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Hispanics Give Attentive Bush Mixed Reviews


August 26, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

EL PASO -- The scene from the 1998 race for governor hardly suggested a typical Republican tableau: There in Segundo Barrio, one of the oldest and poorest neighborhoods in this isolated border city, Gov. George W. Bush had come to eat Mexican sweetbread and campaign in Spanish accented with a Texas twang.

Mr. Bush was venturing into one of the last Democratic strongholds in Texas, an overwhelmingly Hispanic city that no Republican candidate for governor had ever won. But when Mr. Bush was re-elected by a landslide, he also by one estimate won nearly half the Hispanic vote statewide. He even won El Paso. It seemed like political magic; he had found votes in places Republicans usually dared not tread.

"It opened eyes among Republicans across the country," said Kenneth Carr, chairman of the city's Republican Party.

As he campaigns for president as "a different kind of Republican," Mr. Bush is now sprinkling his Spanish from Iowa to California, courting Hispanic voters nationwide much as he did in Texas. In speeches, he often mentions the 1998 race as evidence of his commitment to inclusiveness and proof that his policies offer benefits that are colorblind.

In Texas, Mr. Bush's record shows that he has embraced his state's growing Mexican-American population, pointedly rejecting the hostility shown by some members of his party on issues like immigration and bilingual education. Yet Hispanics in Texas remain more likely to be poor, unemployed and without health insurance -- ingrained problems that predate Mr. Bush but problems that his critics say he has done too little to address. [In a foreign policy address on Friday Mr. Bush focused on Latin America and his desire to strengthen economic and political ties with the region. "Should I become president," he said, "I will look south not as an afterthought but as a fundamental commitment of my presidency."]

"George W. Bush's rhetoric is more moderate," said Dolores Briones, the El Paso County judge, a Democrat and the county's highest elected local official, "but the reality for our families has not changed."

Even today, there is debate in Texas about how well Mr. Bush did with Hispanics in 1998. He won 69 percent of the overall vote, and he has claimed winning 49 percent of the Hispanic vote, based on an initial exit poll. But that figure is remarkably high for a Republican, and later exit polls and academic studies suggest his actual total was as low as 33 percent, still high for a Republican but not as impressive.

"They use the 50 percent, and that's just false," said Dr. Rodolfo de la Garza, head of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Texas, who has studied the race. He cautioned against using the 1998 race as a gauge of Mr. Bush's potential appeal because turnout was very low and the challenger was very weak.

There is no question that Hispanics have emerged as the nation's fastest' growing minority group since Mr. Bush took office in 1995. Demographic studies in Texas predict that Hispanics, mostly Mexican-Americans, will surpass Anglos and become the largest ethnic group by 2030. In Houston, the state's largest city, Hispanics are expected to gain majority status by the end of this decade.

Nationally, the political response to this new wave of immigration at times was hostile. Republicans in Congress fought to kill bilingual education and pushed for laws establishing English as the country's official language. Patrick J. Buchanan, running for president in 1996, threatened to build a wall along the border. And, most notably, Gov. Pete Wilson of California became a symbol of intolerance to many Hispanics in 1994 by championing Proposition 187, a controversial referendum that denied most government benefits to illegal immigrants and their children.

Mr. Bush established a very different tone. He named Tony Garza, a Mexican-American, as his first political appointee, as secretary of state. In his first piece of state business, Mr. Bush met with the governors of five Mexican states near the border. He opposed Proposition 187 and supported English Plus, a modified version of bilingual education.

His position on Proposition 187 was mostly moot -- Texas did not provide nearly the same amount of benefits to undocumented immigrants as California did -- but it established him as a friendly face in a hostile party. He courted Mexico, supporting the Clinton administration's bailout of the peso when Congressional Republicans criticized the plan. In 1996, when a quirk in the federal welfare overhaul left many legal immigrants without food stamps, Mr. Bush made an emergency expenditure to provide aid to the elderly and disabled until federal officials corrected the problem.

Mr. Bush also courted Hispanics on a personal level. He spoke Spanish often, if not always fluently, and talked of shared cultures, a point underscored by his own traditional Christmas menu, which included tamales and enchiladas.

"With the Mexican-American community, we appreciate that his feelings are heartfelt," said Mr. Garza, now a member of the Texas Railroad Commission, whose chief responsibility is regulating the oil and gas industry. "You don't get finger pointing from George W. Bush."

The contrast between Mr. Bush and other national Republicans was stark, but, in many ways, he was following the path taken by other Texas governors. Texas and Mexico have long shared cultural, historic and economic ties that have made the two interdependent. When the Mexican peso was devalued in the mid-1990's, the ripple effect was felt all along the Texas border; in El Paso, 80 stores closed. The advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which lowered trade barriers between Mexico and the United States, has only deepened the mutual self-interest -- state statistics show that more than 228,000 jobs in Texas are now linked to Nafta.

"No governor in Texas has ever done what Pete Wilson did," said Dr. de la Garza, the University of Texas government professor. And Mr. Bush, he said, has also used his personal charm to establish himself as a "buena gent," or good guy. "Above all, he has managed symbols wonderfully, and that's not a trivial issue. He has demonstrated cultural respect."

A review of Mr. Bush's record shows a more complicated picture. Dan Bartlett, a campaign spokesman for Mr. Bush, said the governor had appealed to Hispanics through broad conservative themes and a cultural emphasis on family and tradition. "The whole theme of personal responsibility and accountability, coupled with the message of inclusion, has resonated with the Hispanic community in Texas," Mr. Bartlett said.

Mr. Bush regularly cites statistics showing how test scores of minority students, including those of Hispanics, have risen in Texas during his tenure. Roughly 70 percent of Hispanic students passed the most recent Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, the exam students must pass to graduate. His Hispanic allies, like Alberto Gonzales, whom Mr. Bush appointed to the Texas Supreme Court, called education a critical issue and credited Mr. Bush for appealing to Hispanic voters with an optimistic, inclusive message.

"Hope is often all that poor Hispanic kids have," said Mr. Gonzales, who grew up poor before graduating from Harvard Law School.

But criticisms of the assessment exam have been loudest from minority groups. The Mexican American Legal Defense Fund in San Antonio challenged the test in court, saying it discriminated against Hispanics, who were more likely to be enrolled in schools with fewer resources. The lawsuit also contended that the state had vastly undercounted dropout rates for Hispanics, and it estimated the true rate at above 50 percent. In January, a federal judge upheld the state's right to administer the test but agreed with the plaintiffs that "Texas minority students have been, and to some extent continue to be, the victims of educational inequality."

Mr. Bush's emphasis on inclusion has focused attention on the 3,041 appointments he has made, perhaps his greatest power as governor. His aides note that in addition to Mr. Garza and Mr. Gonzales, the governor has appointed several other Hispanics to high-level positions, including José Montemayor as commissioner of insurance, and Tony Sanchez and Raul Romero to the University of Texas Board of Regents.

But state records show that Mr. Bush's appointments still tend to be overwhelmingly white and mostly male in a state that is increasingly less so. Among his appointees, 13 percent are Hispanic, 9 percent are black and 1 percent are other minorities. By comparison, among state residents, 31 percent are Hispanic, 11 percent are black and 3 percent are other minorities. Sixty-three percent of Mr. Bush's appointees are men and 37 percent are women.

For any Texas governor, one of the most difficult challenges is addressing the endemic poverty along the Mexico border, and Mr. Bush's political success in places like El Paso has raised questions about what he has done for the region. Politically, the border is regarded as one of the last bastions of Democratic power in Texas, but Mr. Bush sensed an opportunity in 1998. He visited the city at least 13 times during his first term, partly because his wife, Laura, had family ties here, partly because the city offered him a chance to demonstrate his bipartisan and biracial appeal.

His local campaign attracted Democratic activists like Terry Diaz, who said she was drawn by Mr. Bush's charisma but also by a pragmatic desire to have his ear for El Paso. Carlos Ramirez, the city's Democratic mayor, angered his party by endorsing Mr. Bush and recalled a frantic Election Day scramble as volunteers handed out fliers at baseball games and canvassed churches, encouraging people to vote. "It was an extremely emotional, very satisfying effort," Mr. Ramirez said.

Mr. Bush won El Paso by 600 votes, a narrow margin that gave him a large symbolic victory. His huge re-election win, coupled with his strong showing among Hispanics, buttressed his national reputation as the front-runner for the party's presidential nomination. In El Paso, Mr. Ramirez said the governor had delivered in his promises to help the city, appointing two residents to powerful state educational boards, supporting the city in a water dispute with New Mexico and signing a law intended to speed up water and sewage services to the poorest communities along the border called colonias.

"The governor has never said no to a request we have made from him," Mr. Ramirez said.

But others disagree. Ms. Diaz, for example, ultimately became disenchanted with the governor and dropped out of his campaign, saying he had done too little to address border problems. The high rates of poverty and the uninsured existed for decades, and Ms. Diaz and others said they did not expect Mr. Bush to resolve such rooted problems in such a short time.

But Eliot Shapleigh, a Democratic state senator who represents El Paso, including Hispanic neighborhoods, said the border still suffers too many inequities. He said local hospitals struggle because the state reimbursement rate for Medicaid is lower on the border than elsewhere. He also said per capita income on the border had fallen every year since Mr. Bush took office. Mr. Shapleigh and other lawmakers along the border have called for a "Marshall Plan" of state investment.

"When you're the governor, and you've got 77 percent popularity and a $6 billion surplus, you can make big things happen in Texas," Mr. Shapleigh said. "He punted."

One of the most pressing problems along the border is the lack of health insurance. More than 1.4 million children in Texas are uninsured. In El Paso alone, 72,000 children who are eligible are not yet enrolled in Medicaid or the federal Child Health Insurance Program. Several lawmakers have received complaints that state officials make it too difficult to enroll in either program and have expressed concerns that the federal government could withhold some money for the insurance program if the pace is not quickened. Since May 1, about 80,000 children have been enrolled, roughly 17 percent of the goal of 428,000.

"Governor Bush has been extremely friendly, extremely supportive in public statements, but the state has not turned the corner in dealing with these issues," said Bill Schlesinger, a co-director of Project Vida, a nonprofit agency with a clinic in one of El Paso's poorest neighborhoods.

Mr. Bush has already been criticized for his efforts in the 1999 legislative session to limit the number of people eligible for the child insurance program to those with family incomes up to 150 percent of the poverty line, even though federal law provided coverage for up to 200 percent. The lower figure would have left 200,000 children without coverage. The governor ultimately signed the law at the 200 percent threshold, and his aides call issue a priority.

"There are aggressive efforts under way to enroll children in CHIP," Mr. Bartlett said.

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