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Spanish Gaining On Capitol Hill


August 28, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON -- The political importance of Hispanics is growing, and so is the number of politicians learning Spanish to try to tap into that voting bloc.

All over Capitol Hill, lawmakers are picking up audiotapes and textbooks to learn Spanish so they can use it to chat with voters, deliver speeches or give interviews to Spanish-language television, radio and newspapers.

``It's a very quick and easy way for a candidate to indicate that they're simpatico,'' said Lisa Navarrete of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights group. However, she added, candidates need to back that up with solid policies on such issues as the minimum wage, education and health care if they're actually going to win votes.

The nation's Hispanic population jumped nearly 60 percent during the last decade and now makes up more than 13 percent of the population in 122 of the nation's 435 congressional districts.

Both political parties are keenly aware of the potential for Hispanics to change the political landscape and are aggressively courting them for the 2002 congressional elections and the 2004 presidential race.

There's no orchestrated effort to get candidates and members of Congress to learn Spanish, but many are doing it on their own.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., the former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, took Spanish lessons so he could help candidates campaign last year in California.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., has been practicing the language with Hispanic friends, while Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., has taken an immersion course, in which all instruction is in Spanish.

Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, a possible contender for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, hopes to start lessons this year, spokesman Erik Smith said.

Gephardt has twice used a translator to deliver the weekly Spanish-language Democratic radio address, a fixture that was started after President Bush, who speaks some Spanish, began his own weekly Spanish-language addresses on Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican holiday.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., took a turn giving the address this month in Spanish. Kerry, another possible 2004 presidential candidate, said politics has little to do with his interest in becoming conversant in the language.

Still, he acknowledged, ``You'd have to be blind not to understand the demographic transition of our country. And it's going to have an enormous impact.''

Kerry, the son of a U.S. diplomat, speaks Italian, French and a little German and Vietnamese. He started studying Spanish over a year ago with tapes and a book, and co-chairs with Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico a Democratic task force that organizes meetings between lawmakers and Hispanic community leaders.

Of course, public officials don't necessarily need Spanish to reach Hispanics. They can hire Spanish-speaking staffers, as many do, or have their office materials translated.

For those who don't have a knack for Spanish, or who know just a little, the question is whether to say anything at all.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who vied unsuccessfully for the 2000 GOP presidential nomination, knows quite a bit of Spanish but rarely utters a word because he believes his accent isn't up to par.

On the other hand, California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, knows minimal Spanish but likes to sprinkle phrases into his speeches. At his inauguration in January 1999, he broke away from the prepared text to stress -- in Spanish -- that he and his Hispanic lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante, would work together.

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