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National Journal

Winston-Salem Journal

Hispanic Legislators May Be Pacesetters

2 GOP Winners Shy Away From Narrow Role In Legislature

By David Rice

December 13, 2002
Copyright © 2002 National Journal Group Inc., Winston-Salem Journal. All rights reserved. 

RALEIGH -- The Hispanic caucus in the N.C. General Assembly doubled from one member to two, when voters in Wilmington and Hendersonville chose in the 2002 election to send Hispanic legislators to Raleigh.

Democrats may have made the most overt efforts to try to involve Hispanics in state politics, but it is Republicans who occupy the two highest offices held by Hispanics in the state.

And Rep. Danny McComas, R-New Hanover, who was born in Puerto Rico, and Sen.-elect Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, a sixth-generation Mexican-American, don't exactly spout a Hispanic agenda for the legislature.

"I've got to represent the people who elected me. That's first and foremost," said McComas, a trucking executive who estimates that just 1 percent of his district is Hispanic. "But we'll be listening." He was elected to the N.C. House in 1994.

"I am probably the only half-Mexican in the state who speaks very, very little Spanish," said Apodaca, who owns a bail-bonding company and a travel agency in Hendersonville.

"I've never considered myself Hispanic. But I've never considered myself not Hispanic," he said.

Though Apodaca came to North Carolina from El Paso, Texas, his family came to the United States five generations ago. He said that support from Hispanic voters was not a factor in his campaign.

Apodaca grew up in Durham. His grandfather played basketball at Duke University in the 1930s and his aunt was a secretary to former Duke football coach Wallace Wade.

The two came to North Carolina well before the migration of Hispanics, who account for about 5 percent of the state's population.

John Davis, the executive director of N.C. FREE, a group in Raleigh that tracks state election trends, said he doesn't expect the two Republicans to advance a Hispanic agenda. But he said he does think that they will serve as role models.

"We are truly watching the American dream unfold before us, because we are a nation of immigrants," Davis said.

"They didn't come here associated with the in-migration of Hispanics over the past 10 years. They were here long before that. And they weren't leading any charge, either," he said.

"Certainly they are phenomenal role models," Davis said. "You'll have a lot more than two Hispanic officials 10 years from now."

Andrea Bazan Manson, the executive director of El Pueblo, a statewide Hispanic advocacy group, says that not enough Hispanic candidates are running for office, and the group plans to recruit more.

"I don't think it's equal to the number of people we have, but I do think there are more elected officials who are interested in what we have to say," Manson said.

In the past year, El Pueblo has lobbied for driver's licenses for noncitizens, health programs for farmworkers, restrictions on payday lenders, eligibility for food stamps and international prisoner exchanges. The group plans to release a legislative agenda today.

The 2002 campaign was the first in North Carolina in which Republicans actively appealed to Hispanic voters, Manson said. She said that U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole attended a Hispanic issues forum in April and had her picture taken eating a Cuban sandwich.

"The Democratic Party was active in the Latino community long before the Republican Party was," Manson said. "But there are a lot of people interested in what the Republicans have to say, especially now that Elizabeth Dole is in the position she's in.

"What Republicans in our state and nationally are learning is the economic strength of our community, and they can't afford to ignore the fastest-growing community," she said.

"I think it's important to not be completely identified with one party," Manson said. "I don't want one party to take for granted our votes or our voice. We try to learn from communities that came before us."

President Bush speaks some Spanish and has courted Hispanic voters in Texas and elsewhere. Apodaca and McComas said that Republicans are making inroads in the state's growing bloc of Hispanic voters.

"The Republican platform is more representative of the Hispanic culture than the Democratic platform," said McComas. "Look at family values. Look at the work ethic. Look at people wanting to be self-sufficient. That is what Hispanic people are all about."

Particularly when it comes to economic opportunity, "I do feel like our message is the same as the Hispanic message," said Apodaca. "The Hispanics that I know and that I'm related to lean more toward the Republican philosophy. They enjoy the opportunity.

"I can assure you that the Republicans have focused on this group and will be going after it," he said. "We are going to push a reach-out program with the Hispanics. We're not going to push a Hispanic agenda."

Democrats don't view it that way in the competition for new voters.

Even though the effort was billed as nonpartisan, Democratic former Gov. Jim Hunt made a special appeal for Hispanics to vote in the November election.

Maria Echaveste, a former deputy chief of staff to President Clinton, helped Democrat Erskine Bowles' campaign for the U.S. Senate in Charlotte and Raleigh.

The party has a Hispanic outreach coordinator, Ricardo Velasquez, who has organized door-to-door campaigns and get-out-the-vote calls that were recorded in Spanish.

Volunteers have translated a Spanish version of the state party's Web site. A group of Hispanic Democrats meets monthly at the state party headquarters in Raleigh.

Democratic Senate leader Marc Basnight has had a special assistant for Hispanic affairs for the past two years.

"There's no question that we're more active and more aggressive. It's not just talk - it's real action," said Marc Siegel, a spokesman for the state party.

"I just think there's a natural connection between the Democratic Party and Hispanics in North Carolina because we're fighting for the same things," Siegel said.

"We feel that the issues that are important to the Hispanic community are also the issues important to the Democratic Party - education, health care, strengthening the economy."

For now, McComas and Apodaca joke between themselves about who will head the Hispanic caucus in the legislature.

"We've doubled," said McComas. "I told Mr. Apodaca that he will be the incumbent chair. I will be handing him the gavel."

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