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Redistricting Falls Short Of Hispanics' Hopes

By Tom Squitieri

August 27, 2002
Copyright © 2002 USA TODAY. All rights reserved. 

The nation's Hispanic population grew 58% in the past decade, but those gains won't be reflected in the halls of Congress.

Despite promises from Democratic and Republican leaders, the redrawing of congressional district lines to reflect the 2000 Census has produced few new opportunities for Hispanic candidates to win election. Only two to four more Hispanics are expected to join the 19 current House members. There are no Hispanic senators.

Last year, Hispanic leaders said 10 new seats would be the minimum they would consider fair to reflect the population growth. But lawmakers focused on drawing district lines to protect incumbents and secure new suburban seats, where Hispanic growth was less concentrated.

That makes is less likely that issues important to Hispanics -- such as immigration, health care, education and raising the minimum wage -- will gain increased attention in Congress next year. And it makes it less likely that Hispanic voters will automatically reward either party at the ballot box.

''It makes it hard for either party to say they are the party Hispanics should vote for,'' says Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. ''Rather than creating Hispanic-majority seats, they really focused on preserving their existing positions. That meant spreading the Hispanic population around.''

In a new poll conducted for the New Democratic Network, a venture capital fund that gives money to selected Democrats in tough races, two-thirds of Hispanics say the most important issue to them is accumulating political power.

''There is no more political process than reapportionment, and I think Hispanics have just learned they are still far from getting the political power,'' pollster Sergio Bendixen says.

Hispanic growth surged across the USA during the 1990s, producing new pockets of Hispanic voters in such places as Nashville, Las Vegas, Boise, Indianapolis and Raleigh, N.C. That accompanied booms in more traditional areas such as Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

''Hispanics are often underrepresented in Census data and are hugely underrepresented in the federal government,'' says Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. ''This has to change. The success of our nation and of our Hispanic youth is directly impacted by decisions made at the federal level, and more Hispanic members of Congress means a greater voice for our community.''

The Hispanic population is about 35.3 million, according to the 2000 Census. That is about 12.5% of the population, roughly the same as African-Americans. There are 39 black members in the House, twice the number of Hispanics.

In the 37 years since the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, the number of minority representatives in Congress rose from six blacks and three Hispanics to 60 blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Americans who vote in the House today. Of those, 55 have districts dominated by minorities.

The Hispanic vote is not a single bloc. Cuban-Americans, concentrated in Florida, have traditionally voted Republican. Other Hispanics, notably Mexican-Americans and Central Americans, have been steady Democratic voters.

The best opportunities for new Hispanic lawmakers this year come in California and Florida. Two likely winners are Linda Sanchez in California and Mario Diaz-Balart in Florida. Both are siblings of current members. A third, California state Rep. Dennis Cardoza, defeated Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., in a primary. Condit was plagued by his alleged affair with federal intern Chandra Levy. Hispanics also have high hopes for Dario Herrera to win a newly created district in the Las Vegas area.

In key states, however, Hispanics' hopes have been tempered:

    * Arizona received two new congressional seats; one was crafted with 51% Hispanic registration. Several Hispanics are running in the Sept. 10 primary and are expected to dilute the Hispanic vote.

    * California got one new seat. Democrats who controlled redistricting gave it a Latino majority. Candidate Linda Sanchez is the sister of Rep. Loretta Sanchez. Two other areas that offered potential for Latino seats were not redrawn.

    * Colorado received a new seat, but the district was carved out of non-Hispanic suburbs.

    * Florida got two new seats. Republicans crafted a southern Florida district with 64% Hispanic registration. The favorite is GOP state Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, whose brother, Lincoln, is in Congress.

    * Nevada received one new seat. Hispanics had hoped to use it to get Herrera, a Clark County commissioner, into Congress. But the district, in which most Hispanic voters are Democrats, was drawn with almost equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, and Herrera is running behind GOP state Sen. Jon Porter in the polls.

    * Texas received two new congressional seats, but a district promised by Democrats along the Rio Grande never materialized.

Hispanics' efforts to challenge redistricting in California and Texas were rebuffed in the courts.

Some Hispanic leaders say that even without promised districts, they have improved their position. ''At this point, do you cry over spilled milk or try and move to energize your voters?'' says Larry Gonzalez, Washington director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Many Democrats see the failure to create Hispanic districts as a blown opportunity to get Hispanic votes. Tom Ochs of the New Democratic Network says the ''incumbent protection'' efforts could prompt Hispanics to run against incumbent Democrats in the future.

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