the Congressional Black Caucus first is evidence of the weak standing Hispanics have with the White House, Garcia said.
"The Bush administration is telling the Hispanic caucus, 'We'll cultivate the Hispanic vote our way,' " he said.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, is optimistic Bush will act on the issues they raised with him.
"This is just the first step on a long road. . . . Four years is a long time," he said. "We can be patient."
Sergio Bustos is a reporter for The Republic and Gannett News Service. Reach him at email@example.com or (703) 276-5812.