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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Hispanic Caucus Finds Little Common Ground


January 31, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. All rights reserved. 

They are men and they speak Spanish. But the similarities among Georgia's first Hispanic state legislators pretty much end there.

Reps. David Casas (R-Lilburn) and Pedro Marin (D-Duluth) and Sen. Sam Zamarripa (D-Atlanta) have formed the first Hispanic caucus in the General Assembly. But the three might have a hard time finding common ground on issues affecting the state's growing Hispanic population.

Casas, a teacher, feels little responsibility to shoulder a "Hispanic agenda." Casas opposes efforts to grant driver's licenses and HOPE college scholarships to undocumented immigrants and their children --- two key goals of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Marin, an activist, and Zamarripa, an investment banker, support those ideas --- and view themselves as voices for Hispanics hungry for advocates.

The freshmen legislators insist they get along as compadres, friends, but signs of their political differences began to show quickly. Upon learning that his legislative office was next to Casas', Marin asked to be moved. He said the thin walls allowed conversations between two lawmakers of competing parties to carry too easily.

Latino leaders say it is no surprise that Hispanic legislators do not adhere to the same agendas.

"We tend to be lumped all into one group, and we are not," said Sara Gonzalez, president of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber. "What unifies us is the language. Other than that, we have very different cultures, and we tend to have our own opinions, and that's the way it is. . . . To a certain extent, it is refreshing to me that we have different opinions."

Casas says the only people he represents are the ones in his Lilburn district, and that he doesn't owe Hispanics any special favors. "Who I owe is the constituents that put me here. That's what I represent."

Zamarripa and Marin --- and some local Spanish language newspapers --- say Casas is ignoring reality. Georgia has more than 400,000 Hispanics, about 5 percent of the state's population, and thousands more are undocumented. Many are driving with no formal training and no auto insurance. And their children are graduating from high schools with no plans for higher education.

"What we're seeing is these kids --- they look at their future and their future's not bright, so what are they turning to?" Marin asked.

'The country first'

The three are believed to be the first Latino state legislators in modern Georgia history, although none of their districts is anywhere close to majority-Hispanic. Of the three, only Zamarripa faced tough opposition in November's elections. He emerged from a field of four candidates and won a runoff. Marin was elected with no opposition, while Casas faced a third-party opponent.

Casas, 31, a teacher of government at McEachern High School in Cobb County, came to the United States as a child in 1974 after his family fled from Communist Cuba to the Canary Islands. Casas, who also is a nondenominational Christian minister, attributes his conservatism mostly to his late father, a Republican who once proudly had his photo taken with the elder President George Bush.

"We have to look out for the country first," Casas' father would say. "And if we look out for the country, then the people are going to benefit from that. But if we concentrate on all of these individual issues, then the country will suffer as a whole."

It doesn't make sense to give driver's licenses and HOPE scholarships to immigrants who are in this country illegally, Casas said.

"Look at Latin American countries," said Casas, who majored in Latin American studies at Georgia State University. "Their governments are in shambles because there's no respect for the law. . . . What keeps this country together is respect for the law."

Mario Martinez, an Alpharetta businessman who volunteered for Gov. Sonny Perdue's campaign, supports Casas. "I think what Casas is doing is appropriate and right," Martinez said. "He needs to cater to his constituency and not to a particular group."

But Winston Garcia, editor of the Chamblee-based Nuestro Semanario newspaper, said Casas is making a mistake. "I believe the entire community is going to be against him because we expect some support," Garcia said.

500,000 Latinos

Marin, 44, a native of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, moved to metro Atlanta in 1995 as a salesman for a sunglasses maker. He lost his job and struggled in a new place where the language was not his native tongue. Marin credits the experience with giving him a sympathetic point of view toward immigrants.

He took a job recruiting Hispanic children for the Boy Scouts of America, which brought him in contact with immigrant families living in poverty. "That's when I saw the mission," he said.

"I've got my priorities, which is my district," said Marin, who has become a Latino activist in Gwinnett County. "But also, remember, you have 500,000 Latinos in the state of Georgia that are looking at us as their voices."

Zamarripa, 50, is a second-generation Mexican-American of Basque descent who wears a bow tie to work at Diaz-Verson Ventures, an investment banking services firm where he is a managing partner. His late father, who was born in Texas, was a migrant worker who joined the U.S. Army when he was 16.

"My parents taught me to always look out for people who got the short end of the stick," said Zamarripa, who lives in Atlanta's Inman Park neighborhood.

The three legislators embraced during a recent reception in their honor at the Latin American Association. Marin, the most playful of the trio, swung his legs in the air and tried to get his colleagues to do an impromptu dance. They didn't join in.

The Latino legislators are not in step with each other politically, either, but Casas says there's nothing wrong with that.

"The issues present something called healthy debate," Casas said. "My perspective with their perspective defines common ground, and we can work through this."

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