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The Florida Times-Union

Hispanic Lawmakers Laud First Year And Foothold Duties Go Beyond Latin Interests Because Constituencies Are More Diverse, Less Latino Voter Turnout

By BRIAN BASINGER, The Times-Union

January 23, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

ATLANTA -- One year after Georgia's first three Hispanic lawmakers were sworn into office, Sergio Reyes says he can see subtle differences in his life as a short-order cook.

The 37-year-old Mexican immigrant says he finally feels as if he has a voice at the state Capitol when discussions about Hispanic workers and their families take place.

"It's a good thing, a very good thing," Reyes said Monday, preparing for the lunch rush hour at a downtown food court.

However, Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta, as well as Reps. David Casas, R-Lilburn, and Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, are quick to point out they don't work solely for Spanish-speaking constituencies.

"My agenda is that of my community," said Casas, a social science teacher who represents a mostly white district in Gwinnett County.

In fact, none of the three first-time legislators was elected by a majority-Hispanic district in 2002. Marin also was voted in by a majority-white district in the Atlanta suburbs, while Zamarripa won a majority-black district stretching through much of downtown Atlanta.

Yet the past year has seen the three men perform delicate balancing acts by building bridges with their local community leaders, while also responding to the concerns of Hispanics throughout the state.

"The Latino agenda is very close to my heart," Marin said. "They were hungry for so long for some representation and some leadership."

Georgia's Hispanic population quadrupled between 1990 and 2000, growing from 108,900 to 435,200, roughly 5 percent of the state's overall population. The number swelled to 516,500 by 2002, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

However, most of the new residents do not vote for a variety of reasons, such as political apathy or lack of citizenship.

As a result, the legislation pushed by Casas, Marin and Zamarripa doesn't focus solely on Hispanic issues, such as expanding access to driver's licenses for immigrants.

Zamarripa, an investment banker by trade and Georgia native, is working on international trade issues and the state's economic development, particularly with China.

Casas, of Cuban heritage, plans to fight for Gov. Sonny Perdue's controversial proposal to give schoolteachers a 2 percent raise for the 2004-2005 school year.

"It's tough to justify," he said, noting Perdue's plan also calls for slashing the K-12 education budget by $225 million. "But the best resource the students have are their teachers. There has to be a priority to the teachers being the chief resources we fund the best."

Marin, a former administrator with the Boy Scouts of America, is drafting laws on community safety and anti-gang legislation.

Last year, the General Assembly passed his bill allowing the use of inmate labor to clean up graffiti.

"My first year has been incredible," said Marin, who moved to the United States from Puerto Rico. "I've enjoyed the ride so far, even if it ends tomorrow."

The business community also has taken note of the three.

"To me, this is just the beginning," said Sara Gonzalez, president of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce since 1996. "Every year is better and better. We now have an official legislative agenda and more things are taken seriously."

Gonzalez hopes Casas, Marin and Zamarripa will support her group's goals, such as the creation of a Hispanic studies center at the University of Georgia.

The state's political parties are paying attention as well, seeing the men as doors to an untold number of voters.

However, the parties' messages vary widely at times. Perdue and other Republicans have used the Hispanic community's strong adherence to the Catholic Church as a way to garner support for faith-based proposals. At the same time, Democrats play up the employment and health benefits available to Hispanic families through state programs.

"I think they are plucking different strings as they play their love songs," said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock of the political parties' efforts. "But the Hispanic vote could be significant to winning future elections."

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