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Potential Hispanic Party Shifts Raise Election Stakes… Bush Campaign Courts Hispanic Voters In Several Key States

Potential Hispanic Party Shifts Raise Election Stakes

John Lantigua

August 8, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PALM BEACH POST. All rights reserved.

MIAMI -- Democrats looking for ways to win Florida and the White House in November have found a new card to play in the hard-voting Cuban community, thanks to a recent controversial policy decision by President Bush.

It might be labeled "the Elian Gonzalez gambit."

No one would have heard the word "chad" in 2000 if Democrat Al Gore, who won a measly 15 percent to 18 percent of the Cuban exile vote, had performed nearly as well as Bill Clinton, who collected 28 percent to 30 percent in 1996. That translated into a loss of 45,000 votes -- a total swing of 90,000 -- in an election decided by only 537.

A major reason Gore's campaign shipwrecked on the shores of Miami-Dade was the Clinton administration's decision to send the 5-year-old rafter boy back to his father on the island. The move enraged many exiles, even Cuban Democrats.

The basic issue then was the reunification of a Cuban family. Lo and behold, the same concern has raised its head in 2004. But this time, the party at peril is the Republicans, and the president who may have provoked Cuban anger is Bush.

"We warned him," recalls Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, which traditionally has had cordial relations with the GOP. "We said, 'Be careful before you pull the trigger on this. This may cost you more than it's worth.' But he did it anyway."

What Bush did was announce, in June, new measures against the government of Fidel Castro. At the last moment, he added a provision: From now on, exiles can visit their families in Cuba only once every three years. Previously, one visit a year was allowed. Those journeys will be restricted to 14 days, when before there was no maximum stay. The government also announced new restrictions on the amount of money that can be spent in Cuba and sent to family there.

Those changes, championed by Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, were seen as a concession to the far right Cuban Liberty Council, which has evolved as the Bush administration's closest ally in the Cuban community during the past four years and part of the president's Florida base. The Cuban Liberty Council wants fewer visits so Castro will collect less cash, which the council says helps him survive.

"When the measures were first mentioned, we received 1,500 calls in a 24-hour period supporting them," says Ninoska Perez, spokeswoman for the Cuban Liberty Council, which represents old-guard exiles, few of whom have close family left on the island.

On the other hand, the announcement has touched off demonstrations against the president, mostly by Cubans who have come to Florida since the Mariel boatlift of 1980 and who have family still in Cuba. The protests have been relatively small -- 500 people at most -- but bigger than any Cuban exile demonstration ever seen against a Republican administration.

And it has some Cubans saying they won't vote for Bush.

"Bush did this for purely electoral purposes and took erroneous advice," says Ramon Saul Sanchez, leader of the Democracia Movement, which includes many of those post-1980 exiles. "Bush isn't strangling Castro. He's strangling families. We Cubans believe that family reunification is one of our human rights.

"Some people have told me this will be the deciding issue for them," Sanchez says. "Some have said they simply won't vote, and others say they may vote for Kerry, although there is caution about him. He still hasn't defined himself when it comes to Cuba."

Since the June 30 announcement, Kerry has spoken against the limits on family visits and Cuba travel restrictions in general.

"Bush's institution of the travel restrictions should help us," says Scott Maddox, chairman of the Democratic Party in Florida. "It's hurting those families."

Garcia agrees.

"Bush did something that hasn't been done before," he says. "He divided the Cuban community as it relates to Cuba policy. If you already got about 83 percent of the Cuban vote last time, where is it you were trying to get? He did better here than he did in Crawford, Texas, where he has his ranch. It isn't good when you light the fuse for the other side."

Which means the issue could prove to be a bomb on election day.

Democrats gaining ground

Some observers disagree sharply.

"I don't expect any big changes," says Dario Moreno, a longtime political analyst based at Florida International University in Miami. "There's not much that John Kerry can do with the Cuban vote. At the very most, he might do 25 percent."

But even that might be more than enough to swing Florida.

"To go from maybe 18 percent to 25 percent of the Cubans in a state this closely divided could be important," says Miami-based pollster Sergio Bendixen.

Both Moreno and Bendixen agree that about 450,000 Cubans voted in 2000. The total Hispanic vote in the state was about 650,000, or about 11 percent of the electorate.

A 5 percent shift in the Cuban vote means 22,500 more for Kerry and the same amount subtracted from Bush, a swing of 45,000.

That doesn't count recently registered Cubans, who are not registering GOP at anywhere near the 4-1 rate their exile predecessors did.

Jorge Mursuli is national director of Mi Familia Vota (My Family Votes), which is conducting a nationwide registration campaign among Hispanics.

He says his group has signed up 30,000 new voters since March in south and central Florida -- not just Cubans but South Americans and Central Americans who have become citizens in recent years. The largest group, 40 percent, is nonpartisan, and the Republicans and Democrats are dividing the rest almost equally, each with about 30 percent.

"And I would say the Cubans registering are following those general numbers," Mursuli says. "Yes, it seems to be a big shift."

Silvia Wilhelm, a Cuban exile Democrat who has organized demonstrations against the travel measures, thinks the majority of the new Hispanic voters will go for Kerry.

But the question is whether they will vote.

"Lots of money is spent on these registration campaigns, but then the people don't show up at the polls," says FIU's Moreno. "There's a lot of talk too about younger Cubans favoring Kerry, but young people don't vote. The old conservative Cubans, they all get to the polls."

GOP realizes votes in jeopardy

GOP spokesmen are being more cautious than Moreno about the possible minor erosion in the GOP Cuban vote.

"The effect of the (travel) measures is yet to be seen," says Joseph Agostini, spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida. "The rank and file in the Cuban community support them, but we are keenly aware of the value of every vote."

Reed Dickens, spokesman for the Bush campaign in South Florida, says he isn't afraid Cubans will switch their allegiance.

"The fact that people are displeased with one particular measure doesn't mean they'll vote for John Kerry," he says.

But the possibility that some Cuban Republicans will stay home is a concern. Dickens says the GOP's well-funded grass-roots organization will work to get out the vote.

Both parties also will try to do that along the "I-4 corridor," from Tampa north through Orlando, where Puerto Rican voters are the majority in the Hispanic community. Gore won that vote by a small margin in 2000. But Republican Gov. Jeb Bush bashed Democratic challenger Bill McBride there in 2002, greatly aided by his Spanish-language television ads.

President Bush and his brother are expected to spend time in both south and central Florida between now and Nov. 2, taking advantage of the fact that they both speak Spanish a lot better than Kerry.

The president may also get a boost among Hispanics in both regions if Mel Martinez, a Cuban exile and former housing secretary, wins the U.S. Senate Republican primary Aug. 31, although he trails former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum in the polls.

Luis Gomez, an Orlando attorney and Democratic activist, says he believes his party can win back the votes it lost two years ago.

"Jeb Bush came down here and bamboozled people," Gomez insists. "But this year we'll be back to the issues. We've had Hispanic kids killed in Iraq and other families who have kids over there and are worried.

"John Kerry supports raising the minimum wage, and Bush doesn't," Gomez says. "In our service-oriented economy, that is also a big issue, along with education and housing.

"Mel Martinez was housing secretary and didn't bring us even one apartment down here that I know of," Gomez says. "George Bush says, 'Leave no child behind,' and our kids are being left behind all the time. No, I don't think they'll bamboozle us this time."

Bush Campaign Courts Hispanic Voters In Several Key States


August 31, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

NEW YORK (AP) - Republicans called on some of their stars -- President George W. Bush's Hispanic nephew and his father, the former president -- to rally Hispanic voters, whose support could prove critical in key states such as Florida.

Both Republicans and Democrats actively court Latino voters, now the country's biggest minority group with about 13 percent of the population or 40 million people.

Some "battleground" states, including New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada, have large Hispanic populations. In other states with many Latinos, the presidential race appears to be over: Bush's home state of Texas is in his camp, while California and New York are in Democratic challenger John Kerry's column.

Republican outreach runs up against a Latino tendency to vote Democratic in national elections. A poll in July by Pew Hispanic Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that Kerry had the backing of 59 percent of Hispanics, while Bush had 31 percent.

On Tuesday, former President George H.W. Bush spoke to the Hispanic Alliance for Progress Institute, drawing a large crowd to a hotel ballroom less than a mile (about a kilometer) from the arena where the four-day Republican National Convention entered its second day.

The current president's nephew, George P. Bush, spoke at a rally of the Viva Bush Coalition in another hotel. The younger Bush, whose mother, Columba, is originally from Mexico, said there were three main reasons for the president's following among Hispanics: "faith in family, faith in God and faith in the community."

He praised his uncle for the rise in home ownership among Hispanic Americans, free-trade agreements with Chile and Central America, and proposals to grant temporary legal status to millions of illegal aliens.

Immigration reform, he said, would "bring them out of the shadows of exploitation here in the United States."

Community leaders and analysts say immigration is key, but it is far from the only issue for Hispanics.

Clarissa Martinez of the National Council of La Raza in Washington told The Associated Press most candidates don't move beyond immigration when they talk to the community. Latinos, however, want to see specific proposals to strengthen public education, create jobs and widen access to health care and health insurance.

"Latinos want to feel that their issues are part of the larger platform. They want to be addressed as part of American society as a whole," she said.

Still, many Latinos are disappointed that the Bush administration hasn't pushed its immigration proposals through Congress, she said, adding that immigration remains a test of whether a candidate respects Latinos.

Both parties take shortcuts to reach Latinos by using the Spanish-language news media, she said, although polls indicate that most Hispanic Americans get their news in English or in both languages.

In a new television ad to run on Spanish-language networks in five states, the Democratic Party blasts Bush's economic policies and implores Hispanics to "vote for a change."

"Desire we don't lack," the ad says. "If we want opportunity, we have to take responsibility."

The 30-second commercial by an arm of the Democratic National Committee, says that "good jobs make for stronger families," then launches into a critique of Bush's policies.

Republican conventioneers said immigration isn't the only thing on Hispanic voters' minds. Leticia Willis, a Georgia delegate of Mexican and Cuban ancestry, said education, national security and the economy are her priorities.

"Education is so extremely important to us, and health care," she said.

Jessica Ochoa, a Californian whose father immigrated from Mexico, said she resents expectations that all Hispanics are Democrats. Raised a Republican, she prefers the party's emphasis on religion, family and personal responsibility. Last spring, she became the first member of her family to graduate from college.

John Regis, a delegate from Puerto Rico, said economic development is the vital issue for the island, a U.S. commonwealth. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth, but immigration and respect are still "the door to the credibility of a candidate."

Adam Segal, who founded the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said the Hispanic community is extremely diverse but does unite on the immigration issue. Many Latinos see Bush's failure to deliver on his immigration reform promises as a liability.

Dan Griswold, an immigration expert at the Cato Institute in Washington, said the votes of Hispanic Americans are "much more up for grabs" than those of black Americans, who have overwhelmingly supported Democrats.

Griswold said the Republican Party is deeply divided over immigration, with conservatives pushing to close it off and even deport illegal aliens.

"The president has come down clearly on the side of some kind of legalization" for illegal aliens, who number 8 million to 9 million, he said.

Democratic proposals go beyond the president's, he added, calling for an easier path to permanent residency and citizenship, not just temporary status.

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