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Courting Hispanics:

Group's votes could shift House control

By Elaine S. Povich

April 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Newsday Inc
. All Rights Reserved.

San Antonio, Texas - In the fierce battle between Republicans and Democrats for the votes of Hispanics this year, Octavio Hernandez is just the kind of guy both parties want.

Hernandez, a food service supervisor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is a middle-aged registered Democrat, but one who has voted for Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla. This year, however, he's going to vote for the Democratic challenger.

"I'm going to be with Henry Cuellar this time," Hernandez, 53, said last week.

"Bonilla, I've had to go with, but he [Cuellar] is more concerned with bringing money to Hispanics, with more programs that are more [applicable] to the Hispanics."

Working at the university, Hernandez has seen that financial help enables young Hispanics to get a good education. Education, health care and immigration top his list of concerns, mirroring the sentiments of many Hispanics, according to Latino organizations.

Hernandez, who said he's a regular voter and has always been a Democrat, said he's going with Cuellar, a Hispanic and former state representative from Laredo, because he has expressed more concern about the economic plight of Hispanics, including students, and those too poor to afford health insurance.

Both candidates are very attuned to the worries of their constituents. Cuellar won funding from the state Legislature for an elementary school in Laredo that bears his name. Bonilla won federal money for a community health center in the same city, and grateful city fathers named the center's boardroom after him.

Cuellar points proudly to improvements at the University of South Texas in Laredo that he secured from the state Legislature. Bonilla touts a $500,000 federal grant for a community library in the small, dusty, city of Uvalde, 90 miles from San Antonio.

If enough Octavio Hernandezes switch from the Republican incumbent to the Democratic challenger in this hot, sprawling South Texas district, just across the border from Mexico, the seat could change hands. And in a House of Representatives in which a switch of six seats from Republicans to the Democrats would mean a change in control, winning this district is critical to the hopes of Democrats to reclaim the House majority.

Political analysts say Hispanics could make the difference not only in this district, where they make up more than 60 percent of the population, but in a dozen more nationwide, where their numbers are fewer but no less important in close congressional elections. Many are relatively recent immigrants, who have not voted before but are now ready to get involved in politics.

Hispanics are basking in the attention. "It's a wonderful time to be a Hispanic," gushed Marcelo Gaete, senior program director for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, a nonprofit group that helps Hispanics get involved in the political process and lobbying state and federal officials on behalf of Latino voters. And, playing off former House Speaker Tip O'Neill's admonition that voters "like to be asked" to vote for a candidate or a party, "not only do we need to be asked, we also need to be given a present" he said.

That's why both parties are putting large amounts of money and other resources like sending political headliners into key districts to help attract Hispanic voters. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) was in this southwest Texas district a few weeks ago for Cuellar, and other top leaders are likely to follow. For the

Republicans' part, Bonilla can always call on his friend, President George W. Bush, the former Texas governor, who has made attracting Hispanics to the Republican Party a top priority. Bush has backed legislation that would allow some illegal immigrants to stay in this country while they apply for U.S. residency. He nominated Miguel Estrada for a a high profile appellate court post that could put him in line to be tapped for the Supreme Court.

Gov. George Pataki, too, has reached out to Hispanics and has received the endorsement of several as he runs for re-election.

At an informal White House meeting between Bush and a small group of members of Congress earlier this year, Bush told Bonilla that he would campaign for him when needed. "He's there for me," Bonilla said of Bush last week. "I'm not going to call him unless I need him."

Bonilla, 48, has had three relatively easy re-election races against weak Democrats, winning by more than 60 percent of the vote. The district was redrawn this year, but Bonilla says it's become slightly more Republican. Cuellar, by contrast, said the new district includes some places where they don't know Bonilla well, and said the political landscape this year gives him a leg up.

Hispanic groups and political officials say education is the issue that tops the list of concerns for Latino voters, reflecting the sentiment of many recent immigrant groups that learning is key to economic success in America. Many support increased funding for education, a traditionally Democratic stance, and stringent testing, generally a Republican concern.

Health care also is a key issue for Hispanic voters because many immigrants don't have health insurance. In the largest county in Bonilla's district, 60 percent of the working poor are uninsured, local officials said.

A Zogby poll of 1,020 Hispanic voters nationwide taken last year showed 94 percent of those polled favored government-sponsored health insurance for the working poor. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Many Hispanic voters also back liberalizing U.S. immigration laws and support bilingual education, according to polls and Hispanic leaders.

Bonilla says the election will turn not on the political appearances of outsiders like Gephardt or members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a group of Hispanic Democrats in the House, but on things like winning federal funding for his district.

"My constituents know me best. They [the other members of the Hispanic caucus] don't live in my area, and they can't vote for me," Bonilla said.

Getting Hispanics to the polls is key to Cuellar's strategy as it is to many other Democratic congressional candidates this year. Many Hispanics register to vote, but getting them to the polls in the past has been more difficult. To that end, both parties are mounting get-out-the-vote drives in Texas and other states.

"We are dedicating resources and staff time to turning out a record number of Hispanic voters in 2002," said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester), chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which works to elect Democrats.

"In 1998, 59 percent of the Hispanic voters supported Democrats and in 2000, 64 percent supported Democrats."

Lowey said the DCCC helped to recruit candidates such as Cuellar in Texas and Linda Sanchez, sister of Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) in California. Linda Sanchez won the Democratic primary in her district last month and is considered a shoo-in for Congress in the overwhelmingly Democratic and Latino area in southeast Los Angeles County. They are among a large number of Hispanic candidates who have been enticed into running by both parties this year.

"The Hispanic vote is growing rapidly," Lowey said. Nationwide, 128 of the 435 congressional districts have at least 12.5 percent Hispanic voters, figures from the 2000 Census show.

Republicans argue that Hispanics are not monolithic and, particularly in Florida, another key state, tend to be Republican.

In that vein, they are counting on a victory by Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican veteran state legislator, in a new Florida seat that Diaz-Balart designed and had approved by the legislative committee he chairs. Diaz-Balart is the brother of Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who is from Miami.

"This is an [ethnic] group that has not solidified for the Democratic Party yet, and there are opportunities to up our percentages," said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the counterpart to Lowey's committee. "In areas where it is important, we are having our members take Spanish lessons, do outreach programs and spend more time in the Latino community."

Davis argued that "economic issues are Hispanic issues. I think we make a mistake when we consider them Hispanics first and voters second."

Charles Kamasaki, senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a nonpartisan Hispanic public policy group, acknowledged that the Republican Party has launched a major effort to attract Hispanics at the same time the Democratic Party is trying to keep Hispanics in its column. But, he said, he is not certain which party will succeed.

"I'm not sure that either party has a coherent strategy," to attract Hispanic voters, he said. "The Bush administration has a strategy, how much that trickles down to the congressional level, who knows?"

The dozen districts that will tell the Hispanic tale for both parties this year include one in Florida where Republican Rep. Ric Keller is running for re-election against Democrat Eddie Diaz, a former policeman and veteran who was once a Republican.

In Kansas, Republican Rep. Todd Tiahrt is facing Democrat Carlos Nolla in a district where the population is one-sixth Hispanic. In Nevada, a new district has Democrat councilman Dario Herrera, facing Republican State Sen. Jon Porter. And in New Mexico, Republican incumbent Heather Wilson is running for re-election in an Albuquerque-area district where four in 10 voters are Hispanic, and is being challenged by Democratic state Sen. Richard Romero.

Several Senate races, too, could be decided by Hispanic voters, including races in North Carolina, Oregon, Colorado and Missouri where the contests could come down to a point or two.

"Let's say you have 100 people registered to vote, all you need is 51 votes to win," said Gaete. "Everybody goes about running campaigns that way; 'all I need is 51 to win.' Then, all of a sudden you have 10 new people registered to vote and voting, and it takes 56 votes to win. All of a sudden, you need five new votes to win. Those are the Latinos."

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