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Spanish Enters Political Arsenal

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

WASHINGTON -- In what could be a pivotal election year, Republicans and Democrats are making their most concerted effort ever to speak to Latino voters in a language they appreciate: Español .

The Republican National Committee's announcement Monday that it will launch a monthly Spanish-language TV show to woo Hispanics is the latest example in a political battle of one-upmanship. Twice weekly, half a dozen House Democrats huddle in a private office steps from the Capitol Rotunda for an hour of Spanish lessons. The Republican National Committee recently finished a 10-day Berlitz Spanish course for state party officials and is offering to pay tuition for other party leaders.

The reason: political necessity, if not survival.

Since the 2000 Census documented a 58% increase in the nation's Hispanic population over the past decade, from 22.4 million in 1990 to 35.3 million, Latinos have gone from minor players in politics to potential power brokers. From 1990 to 2000, the number of Latino citizens voting surged by 25% to 5.9 million.

The 2000 Census found 157 congressional districts with at least 10% Latino residents. One of every 10 U.S. residents speak Spanish at home; that number rises to one of every four residents in Texas, New Mexico and California.

With both houses of Congress almost evenly divided, lawmakers are fighting for every vote this year. Democrats could lose control of the Senate if the GOP gains one seat. Republicans could lose the House if Democrats gain six seats.

The direct appeals to Latino voters have increased since the 2000 presidential race, when George W. Bush and Al Gore sprinkled Spanish phrases into their campaign speeches. Last year, New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey trounced his GOP opponent with a campaign that included $1.5 million worth of political advertisements for Spanish-language broadcast outlets. That's 16% of his campaign expenditures. In Texas this year, the two Democratic candidates for governor held a debate in Spanish.

Getting to the audience

The penetration of Univisión, Telemundo and other Spanish-language broadcasts into Hispanic households has helped prompt lawmakers to learn Spanish. Surveys show that ''40% of Hispanics using television on any day are tuned in to Spanish-language TV,'' says Karen Kratz of Nielsen Media Research.

In cities such as Los Angeles and Miami, ''the Spanish-language networks frequently compete equally and beat the general-market networks,'' says Joe Peyronnin, head of Telemundo Network News. ''That explains why lawmakers are taking Spanish. They're getting to the audience.''

Inevitably, some candidates who speak Spanish while campaigning mangle the language. That's usually forgiven, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., says. ''People . . . laugh and say, 'What a great effort.' ''

Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and easily switches between English and Spanish, says his colleagues are ''identifying it as a priority to be able to speak to this constituency, because if they don't, somebody else will.''

Two mornings each week, six House Democrats pore over textbooks and workbooks.

''Bway-NOH? Bway-NOH? Bway-NOH?'' they repeat in unison, mimicking the sounds of Basil Malish, a teacher from the government's adult-education program. He notes that '' bueno ,'' which means ''good,'' is how many Latinos answer the phone -- rather than '' hola ,'' Spanish for ''hello.''

Three of the six regular students in the House Democrats' class, Reps. Gene Green, Martin Frost and Nick Lampson, hail from Texas. There, 28% of residents speak Spanish at home; most trace their ancestry to Mexico. Green, who organized the class, took up Spanish after an opponent derided him 10 years ago for not being able to converse in the language. In 1990, his Houston district was 45% Latino; today, the number has risen to 60%. And 45% of registered voters are Latino.

Green says he can now communicate in brief public-service announcements on Spanish-language TV and radio. ''I get better coverage on my Spanish stations than I do on my English stations,'' he says. Public forums he sponsors on immunization and citizenship draw coverage from Spanish-language, but not English, media outlets. He also advertises on Spanish TV and radio.

'The pivotal constituency'

The Democrats in Green's class aren't alone in their pursuit of Spanish-speaking skills. California Democrat Bob Filner began taking Spanish about 10 years ago and has watched his San Diego-area district grow from 40% to 53% Latino. Now, 40% of the district's registered voters are Latino.

''My constituency is Spanish-speaking, so I've got to learn it,'' says Filner, who is comfortable enough in Spanish to participate in a brief interview.

Republicans cannot afford to be left behind, says former House speaker Newt Gingrich, the political strategist credited with leading the Republican Party to its first House majority in 40 years. He has studied Spanish with Berlitz and calls Hispanics ''the absolute pivotal constituency for either party.''

''The most important single development over the next 20 years is to have a Republican Party that actively includes the Hispanic community, understands their concerns and issues and helps solve them,'' Gingrich says.

House Republicans have no organized Spanish lessons. But many lawmakers are taking it upon themselves to learn the language. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., started taking Spanish almost a year ago under a tutor who visits her Albuquerque office twice a month.

''About half my constituents speak Spanish at home,'' the New Hampshire native says.

The Republican National Committee's TV show -- Abriendo Caminos , Spanish for ''opening paths'' -- will cost more than $1 million this year. It will air in six media markets that have close House races, including four where Democrats have fielded Hispanic candidates. Party spokeswoman Sharon Castillo calls it ''part of a larger outreach strategy.''

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