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Associated Press

The Dynamic Of Ethnic Loyalty


Dec 7, 2001
Copyright © 2001
Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON (December 7, 2001) - Republicans and Democrats got a reminder in mayors' races this year in New York, Houston and Los Angeles that Hispanic voters are a fast-growing and crucial swing vote tied more closely to ethnic than party loyalty.

That dynamic of ethnic loyalty, which played out in very different ways in the three cities' mayoral races, could be important in many races next year.

"Elections for mayor in several of America's biggest cities have confirmed the fact that the Hispanic electorate has became a crucial swing vote," said pollster Sergio Bendixen of Miami. "If they're offended or mishandled, they'll cross party lines."

Former California Gov. Pete Wilson took a strong anti-immigrant stance in the mid-1990s that seriously damaged Republicans' image with Hispanics for years. Hispanics have voted more often against Republicans than for Democrats, political analysts say.

Led by President Bush, the GOP is aggressively courting Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the population. Democrats are feeling the growing pains of the Hispanic population boom.

These are this year's elections that highlighted the increasingly tricky landscape:

- In New York, a nasty feud within the Democratic Party took on racial overtones, and Republican Michael Bloomberg scored an upset win last month. He was aided by a split of the Hispanic vote in the heavily Democratic city.

- In Houston, black Democratic incumbent Lee Brown held onto his job last Saturday but had to run a tough campaign questioning the competence and judgment of conservative Republican Orlando Sanchez. Sanchez came very close to winning and won over a majority of Hispanics.

- In Los Angeles, Democrat Kenneth Hahn angered many Hispanic supporters of Democratic opponent Antonio Villaraigosa by running an ad with images of a crack pipe and a razor blade cutting cocaine. Hahn, who won the June election, was attacking Villaraigosa for writing a letter on behalf of a drug dealer whose sentence was later commuted. No Republican was competing in the runoff, so it was impossible to judge if the campaign split Democrats.

Republicans seized on the win in New York as the bright spot in a generally dismal 2001 election season that saw them lose two governors' races. They cautioned the faithful the party must work hard to prevent more losses like the one in Houston.

"Republicans are neophytes about inner-city campaigning," said Al Cardenas, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, who advises the national party's efforts to bring Hispanic voters into the fold. "We're great at suburban campaigning, but we need more on-the-ground training when it comes to inner-city campaigning."

Democrats still claim an advantage of 2-to-1 or more over Republicans among Hispanics in many parts of the country, but they face a challenge in holding that edge.

"I think the Democratic Party is struggling right now in being able to say they're the party that best represents Latino interests," said Arturo Vargas, executive director at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "They're struggling with how to bring Latinos into leadership roles, on redistricting to give Latinos a fair opportunity to elect candidates of their choice."

"There's no question that we have to fight for the Hispanic vote," said Michael Meehan, senior counselor for the Democratic National Committee. "They're not an automatic part of the base vote. They're more a swing vote."

Nevertheless, Meehan said of the 5,000 Hispanic elected officials, about nine in 10 are Democrats. "We have a good bench to continue to build off of," he said.

Democrats acknowledge that serious problems arose during the campaign for their New York mayoral primary. Some backers of white Democratic candidate Mark Green tried to paint his Hispanic opponent, Fernando Ferrer, as a puppet of the outspoken black minister Al Sharpton. Green denied responsibility, but angry Hispanics stayed home or voted for Republican Bloomberg in the general election.

The Democratic attacks on Sanchez also may carry a price in Houston, said Republican Cardenas.

"I think Democrats are entering a very risky environment as we recruit more minority candidates," Cardenas said.

Democratic spokeswoman Maria Cardona said the "racist tactic" used in New York will be extremely unwelcome in future party primaries.

"We don't need it, and we can't afford it," she said. "The Democratic Party comes from a tradition of coalition building and diversity."

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