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Latin Lesson

By Cokie and Steve Roberts

September 9, 2001
Copyright © 2001 All Rights Reserved.

The Hispanic voting bloc is diverse and growing -- and may have enough clout to place one of their own in the Oval Office. Here's a look at this revolutionary power shift.

The most dynamic new voice in American politics speaks both Spanish and English, celebrates Cinco de Mayo as well as the Fourth of July and has gone from crossing borders to entering boardrooms in growing numbers. Hispanics now form the largest minority in the country, and one of them could occupy the White House in our lifetime. How does "Hail to El Jefe" sound?

That potential president already is out there, part of a new generation of Latino and Latina leaders who are establishing outposts in Congress, state legislatures and city halls. "It's just a matter of time," says Harry Pachon, president of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont, Calif. "There's a cadre of elected officials getting the experience, credibility and background they need to run for higher office."

In 21st-century America, being Hispanic and speaking Spanish will be a definite political asset, not a liability. "The Hispanic label is going to be extremely attractive, because the market is exploding. It's reaching every facet of life," explains Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

No one knows that better than George W. Bush. He chose Mexico for his first foreign trip as president, has delivered his weekly radio address in Spanish and has appointed Latinos to high government posts. He has promised to end bombing tests on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, supported Mexican truckers and suggested legalizing millions of undocumented workers.

Already, Hispanic Americans are a significant political power. Team Bush is using the full force of the White House to court them for one reason: They may well decide the next election. As GOP pollster Bill McInturff puts it, "If the Republicans are only the party of white America, they can never be the majority." And politicians don't need Hispanic Heritage Month, which starts next weekend, to remind them of that fact.

"You have a president from Texas," McInturff says, "with political advisers who wake up every day trying to get 40% of the Latino vote." Bush approached that goal last year, winning one out of three Latino votes; the result shocked Democrats, who are spending $3 million to test-market appeals to Hispanic voters in New Jersey and Virginia this fall.

This focus on the Hispanic vote was accelerated by the new U.S. census. In the last decade, the Latino population skyrocketed by 58%, to 35.3 million. In California, long a beacon of future trends, nearly two out of five residents don't speak English at home. "Hispanics have the potential to be the fastest-growing part of the American electorate, and no one wants to be on the wrong side of history," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.

Latinos still are slow to become citizens and exercise their voting rights, but the demographic trends are clear: The Hispanic population is growing three times faster than the rest of the country. And Latino power is magnified by its concentration in six pivotal states: California, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, New York and Illinois. But the census also shows striking increases is unusual places -- 400% in North Carolina and 168% in the county that includes Des Moines. Republicans were so concerned that they commissioned a special study of Hispanic voters in the Midwest and South.

Unlike African Americans, who vote heavily Democratic, Latinos are seen as a swing group, winnable by either party. "You have to be in play," says Hector Carreno, a Texas campaign consultant, "and Latinos are now in play." Adds political scientist MacManus: "The Republicans have made major inroads in the Latino vote, which is not as set in cement as the Democrats like to think it is."

One reason is diversity. Hispanics come from many places and cultures -- Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Central America and the Caribbean. Even within those national groupings, there are distinctions. Cubans in Florida are mainly Republican, but in New Jersey they're Democrats. And the Cubans who fled from Fidel Castro in the '60s can disagree with their own children, who were born in the United States.

Indeed, Hispanics often combine several identities at once. Carreno, who came from Cuba at age 6, says: "I grew up in America, but I still have Latin roots. I go to McDonald's but like my Cuban coffee in the morning. I like salsa music and rock 'n' roll. I speak Spanish at home and English at the office."

Fresh memories of their homelands also help to shape their political outlook. Most retain an attachment to the Roman Catholic Church and its teachings. And many Hispanics come from countries where governments are corrupt and inefficient. "You're talking about folks who often walked 1,200 miles to get here and clawed their way up," says James Garcia, editor of, a Web site devoted to Latino politics. The result is that many are at least open to the Republican message of free markets, limited government and family values.

When, exactly, this surge of Hispanic power will reach the White House is, of course, uncertain, but here's how it could happen: A Hispanic mayor or governor or congressman garners national publicity and makes the short list of vice presidential possibilities. Running mates often are picked to please a region or an interest group, so it would make sense for a presidential candidate to pick a No. 2 who appeals to such a key constituency. Once elected, the vice president then moves up due to the demise of the president or by using the office to build a national power base.

This Hispanic hero will have to be the political incarnation of Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin: popular with Spanish speakers but having "crossover appeal" to wider audiences. Louis DeSipio of the University of Illinois notes that many Latino leaders started out as entrepreneurs, adding to their crossover appeal. "There's a generation in their 30s and 40s who can work effectively in both worlds, with corporate leaders as well as Latino grandmothers," he says.

Maria Echaveste, assistant chief of staff in the Clinton White House, says any aspiring national candidate will "have to talk about issues everyone cares about," not just immigration or bilingual education. "He can't be seen as a threat. He has to be a coalition builder, a centrist. He has to be seen as someone who's espousing old-fashioned American values," says Echaveste, the child of Mexican-born farm workers.

A Latino president is still a dream. So is a female or black president, for that matter. But it is a very possible dream. "Yes, it will happen," McInturff says. "because this is what makes America great."

Cokie Roberts is a political analyst for ABC and co-host of This Week; Steve Roberts is a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University and an analyst for ABC and CNN. They co-wrote the best seller From This Day Forward.

Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the No. 4 Democrat in the House of Representatives, was mentioned as a possible running mate for Al Gore in the last presidential election.

Presidential prospects?

Among the rising stars of possible Hispanic candidates:

Hector V. Barreto. He got his first taste of business in his parents' restaurant in Kansas City, Mo., then started a financial services company in California. This Republican heads the Small Business Administration.

Tony Garza. The Los Angeles Times identified Garza, Texas Railroad commissioner, as one of three young delegates to the 2000 Republican convention who might run for president. The son of a gas station owner, this former Texas secretary of state campaigned hard for the Bush ticket with Spanish-language audiences.

Alberto Gonzales. As White House counsel, Gonzales is probably the most influential Latino in American politics today. A former Texas Supreme Court justice, he plays a key role in selecting judicial appointments and could be Bush's first nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. Rep. Bob Menendez. He has represented industrial towns along New Jersey's Hudson River shore since 1992. The fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, he could run for the Senate if a seat opens.

Bill Richardson. He has a sparkling résumé -- Democratic congressman, U.N. ambassador, secretary of Energy -- and is considering a run for governor of New Mexico next year. Now he is senior adviser at the international consulting firm Kissinger McLarty Associates.

U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez. Born in Puerto Rico, Velazquez, a former professor, has worked in politics most of her adult life. Since 1992, she has represented a heavily Democratic district in New York City.

Other possibilities: members of Congress including Democrats Xavier Becerra of California and Silvestre Reyes of Texas; Antonio Villaraigosa, who narrowly lost the Los Angeles mayoral election; and California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante.


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