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Old Republican Habits Die Hard


May 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002 WASHINGTON POST. All rights reserved.

DALLAS -- How frustrating for President Bush to watch fellow Republicans squander gains with Latino voters through mistakes and missed opportunities. And how maddening that some of those Republicans live in Texas.

While the exact figure is still disputed, Bush got somewhere between one-third and one-half of the Latino vote in his 1998 reelection as Texas governor. He made those inroads by giving Latinos the respect of aggressively courting their support.

Back then, it was the national GOP that couldn't comprehend the Latino-based offensive at the state level. As far as many Republicans in Washington were concerned, Latinos were nonconvertible Democrats. Today, the roles are reversed.

President Bush has put out the word, time and again, that being a "compassionate conservative" means, among other things, making Latinos and other minorities feel welcome in the Republican Party.

House Republicans seem to have gotten the message. Under pressure from the administration, they recently voted, albeit in a nonbinding motion, to restore eligibility for food stamps to hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants cut off under the 1996 welfare reform law.

Now, strangely enough, the breakdown in communication seems to be at the state level, where Republicans are falling back into old habits.

In California, gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon Jr. told a radio talk show host in February that if he were elected, he would have his "legal experts look at" revisiting Proposition 187, a successful 1994 ballot initiative that sought to restrict illegal immigrants' access to government benefits (it was later largely struck down by the courts), and would station National Guard troops on the California-Mexico border.

The president had to do damage control. During a recent meeting with Latino and African American leaders in South-Central Los Angeles, Bush showed his compassionate conservative side and distanced himself from Simon's pro-Proposition 187 stance with assurances that he was, as always, "totally supportive of immigrants, their rights and their enormous contributions." As Texas governor, Bush thwarted the launching of a Proposition 187-type measure in his state and emphasized his support of bilingual education programs that work.

In Texas, there is more damage to control. It seems that Republicans, in the game of racial inclusion, like playing offense more than defense. An aide to John Cornyn, Republican U.S. Senate candidate and state attorney general, dismissed the Democrats' celebrated "dream ticket"--a Latino candidate for governor, an African American for U.S. Senate and an Anglo for lieutenant governor--as a "racial quota ticket." Cornyn apologized.

As well he should have. Republicans don't use words like "quota" by accident. This is the same party that tries to convince white males that they are victimized by a racial spoils system that includes affirmative action and quotas. When a Republican pulls a stunt like that, the inference is that the two nonwhites on the Democratic dream ticket--gubernatorial candidate A.R. "Tony" Sanchez Jr. and Senate candidate Ron Kirk--are less qualified than the three white males running under the GOP banner. But Sanchez and Kirk won their party's nominations only after bruising contests with primary opponents. All three Republican nominees either ran unopposed or faced only token opposition. So, who's qualified?

For an encore, Texas Republican Party Chairwoman Susan Weddington decided that a good way to get in the good graces of Texas Latinos was to go after one of their icons: Henry G. Cisneros. Since returning to Texas, the former San Antonio mayor and U.S. housing secretary has launched a voter registration project. The EVERY Texan Foundation Inc. aims to register at least 500,000 new voters for this year's general election, many of them Latinos and African Americans.

Weddington considers the voter registration project a political front for Democrats.

She even registered a formal complaint with the Internal Revenue Service, asking for a review of the nonprofit organization's tax-exempt status. Weddington was reportedly incensed that Cisneros, in selecting a speaker for a recent $1,000-a-plate Houston fund-raiser for the group, chose former President Clinton. She wasn't mollified by Cisneros' claim that former President Bush had also been invited to address the group.

Weddington should take a long look at the ugly history of Republican-driven efforts to suppress the minority vote in and out of Texas. From poll watchers in the 1950s to allegations of voter fraud in immigrant communities in the 1990s, Republicans have repeatedly sent the message that they would prefer that Latinos and African Americans simply stay home on election day. That is the same message Weddington sent by going to the IRS. She foolishly advanced the perception that Texas Republicans are running scared. Why not just unfurl a banner at GOP headquarters in Austin announcing that Republicans are terrified of new minority voters rushing to the polls because the GOP has nothing new to say to them?

That is a strange concession coming from Bush country, named after a leader who aggressively solicits the votes of minorities.

Then there is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who wants to have it both ways. While eager to replicate Bush's success with Latino voters, Perry seems worried about alienating the GOP base of conservative whites. He likely realizes that many Republicans are nervous about racial politics and might turn against any candidate who tries to beat the Democrats at their own game.

Recently, while attending a Dallas business conference, Perry took exception to a reporter's suggestion that he could not expect to win much of the Latino vote, given that he has to contend with an opponent named Sanchez. The governor suggested that Texans will cast their lots based on experience and qualifications, not on a candidate's ethnicity. In fact, Perry said there was no place in this election for ethnic politics or any attempt to play to Texans along racial lines.

It was a lovely sentiment. And it might even have been persuasive if not for one small detail: Perry had just made an ethnic pitch to a conference designed to promote Latino businesses.

If anyone can sympathize with Perry's predicament, it is White House officials. President Bush is in a similar fix, namely, how to be a good team captain by supporting the GOP ticket in Texas without pooh-poohing diversity like his comrades. So, Bush kept mum--until recently, when, in an interview with a Dallas television reporter, he waded into the political fray. Bush implied that Kirk, if elected to the Senate, would be an "obstructionist." He also tagged Sanchez, a former Bush contributor who has recently appeared to reverse himself on several issues, a clumsy campaigner apt to make mistakes.

Bush may have decided to break his silence in the Texas races when news reports disclosed that Mark McKinnon, Bush's chief media advisor in the 2000 presidential campaign, made contributions to several Democratic candidates in Texas, including Kirk.

The president should have known better. Texas politics don't follow national blueprints.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group and a member of the Dallas Morning News editorial board.

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