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Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas

LULAC Cultivating New Clout

by Karen Brooks

June 9, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas. All Rights Reserved.

PHOENIX - With the 2000 Census showing enormous gains in the Hispanic population nationally, thousands of civic leaders who are meeting here say Hispanics should turn their numbers into a stronger political force.

On Thursday, former Fort Worth resident Juan Hernandez, a Cabinet-level adviser to Mexican President Vicente Fox, underscored the Mexican government's support for Hispanic political clout in the United States. He signed an agreement to work with the League of United Latin American Citizens on programs that help Mexicans on both sides of the border.

"Mexicans and Mexican-Americans being successful in the United States is a great benefit to Mexico," Hernandez, Fox's coordinator for Mexicans living abroad, said during LULAC's annual convention in Phoenix.

As Hispanics prepare to use their numbers to tackle issues such as economic development, health care and immigration, convention attendees vowed to maximize political opportunities in the United States.

"You have to be centrally involved," said Jose Angel Gutierrez, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. "... We should have our own agenda and choose our own people to speak for us."

In addition to reviewing census numbers, politicians have begun redrawing legislative districts to reflect the changing demographics.

In Texas, the Legislature reached a deadlock on the issue this year and will probably pass the job along to a largely Republican Legislative Redistricting Board composed of four Anglo men and an Anglo woman.

LULAC's Texas chapter plans to sue this month to ensure that Hispanics, the largest ethnic group in a state in which Anglos are no longer the majority, are treated fairly during redistricting, said Mary Helen Salazar, president of Corpus Christi LULAC Council 1, the first LULAC chapter in the nation.

In Arizona, where an all-Anglo board was appointed by state leaders, activists have criticized the lack of minority involvement and formed coalitions to draw their own redistricting plans.

"It is shameful at best. It is tragic," said Daniel Ortega, campaign manager for an Arizona Hispanic congressman.

Redistricting doesn't guarantee that a minority will win a particular office.

In Fort Worth, state Rep. Lon Burnam, an Anglo Democrat, has been elected three times from his minority district. In Houston, U.S. Rep. Gene Green, an Anglo Democrat backed heavily by labor unions, was re-elected even after his district was redrawn to become largely minority.

A White House official said Thursday that improving education for young Hispanics is a key to guaranteeing their involvement in politics as adults.

"People who have an opportunity at good quality education tend to be more engaged and involved in the political process," said Ruben Barrales, whom Bush appointed to head his intergovernmental affairs office.

The efforts to get Hispanics more political clout have suffered some recent setbacks. Former Vice President Al Gore, backed heavily by Hispanics, lost to Texas Gov. George W. Bush in last year's presidential contest.

And in Arizona, where the Hispanic population grew by 80 percent in the past decade, voters recently decided to dismantle bilingual education programs and require English-only in public schools.

Some civic leaders at the LULAC convention are blaming a lack of organization and awareness of the political process, and a history of partisan stereotypes, for the small number of Hispanics in elected positions.

However, Hispanic leaders are also pointing to clues that their political involvement is beginning to climb.

San Antonio and El Paso recently elected Hispanic mayors. In New Hampshire, voters recently elected eight Hispanic state representatives, and a record number of Hispanics hold school board offices.

Hispanics account for close to a majority of the population in 120 of the 435 congressional districts, said Larry Gonzalez, executive director of the Council of Hispanics in Public Office.

"As Latinos are developing their political conscious - getting more involved - a lot of things are happening in our community," Gonzalez said. "Both parties are really going to have to rethink their strategies."

The narrow loss of Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa on Tuesday is a victory for the power of Hispanic voters, many Hispanic civic leaders said.

Hispanic voter turnout hit a record 42 percent. Eighty-four percent of Hispanics voted for Villaraigosa, who raised $3.4 million in the seven weeks before Tuesday's runoff.

During the last open mayoral race in Los Angeles eight years ago, Hispanics constituted 8 percent of the vote. On Tuesday, they accounted for 22 percent.

"The fact remains that the Latino turnout was huge," said Mickey Ibarra, who held Barrales' title under President Clinton and now runs a consulting firm in Washington. "Latinos will show up when they believe a candidate will fight for them."

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