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The Awakening Giant: Hispanic Voters Made the Difference


by Myriam Marquez

November 9, 1998
©1998 Orlando Sentinel Online

This year's elections were marked by the rise of moderation and the awakening of a Sleeping Giant, a.k.a. Hispanic voters.

In nationwide exit polls, 50 percent of voters identified themselves as moderates, less than a third as conservatives and fewer than one in five as liberals.

From Orange County, Calif., to Central Florida's own Orange County, moderation prevailed. So, too, did Hispanic candidates, such as Orange County Chairman-elect Mel Martinez.

Martinez wasn't the only Hispanic to win a local election with the support of a majority population that's not Latino. In San Jose, Calif., where Latinos make up only 14 percent of the voters, Ron Gonzales became that city's first Latino mayor since California became a state.

Hispanic voters turned out in record numbers in California to hand that state's leadership to Democrats, including the newly elected Lt. Gov Cruz Bustamante.

Hispanics are far from settled in either major political party, even though a majority nationwide are registered Democrat. Polls show that Hispanics vote based on a candidate's position on issues. That would explain why, in 1996, Dade County's predominantly Republican Cuban-Americans backed President Clinton.

In 1996, Latinos from Florida to California grew tired of immigrant-bashing by conservative Republicans in Congress.

Now, two years later, Republican Gov. George W. Bush's strong win in Texas has reinforced that point. He stood up to Republicans in Congress who sought to strip elderly and disabled immigrants of government benefits and to exclude children from public schools.

During his campaign, George W. Bush courted Hispanic Democrats with Spanish-language television ads, plugging his first-term successes in education reform and economic development. His message was one of inclusion.

Seem familiar?

Jeb Bush's campaign touted the same themes in Florida. He has no public record to speak of, but his message of pulling people of disparate interests and incomes together resonated.

Even in Central Florida, where Puerto Rican voters are more likely to vote Democrat, Bush fared well. In Orange County, he captured 56 percent of Hispanics' vote, the Sentinel exit poll indicated.

The Bush brothers, who will govern one of every eight Americans, are the poster boys for compassionate conservatism -- an antidote to the poison pill of Pat Buchanan's immigrant-bashing rhetoric of 1992.

But, on the national front, will the Bush bros be able to move their party away from knee-jerk stands that have soured Hispanics?

Earlier this year, the Republican leadership, hoping to change its sourpuss image among Hispanics, sought help from the Tarrance Group, a polling firm that tracks Latino voters. Now the party that sought English-only laws translates into Spanish its response to the weekly White House radio broadcasts.

But it will take more than a few Spanish-language sound bites for Republicans in states with growing Hispanic populations to win over more Latinos, particularly in California.

Many Hispanic voters are still steaming over Grand Old Party-led proposals that attacked immigration from Latin America.

"A majority of Hispanics have come to believe that Republicans would rather have an America that did not include them,'' the Tarrance Group stated in summarizing Latino sentiments to GOP leaders this year.

The Bush brothers, having grown up in Texas, learned first hand that Latinos can be an asset and not a drain, both economically and culturally, to America. If their campaigns are any indication, they also understand that moderation is the ticket to ride.

Click here for a related article by Puerto Rico Herald staff.

OTHER Related Articles:

ASSOCIATED PRESS, "Hispanic Vote Gaining Clout"

LULAC, "Hispanic Voters Make Historic Gains"

PUERTO RICO HERALD, Interview with Rick Dovalina, LULAC President

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