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Hispanic Vote Gaining Clout

By Laura Meckler
Associated Press Writer


WASHINGTON (AP) -- Hispanics, reaching for political power as their numbers grow, sent a clarion call to both political parties Tuesday: do not take us for granted.

In key states across the country, Hispanics helped elect both Democrats and Republicans, whoever responded to their concerns, and their leaders hope politicians will see them as a key swing vote as they approach the 2000 presidential election.

"If they expect to get elected, they better start learning," said Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic advocacy group. "The bottom line is, as voters, we expect to be respected. We expect to be treated like Americans, which is what we are."

Half of Hispanic voters in Texas, traditionally Democratic, gave their support to GOP Gov. George W. Bush, who made it clear that he had no interest in the sort of anti-immigrant policies backed by California Republicans.

Helping matters, Bush also speaks fluent Spanish. So does his brother, Jeb Bush, who is married to a Mexican-American and was elected governor of Florida, thanks in part to a strong Hispanic vote.

Meanwhile, in California, Hispanics are still furious at GOP support for anti-immigrant and English-only measures, and they delivered 78 percent of their votes to Democrat Gray Davis for governor and 70 percent to Democrat Barbara Boxer for Senate, based on exit polls conducted for The Associated Press by Voter News Service.

"If the GOP wants to stay in control and move forward, then they need to sort of follow the steps taken by Bush, by both Bushes to include the Latino vote," said Lydia Camarillo of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which worked to mobilize Hispanic voters in four states.

Voter registration is growing among Hispanics as more become citizens and more become enraged at anti-immigrant policies. Hispanics also are becoming an increasing portion of the electorate in several key states. They made up 36 percent of the electorate this year in New Mexico, 13 percent in California and 16 percent in Texas, for instance.

But the Hispanic community is not monolithic.

Florida is populated with Cuban-Americans, staunch anti-Communists who have traditionally backed Republicans. Yet the Southwest is home to Mexicans and New York attracts Puerto Ricans, who generally favor Democrats.

Hispanics already make up about 10 percent of the U.S. population and by 2005 are projected to overtake blacks as the nation's largest minority group. Nationally, Hispanics made up just 5 percent of all voters Tuesday, but that, too, will grow, as more immigrants become citizens and are motivated to go to the polls.

Already, they are a key constituency in certain important states. Looking ahead to the presidential contest, they could play a critical role in places like California, Texas, New York and Florida, which carry the largest blocs of electoral votes.

This year, California Democrat Barbara Boxer lost the white vote, but was propelled back to the Senate by black and Hispanic voters, who overwhelmingly supported her.

By contrast, GOP New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato captured just over half of the white vote in his re-election bid, but overwhelmingly lost among blacks and Hispanics and was defeated.

Seeing the potential, both parties have reached out. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., has hired a Spanish-speaking spokeswoman to communicate with Spanish-language media. Over the last two years, California Republicans have registered 30,000 new voters at swearing-in ceremonies for new citizens. Both Democratic and Republican candidates for California governor ran ads in Spanish for the first time this year.

Even staunch conservative Republican Bob Dornan, who accused Latino voters of outright fraud in his defeat two years ago for Congress, sent out a host of Spanish fliers including one featuring Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of the Americas. He declared himself to be the "true Latino" candidate because he opposes abortion no matter that his opponent, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, actually is Latina. She won.

It is a perfect illustration of why simply reaching out the Hispanic community is not enough, leaders say: Politicians must walk the walk on important issues.

"Outreach is important and outreach is great, but outreach by itself isn't going to attract voters if your policies aren't consistent with what people want," Munoz said. "It's pretty hard to make that case if you're Bob Dornan."

The key is making politicians pay a price for supporting an anti-Hispanic agenda, said former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros, now president of Univision Television in Los Angeles.

"Frankly, the effectiveness of those tools has come to an end," he said. "The numbers are now too large to do it and get away with it."

Related Articles:

LULAC, "Hispanic Voters Make Historic Gains"

ORLANDO SENTINEL, "The Awakening Giant: Hispanic Voters Made the Difference"

PUERTO RICO HERALD, Interview with Rick Dovalina, LULAC President

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