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THE MIAMI HERALD
Hispanic vote challenges presidential campaigning
by Mark Silva, Senior Political Writer
September 9, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Among residents of the jacaranda-shaded,
stucco bungalows of Myrtle Street, where Spanish is spoken day
and night, there is overwhelming support to raise money to ease
the crowding of teeming campuses such as nearby Santa Ana High,
home of the Saints.
But reluctant white non-Hispanics still control the vote in this
evolving Southern California city, where Hispanic children account
for 90 percent of the public school enrollment. So supporters
of the campaign for a school bond issue on this November's ballot
have a simple solution -- one that has implications for the nation's
elections for years to come.
''Because we know there is tremendous support in the Latino
community, we want to register more voters. . . . We are going
door to door,'' said John Palacio, president of Santa Ana's School
Board. ''With the numbers of Latinos registering to vote between
[now] and the presidential election, we are now the difference
between a candidate winning and losing.''
This is the fastest-growing voice of America, especially in
the sun-soaked, smog-choked valleys of Southern California, where
one in four is foreign-born and 20,000 young Latinos come of political
age each month.
Just 5 percent in the last presidential election, the Hispanic-American
vote has grown dramatically. A sharp gain in Hispanic voter rolls
in 1996 is likely to be repeated with a voter-registration drive
from California to Florida aimed at boosting the number of Hispanic
voters nationwide from seven million today to 8 1/2 million by
Election Day 2000.
This widespread community's clout is concentrated. Nearly three-quarters
of Hispanic Americans live in five states with a crushing share
of electoral votes, California alone holding one-fifth of the
winning presidential formula. Texas and Florida combined hold
The community's vote is critical. Many Spanish-speaking voters
live in two pivotal states -- California and Florida -- where
the outcome of a contest between front-runners Al Gore and George
W. Bush is uncertain.
Gore and Bush are courting the vote, each with flirtations
in Spanish that sometimes trip over the finer lines of grammar.
Because of the increasing diversity among Hispanics -- who will
become the nation's largest minority before the end of the next
decade -- experts say any candidate who vies for the vote must
reach beyond traditional appeals to anti-Castro fervor or civil
rights for Mexican farmworkers.
They must speak of fairness in immigration, respect
for bilingual culture and educational and economic opportunities
for a population of more than 30 million Hispanic Americans, one-third
of them younger than 18, one-quarter living in poverty.
''Entering the new millennium, we will be the largest minority.
But we are not educated and not prepared economically,'' said
Javier Sanchez, 55, a Texas-born Mexican American working at a
truck factory in East Moline, Ill.
''Back when I grew up, we considered ourselves lucky to work
in a factory,'' Sanchez said. ''Nowadays, our kids need more education.
Whoever comes through with that will have my vote. . . . I'm still
His is hardly the only open mind in an election more than a
year away. Among Hispanics nationwide, recent opinion polling
finds an even split in support for Gore or Bush -- but greater
numbers still undecided.
Among Mexican Americans and Salvadorans in California, Puerto
Ricans in New York City and Cuban Americans, Nicaraguans, Colombians
and other Hispanics in Miami, the Spanish language may be the
only true common denominator in election 2000.
Coat of many colors
''In terms of the Hispanic community, people tend
to think of it as one bloc, one particular mind-set,'' said U.S.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Havana-born Miami Republican elected
to Congress 10 years ago.
''Many mind-sets make it up,'' she said. ''It's like any well-made
coat. When you look at it, it looks like one color. But when you
examine it closely, it's made up of many different-colored strings.''
Unlike in South Florida -- where Republicans outnumber Democrats
3-1 among Hispanic voters -- the nation's Hispanic vote runs Democratic,
70 percent siding with President Clinton in 1996. Even within
Florida, Democrats have seated Hispanic state lawmakers from Tampa
For whatever poverty exists, entrepreneurial spirit is thriving.
Households earning more than $100,000 a year are one of the fastest-growing
income categories, according to the Center for Demographic Policy
Some Republicans have run well among Hispanic voters. Ronald
Reagan was king, claiming 40 percent of the vote. And Bush waltzes
out of Texas -- a governor with the greatest percentage of Hispanic
voters among big electoral states -- after assembling a Reaganesque
base of support among Mexican Americans, at least 40 percent of
whom supported his reelection last year.
Dilution of ethnic blocs
But competing for a diverse national vote is more
complicated. Ask any poll-watcher in Florida, where Clinton split
the Hispanic vote with Bob Dole.
''South Florida is ahead of places like Southern California
and New York and certainly Texas. In a sense, we are the wave
of the future,'' said Dario Moreno, a political scientist at Florida
''Traditionally, Hispanics lived apart from one another, Cubans
in South Florida, the Puerto Ricans in New York, Mexicans in California.
But Los Angeles is no longer just Mexican. It's also Salvadoran.
Florida is Colombian and Venezuelan and Nicaraguan.
''What it means is that the Hispanic vote is becoming harder
to capture,'' Moreno said. ''It used to be, in the 1980s, that
all you had to do was come to Miami and say nasty things about
Castro. That no longer works.
''You also have to talk about immigration and bilingual education.
Hispanics across the nation are now reacting to economic issues,
educational and social issues. The party that does best with the
Hispanic vote is going to be the one that moves away from the
traditional strategy of capturing it.''
Bush and Gore are trying to speak the language.
Slips of the tongue
In the mid-June announcement of his candidacy in
hometown Carthage, Tenn., Gore concluded with an appeal to Hispanic
voters. Shifting carefully to Spanish, Gore asked ''mi amigos''
to unite ''mano a mano, para el futuro de nuestras familias,''
notwithstanding the clash between the image of hand-to-hand combat
with the idea of families cooperating.
Over a breakfast of burritos and beans at a neon-colored Jalapeño
Mexican Cuisine in Davenport, Iowa, this summer, Bush spoke of
his goal that everyone share in ''la sueño Americano.''
Even in gender-correct Spanish, his translated construct of el
sueño, the American dream, sounds tortured.
When a supporter compliments Bush on his Spanish after he makes
the rounds of the restaurant, Bush modestly replies with a smile
and a half-raised brow: ''I'm weak on my verbs. I'm pretty good
on my nouns.''
Few fault candidates for attempting to bridge a cultural divide.
''Success to me means that the national Hispanic vote, for
[Republicans], needs to be as close to 40 percent as possible,''
said Al Cardenas, Cuban-born chairman of the Republican Party
of Florida. ''The main ingredient for that is a Republican candidate
who will convey a message clearly respected.''
Immigrants under attack
This is especially true, Cardenas and others say, in the aftermath
of a Republican-led congressional assault on immigrants' rights
in Washington and anti-immigrant ballot initiatives in California.
Last year, Californians voted to ban bilingual education. In 1994,
they voted to withhold public aid from undocumented immigrants.
Courts have blocked both.
The anti-immigrant, Republican-labeled initiatives are personified
in Pete Wilson, the retired Republican governor of California
and only Republican to win election statewide here this decade.
Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, beat another Republican rival in
1998 -- but used Wilson as a symbolic GOP target nonetheless --
with bumper stickers reading, ''Adios, Pete!''
''The Hispanic community has gone through a lot in the national
debate,'' Cardenas said. ''The first thing a candidate needs to
do is allay concerns. To me, it translates to the idea that you
like them. That is the first hurdle. . . . It's that simple.''
As Bush addressed a crowd of 3,000 last week at
the Latin Business Association in Los Angeles, he signaled his
sensitivity. ''Ingles solamente'' isn't the way, Bush said. Instead
of English only, the goal is Ingles y mas, English and more. ''Children
of any background should not be used as pawns in bitter debates
on education and immigration.''
Bush's gregariousness as a governor and campaigner is part
of his political appeal. Since 1994, he has been visible in the
''He is very down to earth,'' said Texas state Rep. Irma Rangel,
a Democrat often at odds with the GOP over issues such as gun
control. ''He remembers everyone by their first name. He has a
wonderful memory for names, and that throws a lot of people.''
Antonio Gonzalez, president of San Antonio-based Southwest
Voter Registration and Education Project, says Bush worked for
his support there.
''In Texas, the governor benefits from incumbency and a great
economy,'' he said. ''And he has skillfully used symbols to send
messages to Hispanic voters that really no Republican governor
has ever done before in Texas, by including some key appointees,
campaigning in Spanish and co-opting some Democratic issues that
Hispanics really care about.''
This included significant pay raises for Texas school teachers.
California isn't Texas
But translating Bush's appeal among Mexican-American
voters in Texas to the presidential campaign in California is
another story. This state delivered landslides for Clinton in
1992 and '96. Clinton carried 75 percent of the Hispanic vote
in California for his reelection.
A Los Angeles Times poll this summer portrayed Bush and Gore
in an even contest for the California voter, but not among Hispanics.
''It's an uphill battle for [Bush] in this state,'' said Bruce
Cain, political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.
''It's no question that being able to speak the language and coming
out of Texas with a good buzz is an advantage. But it's going
to be very difficult.''
''The problem is that Gore is no better -- another cracker,''
said Rodolfo Acuna, professor of Chicano Studies at California
State University in Northridge. Among Democrats, ''you really
don't have the charismatic person. If a Kennedy would run, they
would get 90 percent of the Latino vote'' here.
In Florida, Democrats aren't ready to concede that Clinton's
narrow victory in 1996 -- the first time that a Democrat carried
the state in 20 years -- was an aberration in a state going increasingly
Pocket of Gore support
In Miami-Dade County, Democratic Mayor Alex Penelas
is campaigning for Gore, representing an administration that fought
with Congress on behalf of immigrants' rights -- yet has come
into newer controversy for its handling of Cuban refugees.
But in Florida, Bush bears an advantage. The governor is his
younger brother, Jeb -- a feverish fund-raiser and a consummate
campaigner in the Spanish that he shares at evening in his home
with a Mexican-born wife, Columba.
''Hispanics are not a monolithic group, but there are some
issues that do matter,'' Jeb Bush said. ''The issues are no different
-- education, crime, economic opportunity. But style is important.
George's ability to speak some Spanish, his effort in trying and
his very inclusive style matter a lot.''
The Bushes' father, former President George Bush, carried Florida
twice, even as Clinton won the presidency in 1992.
In the end, Ros-Lehtinen and others say, impressive approaches
to education and economic opportunity for struggling Americans,
as well as some sensitivity to questions of immigration and culture,
will carry the day.
''Both George W. Bush and Al Gore are attuned to the issues
of the Hispanic voters,'' Ros-Lehtinen said.
She shrugs off missteps sometimes made in Spanish-language
''That is a delightful part of a public official, when they
stammer and try to say something in Spanish . . . unless they
think that is all they have to do -- that it is enough to say,
'Mi casa es tu casa.' It is not,'' she said. ''It's not so much
the language you use, but the message.''