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Un Nuevo Día? The Chairman Of The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Loses. That's Bad News For Liberal Democrats…FL House Hispanics Hope To Build Bloc On Shared Heritage

Un Nuevo Día?

The Chairman Of The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Loses. That's Bad News For Liberal Democrats.


April 5, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. All rights reserved.

Hispanics are now America's largest minority group, but Al Sharpton's news clippings alone prove how much more attention is paid to black politics over Hispanic.

That's one reason the defeat of Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, in a Democratic primary in Texas hasn't gotten more coverage.

Another reason is that Henry Cuellar, the winner by 203 votes in a bitterly contested recount last week, is the kind of Hispanic politician liberal reporters can't always understand: a thoughtful moderate who believes in working across party lines and who actually endorsed George W. Bush for president in 2000.

The race isn't completely over. Mr. Rodriguez is charging that the recount in the March 9 primary election is tainted by the discovery of more than 300 uncounted ballots in Zapata County, a Cuellar stronghold on the Mexican border. The incumbent charges voter fraud and has filed suit to overturn the election. There is certainly a long history of incompetence and chicanery in Texas border counties, most infamously Ballot Box 13, which saved Lyndon B. Johnson's political career in 1948 after it mysteriously turned up with just enough votes for him to win a Senate seat. This year, there may have been fraud on both sides. Last month officials in San Antonio, an area Mr. Rodriguez carried with 80% of the vote, caught a total of 42 applications for mail-in ballots from dead people.

Assuming that Mr. Cuellar is the Democratic nominee, he will represent a real change in the ranks of Hispanic Democrats in Congress. Born to migrant workers, he grew up in poverty in the border city of Laredo. He excelled in school, became a lawyer and businessman, eventually earned a Ph.D. in government. In 1986, at age 30, he won a seat in the Texas House, where he concentrated on tax relief, education and health care. He was known as someone who brought factions together, brokered deals and avoid ideological pigeonholing. In 2000 he endorsed George W. Bush for president and even joined a "Truth Squad" that traveled to other states to defend his record as governor of Texas. This year, however, Mr. Cuellar is backing John Kerry. He says the president has disappointed him by not governing in a truly bipartisan fashion.

Many Democrats say Mr. Cuellar's moderate stances mask a consuming opportunism. They point out that he resigned from the legislature after Mr. Bush's election to accept an appointment as secretary of state from incoming governor Rick Perry. He resigned that post after only 10 months to run for Congress in 2002 against Rep. Henry Bonilla, the House's only Mexican-American Republican. He lost that race, 52% to 47%, winning his home area of Laredo overwhelmingly and running five points ahead of Al Gore's 2000 showing in the district.

Despite his respectable showing, national Democrats criticized Mr. Cuellar for running an inept campaign. One operative called him "a fundamentally and fatally flawed candidate" whom Democrats "are not going to waste money on again." Mr. Cuellar said the criticism represented lingering bitterness over his willingness to work with Republicans. He was nonetheless preparing to run against Mr. Bonilla again when the Texas Legislature, newly controlled by Republicans, scrapped a court-drawn redistricting plan and drew new lines that put most of Mr. Cuellar's home area in the district Mr. Rodriguez has represented since 1997. When Mr. Cuellar announced he would challenge the incumbent in the primary, he was denounced as a traitor and ingrate. He responds: "Nobody died and made [Mr. Rodriguez] king. Democrats run against Democrats all the time."

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus was especially resentful of the challenge to their chairman, and they joined labor groups in pouring money into Mr. Rodriguez's coffers. The Almanac of American Politics notes that Mr. Rodriguez had the most liberal voting record of any Texas congressman, and he took fire from more-conservative Hispanics, who didn't like his stands opposing the war in Iraq and the Partial-Birth Abortion Act. Mr. Cuellar also criticized Mr. Rodriguez for opposing President Bush's prescription-drug plan from the left and mocked him as ineffective: "Ciro has done zero." He noted that Mr. Rodriguez's relations with President Bush were so bad that the congressman admitted his the White House no longer returned his phone calls.

Mr. Rodriguez in turn routinely claimed his opponent was a closet Republican. "Henry Cuellar sits on the fence. . . . Democrat then Republican. Republican then Democrat. Democrat then Republican," a Rodriguez fund-raising letter said.

The most frequently cited evidence of Mr. Cuellar's apostasy was his co-sponsorship of a bill that would have let students in low-performing schools attend private schools if they can't find a space in better public ones. "I feel like a poor child shouldn't be trapped by the geography of where his parents happen to live," he said. "When I talk to people who are against vouchers, I ask them to put their own kids in a low-performing school like some in my district. Then come back in a year and debate me on vouchers."

His arguments persuaded the board of the League of United Latin American Citizens to endorse vouchers, although the group's state convention later reversed that move. Vouchers failed to pass the Legislature in 1999, and while Mr. Cuellar didn't make them an issue this year, he refused to retreat from his support of them.

In the end, the race came down in part to regional loyalty: Mr. Rodriguez swept his San Antonio base, and Mr. Cuellar won 85% of the vote in Laredo. But many political observers believe there was an ideological component as well. "Henry proved that you can run as a moderate, get the community to listen to you and win," says a former Hispanic colleague of his in the Legislature.

The district is overwhelmingly Democratic, so assuming that Mr. Cuellar defeats Mr. Rodriguez's vote-count challenges, he will go to Washington in January. Some Democrats will no doubt give him a chilly reception, at least at first. But the brash challenger has proved before that he can work with people from all sides, and his unusual status could even make him a bridge between liberal and conservative lawmakers. Mr. Cuellar's election, along with the continued victories of his former GOP adversary, Mr. Bonilla, will serve as further evidence that liberal Democrats can't take Hispanic votes for granted.

FL House Hispanics Hope To Build Bloc On Shared Heritage

By Bob Mahlburg | Tallahassee Bureau

April 26, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

TALLAHASSEE -- Across the nation, Republicans and Democrats are fighting over the increasingly powerful Hispanic vote, but Hispanic lawmakers in the Florida House instead are joining forces across party lines.

A newly formed Florida Hispanic Legislative Caucus stresses that Hispanic concerns on education, language, health and other issues should outweigh political party.

The president of the Hispanic caucus is a Republican from Miami Beach, Rep. Gus Barreiro, and the vice president is a Democrat from Tampa, Rep. Bob Henriquez.

Barreiro compares the group of 14 Hispanic lawmakers with a legislative black caucus, which works to advance issues that help African-Americans.

"We have commonalities across party lines," Henriquez said. "I see it as a very positive step."

Unlike a longtime, informal "Cuban caucus" of Republicans from South Florida, the new group includes lawmakers from both parties, a formal legal structure and staff, and reflects the state's growing Hispanic diversity, including members with roots in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Spain, Mexico and South America.

Rep. John Quiñones, R-Kissimmee, is the only Puerto Rican. The group's treasurer, Rep. Juan Zapata, R-Miami, is from Colombia.

The 14-member caucus is overwhelmingly Republican, including all 12 Hispanic Republicans in the House. It also includes both Hispanic Democrats in the House, Henriquez and Rep. Susan Bucher of Royal Palm Beach, who has Mexican heritage, leaders said.

Former Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas, who is Cuban-American, said he wishes the new bipartisan effort well.

"I'm sure there will be a handful of issues where it would make sense to present a united front. If they get it to work, it would be a positive thing."

Cardenas also has his doubts.

"It was tried at the national level for a while," Cardenas noted. "There's a Hispanic Congressional Caucus and at one point, we had three Republican members in it. They tried it for a couple years and it just wouldn't work."

Members of the new Florida House caucus make no pretense that there won't be conflicts.

"Sure, there'll be some differences, but the first thing is to get people involved," Zapata said.

Still, Henriquez said members share views on many issues, such as unemployment, health disparities, adult literacy and migrant workers.

"There will be some political tightrope-walking when a partisan issue comes up that we don't lose the identity," Henriquez concedes.

Quiñones points to a bill he's pushing to allow the use of alternative tests to pass the FCAT, which would help Hispanics who primarily speak Spanish, or measures to aid Hispanics with a high rate of diabetes.

"Those are the kind of issues that the group would work on," Quiñones said. "When you talk about certain issues that may affect Hispanics, you will find good consensus."

There are limits, Henriquez says.

"If you start to use the Hispanic caucus just on an issue dealing with Castro and Cuba, or to prop up a member in a tough political race, that's a different story," he said. "But I'd rather not focus on the negatives and how we might implode. I'd rather focus on how to make it work."

The new Hispanic caucus could become a potent political force, some say. It already includes both House Majority Leader Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, and House Majority Whip Gaston Cantens, R-Miami. And its members make up more than 10 percent of the 120-member House.

"Any time you have a 14-member bloc, it can have a significant role," said longtime lobbyist Damon Smith.

Smith recalled how seven Republican Cuban-American lawmakers banded together a decade ago to swing the election of House Speaker Tom Gustafson, a liberal Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, and defeat conservative Democrat Carl Carpenter of Plant City.

"The Cuban members, as a whole, got together and they split off from the Republican Party as a unified Cuban caucus," Smith said. "And everyone of them got a committee chairmanship and $1 million in the budget."

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