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Power Speaks Spanish In Texas

By Kathy Kiely

March 8, 2002
Copyright © 2002
USA TODAY. All Rights Reserved.

DALLAS -- Deep in the heart of Bush country, in the red-white-and-blue-blooded city whose football Cowboys like to brag that they are ''America's team,'' political power is speaking in a new language this election season: Español.

Staging an event that once would have been unthinkable in a state known for good ol' boys in tall hats and pointy boots, the two leading Democratic candidates for Texas governor held a bilingual marathon here last week. Tony Sanchez, a Laredo businessman, and Dan Morales, a former state attorney general, held forth on statewide TV for two hours in two languages -- first in English, then in Spanish.

It was a sign of the dramatically changing political landscape here. And it highlighted a political strategy that could put President Bush (news - web sites) on the spot this fall as he tries to preserve the dramatic gains his party has made in his home state.

Hispanics are emerging as one of the most powerful voting blocs in the nation. They represented 12.5% of the population in the 2000 Census, up from a 9% share in 1990. Across the Sun Belt, they have become a key swing vote. About a third of Texans are Hispanic.

Those demographics have not escaped the notice of Republicans, especially the president. Bush invited 200 Hispanic business leaders to the White House this week for a pep talk that he delivered partly in Spanish. His pollster, Matthew Dowd, says Hispanics will be key to determining the outcome of statewide races this year in California, Illinois, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

''People ask me about the future of Texas politics: Is it Republican or is it Democrat?'' says Mark McKinnon, an Austin-based consultant who ran Bush's advertising campaign in 2000. ''I say it's Hispanic.''

But this year in his home state, Bush's party will not have a Hispanic candidate at the top of the ticket. And no matter what the outcome of Tuesday's heated primary elections in Texas, Democrats will.

* For governor, the front-runner is Sanchez, 59, a multimillionaire who helped bankroll Bush's 1998 gubernatorial campaign. He has spent $18.5 million, most of it his own. That's more than 30 times what his leading rival, Morales, 45, has spent.

* For Senate, the Republican candidate will face either the state's first black mayor, a white congressman with legendary family connections, or a teacher whose chief campaign asset is his Hispanic name.

Nothing underscores the strength a Hispanic name brings to the ticket like the improbable political career of high school geography teacher Victor Morales, 52. He has virtually no campaign war chest and no staff, and he can campaign only on weekends. But polls show him leading former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, 47, who enjoys the business and political establishment's backing, and Rep. Ken Bentsen, 42, whose uncle, Lloyd Bentsen, represented Texas in the U.S. Senate for more than 20 years.

''Hispanics think it's their time,'' says University of Houston pollster Dick Murray, who estimates that any Hispanic candidate starts with 25% of the primary vote.

Nine of Texas' 19 media markets have Spanish-language TV stations; 126 of the state's 837 radio stations broadcast in Spanish. In a state where many Hispanics can remember being paddled at school if they were caught speaking their parents' language, bilingualism is now a virtue. ''It's introducing another variable into the elections: your ability to speak Spanish, and how well you speak it,'' says Tatcho Mindiola, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston.

Historically, Hispanics have not voted in percentages equal to Anglos and blacks; only three states have elected a Hispanic governor. But more Hispanics are becoming eligible to vote for several reasons: Laws are making some social welfare programs contingent upon citizenship; American-born children of illegal immigrants are coming of age; and the Sept. 11 attacks unleashed a surge of patriotism.

''Hispanics are going to have an enormous impact on this election and future elections,'' says Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas. ''You ignore it at your own risk.''

Privately, Texas Republicans acknowledge that they would have liked a Hispanic candidate on the ticket. Retiring Sen. Phil Gramm favored Rep. Henry Bonilla of San Antonio to succeed him, but Gov. Rick Perry wanted Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza. In the end, neither man got into the race.

As a result, after two election cycles in which Texas Democrats virtually played dead, the party of Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson is gearing up for a comeback. Democrats' hopes are up because:

* There's no Bush on the ballot. Perry, who became governor when Bush left for Washington, has big boots to fill. Attorney General John Cornyn, the GOP candidate for Senate, is trying to succeed Gramm, another well-known Texas Republican. Analysts from both parties expect Bush to pull out all the stops to keep from being embarrassed in Texas -- particularly in the Senate race, which could tip the balance in a chamber Democrats control 50-49. Both Bush and his father, former president George Bush, are scheduled to headline fundraisers for Cornyn in Texas this month.

But even Republicans concede that if Sanchez wins the primary and continues his spending spree, it will benefit the entire Democratic ticket and cancel out the GOP's usual fundraising edge.

* Enron problems. Many Texas politicians have them, including two Democratic Senate hopefuls: Kirk's law firm worked for the Houston energy company; Bentsen received $44,250 from Enron employees over the past decade, more than any other House member. But Perry got $212,000 from Enron, including a $25,000 check that he received from CEO Ken Lay one day after appointing another Enron executive to chair the state's public utilities commission (news - web sites). Cornyn received at least $182,000 from Enron.

* The minority vote. Democrats say it could help them back to majority-party status. According to the latest Census, 46.2% of all Texans are racial or ethnic minorities. Blacks represent 11.5% of the state's population, Asians 2.7%. Houston is home to the nation's third-largest Vietnamese community. Hispanics, always an important constituency in a state that once was Mexico's northernmost province, are now the crucial voting bloc.

Leaders of both parties say Perry and Cornyn, central-casting-handsome candidates who can count on strong backing from their party, remain favorites in a state that still leans Republican. But no matter what happens in this year's election, strategists on both sides of the aisle concede that campaigns in the Lone Star State will be changed forever.

Says Democratic state Sen. Rodney Ellis, a leader in Houston's African-American community: ''I think even the Republicans realize a tsunami is on the horizon because of the explosive growth of the Hispanic population.''

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