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The Florida Times-Union
First Hispanics Elected Start Job
Men Not Defined By Their Ethnicity
By Brian Basinger
January 12, 2003
ATLANTA -- David Casas sometimes finds it hard to believe Georgia voters elected him in November as one of the first three Hispanic lawmakers in state history.
Until now, a Hispanic had never served in Georgia's House or Senate.
This week, Casas, along with Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta, and Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, begin their jobs in the General Assembly. The session begins tomorrow.
"I'm still on cloud nine," said Casas, a House Republican from Lilburn. "It's the first step of many. I hope I can be a good role model for those who follow behind me."
Across the country, a rising tide of Spanish-speaking legislators mirrors the explosive growth of the Hispanic population.
"I think when you break it down to all the common denominators, we all have the same concerns and problems regardless of our ethnicity or race," said Florida House member Gaston Cantens, R- Miami. "We've got kids in the same schools. We drive on the same roads, and we all want to get to work at the same time."
Between 1990 and 2000, Georgia's Hispanic population increased from 108,900 to 435,200, roughly 5 percent of the state's total population.
Demographers say the actual size of the group could be as much as twice that number if the 2000 census had counted all the undocumented Hispanics living in the state.
Political scientist Charles Bullock said shifting demographics, combined with the state's redrawing of legislative districts in 2001, set the stage for the Hispanic debut on the political scene.
"When you redraw your districts, you create open seats," said Bullock, a University of Georgia professor. "Open seats mean no one is there with the incumbent's advantage, and incumbents are often white males."
The new Georgia lawmakers come from widely varying backgrounds.
Zamarripa, a Georgia native, is an investment banker with nearly 20 years of work in or around Georgia government.
Marin, a transplant from Puerto Rico, has a career in non-profit work and is now executive director of the Mexican Center of Atlanta.
Casas, whose Cuban family fled to Spain prior to his birth, is a high school teacher, specializing in history and government.
The diversity of the three has pleased many leaders in Georgia's Hispanic community, in both economic and legal arenas.
"It sends a very strong message that Latinos are here and they are here to stay," said Sara Gonzalez, director of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
The three legislators say they look forward to serving as spokesmen for Georgia's Hispanic community, but they also intend to avoid being defined by their ethnicity.
Marin has already drafted one bill that would allow state prisoners to be used in graffiti cleanup efforts, as well as another that would require harsher sentences for participants in gang activities.
"That's not going to help just my district, or my city, or my county," Marin said. "It's going to help all of Georgia."
Zamarripa is jockeying for positions on several key Senate committees, including Transportation, Economic Development and Labor and Insurance. But his task is made all the more difficult given the recent Republican takeover of the Senate chamber.
However, it is likely GOP leaders will take Zamarripa's requests seriously since the Democrat's district includes the economic powerhouse of downtown Atlanta and many major tourist attractions, such as Turner Field, Philips Arena, Zoo Atlanta and Centennial Olympic Park.
Casas, who wants to focus on educational reform and fresh water supply, said he is enthused as a conservative by the incoming administration of Sonny Perdue, the first Republican to serve as Georgia's governor since 1872.
"There are many Hispanics who share the values of the Republican Party," he said. "I hope to be a voice for that."
All three say they will not shy from the issue of driver's licenses for illegal or undocumented state residents. "That is going to be one of the volatile issues of the session," Zamarripa said.
Both Zamarripa and Marin have long worked to support a bill that would allow licenses for almost any motorist in the state, regardless of citizenship status . The measure recently received the backing of police chiefs in Atlanta, Decatur, Brunswick and Warner Robins.
Supporters argue that such licensing would reduce the number of uninsured drivers on the road, while at the same time bringing down insurance premiums for all drivers. Also, they say licensing all drivers would require them to learn the rules of the road.
"We just have to see it as a public safety issue and an economic issue," Marin said.
Casas disagrees with his colleagues.
"I don't think it's going to bring the results they intend," he said. "While other states are strengthening their [driver's license] laws, we are talking about loosening it. It's not wise. They're breaking the law, and we're talking about putting a legal document in their hands. I am against it."
Both sides said it is too early to predict if the General Assembly would take action on the issue this year.
Some political scientists say the arrival of an ethnic or minority group on the political scene cannot serve as a barometer of future successes.
Native Alaskans have served in their state's legislature since the body was founded in 1959.
What was once a vibrant and influential collection of rural, mostly Democratic representatives now finds itself subordinate to the growing power of Alaska's mainly white Republican Party.
"[Natives] have been somewhat less successful because of the change in composition of the Legislature," said political scientist Jerry McBeath, of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "I don't think the state Republican Party goes out of its way to be inclusive with regard to the native population. It certainly doesn't take pro- native stances."
Yet minorities in mostly white states have proven themselves as political leaders, time and again.
Carlos Mayans, a Cuban refugee, served 10 years in the Kansas Legislature, where he represented the majority-white district of northwest Wichita.
Mayans, who is now running for mayor of the city, said he believes many Hispanics hinder growth of their own communities.
"For too long, some of the Hispanic leadership has been talking about discrimination and how people are being held back," he said. "I think that is very wrong. We shouldn't marginalize ourselves by telling mainstream society we are different. I mean, we can still eat our black beans and rice; we just don't have to shove it down somebody's mouth."
The three Georgians hold a similar view.
"It's not about Hispanics invading," said Casas of the elections. "We're not here to push our own agenda. We're here as Americans. We're Americans with a different flavor."
Staff writer Brian Basinger can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
REP. DAVID CASAS, R-LILBURN
-- Age: 31 -- Birthplace: Canary Islands -- Occupation: High school teacher -- Top issues: Education reform, natural resources, water quality
REP. PEDRO MARIN, D-DULUTH
-- Age: 44 -- Birthplace: San Juan, Puerto Rico -- Occupation: Executive director, Mexican Center of Atlanta -- Top issues: Graffiti cleanup, tougher sentences for gang members, driver's licenses for undocumented residents
SEN. SAM ZAMARRIPA, D-ATLANTA
-- Age: 50 -- Birthplace: Fort Benning -- Occupation: Investment banker -- Top issues: Economic development, air and water quality, driver's licenses for undocumented residents
AT A GLANCE
Here is the number of Hispanic residents in counties in Southeast Georgia and the percentage of each county's population, according to the 2000 Census.
Brantley -- 152 Hispanics (1.0 percent)