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Politicians Notice Hispanics
By WILL LESTER
May 11, 2001
WASHINGTON (AP) - The dramatic growth of the Hispanic population in the United States has riveted the attention of the political establishment.
Republicans say their policies on everything from education to immigration will lure new voters among the nation's fastest growing demographic group. Democrats counter that the GOP's historic stance on government spending, immigration laws and many social issues will limit how much progress the Republicans can make.
New figures out this week on growth of the Hispanic population offered a reminder of the high stakes for both parties. The population of Mexican-Americans had grown by 53 percent over the last decade, fueling the surge in the Hispanic population.
The political parties' campaigns for Hispanic support accelerated this month.
President Bush celebrated Mexican heritage at the White House and extended temporary refuge to thousands of Central Americans who came to this country after a hurricane. Democrats took out Spanish language television ads - rare for a nonelection year - explaining why Bush policies were bad for Hispanics. Both parties started weekly radio addresses in Spanish.
``It's very nice that both parties are paying respects to our culture,'' said Cecilia Munoz, a policy analyst at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights group. ``But it's not enough, not even close.
``If the president is having mariachis at the White House and other members of his party are refusing to change ugly immigration laws, it's hard to communicate a new outlook to Hispanics,'' she said.
White House officials say there will be plenty of policies to appeal to Hispanics, from Bush's plans for education accountability to his interest in overhauling immigration policies and Immigration and Naturalization Service. Republican Party chairman Jim Gilmore has launched efforts within the party to attract Hispanic support in communities and organize Hispanic leadership.
Republicans in heavily Hispanic regions agree it will take significant steps beyond imagery and speeches in Spanish to win over Hispanics.
California state Assemblyman Abel Maldonado, a Republican from Santa Barbara, said Republicans ``will have to get out there and talk to the community, get out to the barrios, tell them what our message is.''
Congressional candidate Noel Irwin Hentschel, running in a June 5 special election in an ethnically diverse district in south Los Angeles, said: ``We have to be there physically, be there to ... defend them so they're treated with dignity and respect.''
Democrats were very conscious of immigrant issues in 1996. The Clinton administration aggressively pushed for citizenship for more than 1 million immigrants, a move it denied was political. The efforts, however, were focused in states with large numbers of electoral votes.
Clinton beat Republican Bob Dole by a wide margin among Hispanics in 1996 in an election that soon followed some Republican-sponsored measures that were tough on immigrants.
``The Republican Party lost its behind in key states because of the wedge-issue mentality,'' said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute in San Antonio. He said blacks have historically been pro-Democratic, ``Hispanics were anti-Republican.''
Bush got 35 percent of the Hispanic vote after a concentrated effort to reverse earlier strategies and was above 40 percent in his home state of Texas. Democrats are determined to keep that GOP percentage from growing in future elections.
Maria Cardona, communications director for the Democratic National Committee (news - web sites), noted Bush got ``the most Hispanic votes of any Republican since Ronald Reagan '' and Democrats are responding. Hispanics currently identify with the Democratic Party at levels ranging from 60 percent to 80 percent in most states, though Hispanic support was evenly split in 2000 in Florida, with its heavily Republican Cuban-American community.
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said the president's focus on Hispanics, the Republicans' money advantage and concentrated Hispanic strategy are clearly a threat.
``But I feel very confident that when Latinos look at the issues,'' Reyes said, ``they will see Democrats are tremendously better advocates for their positions and their interests.''