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Democrats On Defense With Hispanics

By Donald Lambro

February 10, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE WASHINGTON TIMES. All rights reserved. 

     Some Democrats are continuing to complain that the party's message is not clear, and that Democratic opposition to a major judicial nominee threatens to alienate Hispanic voters.

     Few, if any, Democratic state leaders want to be heard criticizing their party's leadership at the beginning of the 2004 presidential election cycle. But grass-roots leaders and activists say the class-warfare attacks on President Bush's tax cuts have not worked and that a less strident, more focused economic message is needed to reconnect with swing voters who supported Republicans in November.

     Some say they long for Bill Clinton's ability to shape and market the party's message better.

     "The message isn't clear so that the average American can identify with it. I don't think we are in touch with the average American on the economic issues," said David L. Armstrong, Democratic former mayor of Louisville, Ky. and an activist member of the Democratic Leadership Council.

     The party also remains divided over the looming war in Iraq. While most of the presidential contenders support Mr. Bush's plan to use military force to disarm Saddam Hussein, most of the rank-and-file in Congress still oppose it.

     Mr. Armstrong said his party "has got to have a strong discussion about national security."

     But his biggest complaint is that the party has not put forward a clear, compelling and visible alternative to the president's agenda on the budget and other domestic issues.

     "We all agree that we should have an alternative; we should have choices; but we have not presented choices in a clear and concise way that everyone can identify with and line up behind," he said.

     "I think the Democrats, quite frankly, are trying to figure out who is going to be the front-runner for the party instead of trying to hammer out an agenda for the party," he said.

     Another Democratic official from the Midwest, who did not want to speak on the record, said "our national message needs to be a lot sharper about what we stand for."

     At the same time, there were growing complaints that Senate Democratic opposition to Mr. Bush's nomination of Miguel Estrada to be the first Hispanic judge on the U.S. Appeals Court in the District is alienating Hispanic voters.

     "It doesn't sit well among the majority of the [Hispanic] community. They ask what is it about him that's so extreme. That's where the Democrats fall down," said Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. LULAC, the nation's largest Latino grass-roots organization, is supporting the Estrada nomination.

     Mr. Wilkes said that if Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle decides to wage a filibuster to block a vote on the nomination, "I think it will hurt them. There is going to be that swing vote in the Hispanic community wondering what ... is going on."

     "I don't think the party feels the Democrats are handling the Latino vote very well. They are fumbling. They have not had an adequate response to the Republicans. It's clear the Democratic Party is struggling," Mr. Wilkes said in an interview.

     Other Hispanic and Latino leaders privately say that Senate Democrats are being pushed into opposing the conservative judicial nominee by the party's liberal constituencies, including feminist groups, pro-choice Democrats, and civil rights organizations such as the NAACP.

     But other Democratic insiders who do not want to be identified say that Mr. Daschle and the Democratic National Committee have been getting complaints from some grass-roots Democrats that the party's opposition to Mr. Estrada is not playing well with many Hispanics in their states.

     The issue has become especially sensitive among Democratic officials in states including Florida, Texas and California where Latino and Hispanic populations are strongest.

     In Texas, for example, a spokesman for state Democratic Chairman Molly Beth Malcolm said she declined to discuss how the Estrada nomination was playing in her state.

     "We prefer that you talk to the Democratic National Committee about this," her press secretary said.

     But Art Torres, the California state party chairman, said, "I'm not picking up anything on him."

     Hispanic officials pointed out yesterday that Mr. Bush and the Republicans were making a major push for Hispanic and Latino support, and noted that postelection surveys in November showed Republicans winning as much as 39 percent of their vote.

     "From what I hear, there was a large Hispanic vote for Republicans. I think our community has said we are intrigued by their efforts to reach out to the Hispanic community, and we are going to give you a chance," Mr. Wilkes said.

     "The days when [former Republican presidential nominee] Bob Dole pulled in 20 percent of our vote" are over, he said. "It's definitely much higher now."

     He portrayed the Democrats as being thrown on the defensive on Mr. Estrada's nomination by the White House and Senate Republicans.

     "The Democrats are not used to defending themselves to the minority community. They've got to do something," he said.

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