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Suspicious Minds

By Steve Miller

February 28, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE WASHINGTON TIMES. All rights reserved. 

Part III

     HOUSTON -- Orlando Sanchez, a blue-eyed Cuban, is ready to make another race for mayor of Houston after a narrow loss in 2001 to the city's black incumbent, Lee Brown. Top Stories

     But Mr. Sanchez, a Republican running for the nonpartisan office, says he can't count on black voters to make him the first Hispanic to take the helm of the nation's fourth-largest city.

     "They see the pie as finite and limited,'' Mr. Sanchez, 45, says. "If an Hispanic gets in, they see a diminution of services, but it really isn't that way at all."

     Mr. Sanchez's dilemma in addressing the suspicions of black voters — that the burgeoning Mexican population of Houston threatens their jobs, housing and services — reflects increasing street-level tensions across the nation as the Hispanic population soared by 58 percent in the 1990s to overtake non-Hispanic blacks as the largest minority.

     At the national level, black and Hispanic leaders continue to call for coalition and common cause between the two groups, downplaying conflict over such issues as affirmative action, immigration policy, bilingual education and redistricting.

     But some ugly political fights at the local level foreshadow the increasing difficulty of embracing a common agenda as Hispanics, lacking blacks' racial solidarity and still fragmented by their nations of origin, test their political muscle:

     •Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn defeated Antonio Villaraigosa, former majority leader of the state Assembly, with 80 percent of the black vote in 2001 and an ad that linked him to favors for a drug dealer. Mr. Hahn, who is white, enjoyed a hearty endorsement from Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, who is black.

     Some analysts attributed Mr. Hahn's appeal among blacks to the legacy of his father, a former Los Angeles County supervisor. Poll data, though, showed blacks also voted against Mr. Villaraigosa, the eldest son of a Mexican immigrant and a Mexican-American secretary, out of growing resentments over Hispanic gains in political and economic clout.

     •Hispanics and blacks wrestled in court and public hearings in recent years over the redrawing of district boundaries in Florida, Texas, New Jersey and California because the final lines could determine whether blacks or Hispanics win state or federal political office.

     The two groups butted heads two years ago in Dallas, delaying a school board election until district lines could be redrawn to reflect the new census numbers. The figures showed Hispanics to be 35 percent of the population, outnumbering blacks by more than 100,000.

     "Blacks are now threatened by us, even though they have used our numbers for years to show how large the 'minority' community is," says Dallas lawyer Adelfa Callejo, who led the fight for Hispanic parents. "They are threatened by us because they know we have the numbers."

     •Mr. Sanchez came within 4,383 votes — fewer than 1 percent of the total — of denying Mr. Brown a third term in Houston. In an 11th-hour ad campaign, he said, the mayor played the race card to pull out the victory.

     The ads featured the sister of James Byrd Jr., the black man who was dragged to his death by whites in east Texas, slamming Mr. Sanchez for not supporting a hate crimes bill while on the Houston City Council. The tactic, Mr. Sanchez said, "went beyond decency."

     Mr. Brown in turn accused Mr. Sanchez of "consciously targeting a certain ethnic group that speaks a certain language and emphasizing a last name that definitely appealed to many of them, regardless of the issues."

     Such conflict on the political stage is not likely to abate.

     "We are going to see more and more of that kind of thing," says Tatcho Mindiola Jr., author of "Black Brown: Relations and Stereotypes" and director of the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Houston.

     "Hispanics trail African-Americans in terms of political maturation, African-Americans vote in larger numbers and have more elected officials, but Latinos are beginning to make their move," Mr. Mindiola says. "And because they tend to live in a lot of the same areas, there are bound to be these conflicts."

     The numbers game

     For now, some black critics of the census count insist that Hispanics — who can be of any race originating from Spanish-speaking nations — are not a true minority but an ethnic group. If anything, the reasoning goes, they should be considered white, as many Hispanics see themselves.

     "What has been done here is to compare a race with a language group," says Ron Walters, a University of Maryland professor who directs the African-American Leadership Institute. "And in some ways, that means that blacks are still the largest minority because Hispanics can be white, black or brown."

     Studies in Houston, Los Angeles and other major U.S. cities found that non-Hispanic blacks — even those with more education and higher-paying jobs — are much less accepting of immigration than are non-Hispanic whites.

     Analysts note that blacks exhibit more racial solidarity and are concerned that Hispanic immigrants — even illegals — are benefiting from the fruits of blacks' civil rights struggle. Affirmative action policies likely exacerbate the unease between the groups as they compete for minority positions or set-aside contracts.

     The number of Hispanics will leap from 37 million to 88 million by 2020 and account for 21 percent of the U.S. population, while blacks hold at 12 percent, according to projections by Strategy Research Corp. published in Hispanic Trends magazine.

     Hispanic turnout in the November general elections doubled between 1990 and 2000, from 2.9 million to 5.9 million. But census numbers show that only 27.5 percent of the voting-age Hispanic population actually voted in 2000, compared with 53.5 percent of blacks.

     President Bush won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote that year, according to Voter News Service exit polls. Republicans aim for 40 percent in 2004.

     But for now, more than 90 percent of the nation's roughly 4,500 Hispanic elected officials claim Democratic as their partisan affiliation.

     On paper, at least, this puts them on the same political page as the approximately 10,000 black elected officials, who are overwhelmingly Democratic. And indeed, black and Hispanic activists do find common ground on some issues, such as their fight for fair housing and opposition to racial profiling.

     Conflict or competition?

     Although Democrats may have secured Hispanics for now, however, at least a quarter of them are not yet old enough to vote.

     In addition, exit polls and other surveys show Hispanic political affiliation leaning Republican as household income rises. A pool of 40 percent to 50 percent of Hispanic voters with household incomes below $50,000 consider themselves "independent" and, in theory, are persuadable.

     Accounts of black-Hispanic friction — on the streets, at work, in the political arena — irritate Andrew Hernandez, who has made a mini-crusade of downplaying such rifts.

     "Some people call it conflict, but it is really competition," says Mr. Hernandez, executive director of the 21st Century Leadership Center at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. "There is nothing unusual about African-Americans voting for African-Americans and Hispanics voting for Hispanics."

     He also cites several recent political collaborations:

     •In New York, Democratic mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer, a Puerto Rican, attracted solid backing in 2001 from black voters with the encouragement of activist Al Sharpton.

     •Democrat John Street, who is black, was elected mayor of Philadelphia in 2000 with the support of the city's Hispanics.

     •In Illinois, Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun, the first black woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate, garnered 83 percent of the Hispanic vote in her losing 1998 re-election race.

     "The nature of politics is competition, but for people to insist there is conflict [between blacks and Hispanics] is simply not true," Mr. Hernandez says.

     Mr. Sharpton, whose protest of the U.S. Navy's bombing range at Vieques, Puerto Rico, landed him in jail for 90 days, argues that many blacks and Hispanics "are in similar situations."

     "I would hope to continue our alliance," Mr. Sharpton says. "We need to find even stronger bonds."

     "The white male power elite has always tried to drive a wedge and create division between blacks and Latinos," says New York City Council member Charles Barron, who is black. "And I think some of us have bought into that, wrongly.

     "Others try to say that blacks are angry because Latinos have come in and taken our jobs," Mr. Barron adds. "Well, what is really happening is that all the 'haves' have too much and there isn't anything left."

     The Republican push

     "Hispanics are Republicans," Ronald Reagan once said. "They just don't know it yet."

     What the nation's Hispanics are not, though, is as fixed in their voting habits as blacks, whose modern devotion to the Democratic Party all but stymies overtures from the Republican Party. President Bush, for one, keeps on trying.

     In November's midterm elections, though, a mere 11 of the 61 Hispanics elected at the state and congressional levels — or 18 percent — were Republicans.

     Still, that encourages some Republican strategists, who have begun to take the long view that "the minority vote" means Hispanic, not black.

     "It was like a five-yard run instead of an 80-yard touchdown pass," Rudy Fernandez, director of grass-roots development for the Republican National Committee, says of the midterm results.

     Mr. Fernandez led the party's unprecedented effort to land Hispanics at the polls, with mixed results. The move was significant, though, in showing just how dedicated the party has become to wooing this rapidly growing share of the electorate that shows a willingness to listen to Republican candidates.

     "We are finding that as Latinos become more educated, they tend to vote more Republican," says Larry Gonzalez, director of the Washington office of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).

     One recent indicator of Hispanics' own competing agendas is the disagreement over whether Miguel Estrada is "Hispanic enough" for a federal appeals court slot. It became so strident that the National Council of La Raza called for both sides to cool down.

     The plea for civility from the nation's largest constituency-based Hispanic organization underscored deep division over Mr. Estrada, whom Mr. Bush nominated to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

     Among Hispanic interest groups opposing him are the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Foundation and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. Among supporters are the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Hispanic National Bar Association.

     Mr. Sanchez, a Houston businessman, starts with the premise that everybody wants a good job, a nice home, the American dream — black and Hispanic and white alike.

     "That is one of the most Republican, conservative districts in this country," the mayoral candidate says, gesturing out at the 7th Congressional District, where Hispanics make up 16 percent of the electorate.

     "Hispanics are made to be Republicans," Mr. Sanchez says, echoing Mr. Reagan's grand pronouncement of more than 20 years ago. "They have these strong work and family values that should be tapped.

     "I agree that education is the number one issue, and I think a lot of African-Americans feel that way," he says, sitting on a balcony outside his office at the Galleria mall on a sunny afternoon. "And on everyday issues, I think that Republicans and Hispanics are in lock step. This is why we see the Republican Party making such a major move to get that vote."

     Blacks by contrast, Mr. Sanchez argues, "have voted as a bloc and been stuck in the promises of the Great Society and told that it is taboo to break out of that pack."

     A Milwaukee tradition

     Hector Colon, a 30-year-old Puerto Rican, plans to run next year for a seat on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.

     Here in Mr. Colon's native Milwaukee, the census says 13 percent of the population is Hispanic, a jump of 82 percent since 1990. When he hit his teen years, the city he grew up in was black and white and on its way to urban seed.

     "I'm a Democrat, as most of the Hispanics here are," Mr. Colon proudly announces.

     The seven-time amateur boxing champion, who recently turned pro, expects to run from a district that is 67 percent Hispanic. But, Mr. Colon says, "the low voter turnout of Latinos means that they may not be the ones getting me in."

     He worked to get out the vote in 2000, shoulder to shoulder with black, white and Hispanic volunteers from local unions, Operation Big Vote, the NAACP National Voter Fund, the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the League of Women Voters.

     Al Gore won the Milwaukee area by 5,500 votes — an estimated 2,900 from Hispanics.

     Mr. Colon paid $50 to attend a two-day seminar in Milwaukee last spring on the ins and outs of raising money for a political campaign, launching a message and mobilizing supporters. NALEO sponsored the traveling workshop and a cast of partisan local presenters.

     State Rep. Pedro Colon, a lanky, 34-year-old Democrat with designer spectacles and a boisterous, animated manner, is among the speakers who addresses about 30 participants.

     "Hispanics running for office are given a lot of expectations," explains Mr. Colon, who is not related to Hector. "There are issues they are expected to tackle: immigration, women's issues, English-only debates and even boxing."

     Showing up

     Attendees learned an important lesson at NALEO's workshop: Illegal immigrants can work in campaigns, and often do. Just because they can't cast a ballot doesn't mean they can't make calls, prepare mailings and run errands.

     "They can be volunteers, they can help get out the vote, they can make a difference," notes Christine Neumann-Ortiz, representing Voces de la Frontera ("Voices From the Border"), a workers' rights group for illegals.

     Marcelo Gaete, who organizes these campaign workshops as NALEO's deputy director of programs, later says that no other views were presented because "this town is run by Democrats."

     Mr. Gaete may not have intended to do the bidding of the Democratic Party. But the effect is the same as speakers slip their agenda into classroom banter: pro-immigration, pro-choice, pro-union.

     Most of Milwaukee's Hispanic community — Hector Colon among them — lives in Walker's Point, a 110-block area on the north side. An anti-smoking billboard, in Spanish, greets visitors who cross the Menomonee River. It is the first sign of the growing population of immigrants and trailing family members. The next signs are the restaurants — Salvadoran, Mexican, name it.

     The United Community Center is here, a rather industrial-looking place that boasts gyms, classrooms and the chatter of social services. The center is run by Walter Sava, who notes that Milwaukee's fledgling Hispanic politicos learned their stuff from the city's black leaders.

     "They have a history here, and while they are separate groups, the Hispanics and the blacks can and do get together on issues," he says. "There are also some who are not as comfortable here, as we have mostly Spanish-speaking people here."

     Voters in Walker's Point voted almost 3-1 for Mr. Gore, and residents say the Republican Party has yet to come knocking. The formidable Democratic machine aims to ensure that these wards, small as they are, reinforce Democratic voting patterns that will be passed along in the swelling Hispanic electorate.

     "Latinos are willing to vote for anybody who will show up at their door and will listen," Milwaukee school board member Jennifer Morales says.

     'Rally around it'

     Nick Pacheco thinks he can give Republicans and Democrats a lesson in winning the Hispanic vote.

     The Los Angeles City Council member gives straight talk that makes Sen. John McCain and his Beltway rhetoric look more like small talk. He says that candidates can't just appeal to Hispanics' nationalism.

     "I went into the district and talked to them, all the time, and I asked them for their vote," says Mr. Pacheco, 38 and the son of Mexican immigrants.

     The Democrat represents District 14, a blue-collar tract that includes most of downtown and the east portion of the city as well as bohemian Highland Park and mostly white Eagle Rock. The district is 84 percent Hispanic and draws a crowd of Democratic primary candidates.

     Mr. Pacheco grew up in Boyle Heights. He lived there until 2001. To win his council seat in 1999, he defeated a fellow Democrat who outspent him by nearly $800,000. It didn't hurt that he was camera-ready and spoke in sound bites.

     "I may not have been the best candidate," Mr. Pacheco says, unflinchingly. "But I ran the best campaign."

     How to capture the Hispanic vote?

     "Get them to connect their hopes to a candidate and make sure that they know that if they only get out to vote, that candidate will help them."

     Mr. Pacheco is mining those potential votes again for his re-election bid. They flourish in the streets of Boyle Heights, where men in cowboy hats drink beer in the parks off Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, and at the exhaust-drenched bus stops where mothers wait with strollers and arms full of produce to take home for dinner.

     Mr. Pacheco goes there to push his platform of a new government that works for all people and is composed of regular guys — like him. In his last campaign, he disparaged the climate of professional politics at city hall and let his people know that he was one of them, a boy from Boyle Heights.

     "Get a key issue and rally around it — that is how you get out a vote," he says.

     Return on investment

     "There is no Hispanic vote," insists Fernando Oaxaca, 75, a Ford administration appointee and retired engineer who lives in west Los Angeles. "The Hispanic vote is a composite that the media put a label on, do a survey of 1,000 Hispanics, and it sells. But there are Hispanic people in Miami who vote quite differently and have different issues that matter to them than those Hispanics in Los Angeles.

     "To me, the Hispanic mentality, the view of the world, is more in sync with Republicans right now, while blacks are now a large part of the middle class but don't seem to be voting Republican," Mr. Oaxaca says.

     Mr. Oaxaca, of Mexican heritage but born in the United States, founded the National Hispanic Republican Assembly 30 years ago. Once boasting a dues-paying membership of 20,000, it has dwindled to a few thousand today.

     "At that time, when you said 'minority,' it meant 'black,' " Mr. Oaxaca says of his stint in Washington three decades ago. "There was no sensitivity at all to the Hispanics as a minority."

     Much of official, political Washington did not envision that Hispanics would have major implications for national politics. Texas, sure; California, of course. But nationally?

     "For Republicans, at least, there is now a return on the investment with Hispanics," Mr. Oaxaca says. "And for Democrats as well, I suppose."

     The short-term return for both parties is fealty to an agenda that can capture the White House in 2004.

     When the updated census numbers last month confirmed that Hispanics had eclipsed non-Hispanic blacks in population, some black politicians and activists grumbled that the announcement was politically motivated by Republicans.

     "It was a political attempt to gain favor with the Spanish-speaking people in the country," says Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, who heads the Black Leadership Forum. "These census figures also include people who are undocumented, which also skews the figures, if we are counting Americans.

     "The whole thing was a smoke screen that has to do with the presidential election of 2004 and the appearance of garnering more support for one political party," Miss Scruggs-Leftwich says. "When the party in power issues a press statement like that, there is more to it than just counting people."

     Gabriella Lemus, legislative director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, rejects that notion.

     "Frankly, it has a lot to do with funding issues and who gets what," she says. "Perhaps that's why there are some misgivings here. I think we could be doing so much more by working together, African-American and Latinos. Instead of going for crumbs, we should be baking the pie."

     The "who's bigger" argument has arisen before, notes Eric Rodriguez, director of the economic mobility initiative at La Raza, another Hispanic advocacy group.

     "It is clear that down the line, there will be a larger disparity between the two communities," Mr. Rodriguez says.

     Part II: Mutual mistrust

     Part I: Welcome to the neighborhood

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