Why Spanish is the favored new language of politics

With a new summer program on Capitol Hill, GOP pushes for key - and contested - voter group.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science

Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas admits his accent is about as flat as the prairie outside his family farm. That is why, perhaps, he often receives quizzical looks when working on his latest Capitol Hill assignment: speaking Spanish.

"I do butcher a number of words," he says. "A Kansas Midwestern accent doesn't always have the easiest time with some of these rapid Spanish phrases."

With Congress in recess, Senator Brownback and a spate of GOP leaders are spending free time printing vocabulary on flashcards and muttering in the backseats of cars, conjugating verbs in low mumbles.

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The reason: Spanish is increasingly important to their party's survival. So they're flocking to Spanish classes to communicate, if only rudimentarily, with constit-uents - in an effort to reach into Hispanic homes and relay political concerns.

Feeling comfortable at Hispanic functions - and confident with a smattering of phrases - has spurred congressional Republicans' most ambitious effort to date at mastering the Spanish tongue. Part of that attempt is Spanish on the Hill, a 10-week course held Wednesday mornings while Congress is in session. This summer saw its largest GOP contingency yet.

Brownback, who took the course, has since mixed a few Spanish phrases into his speeches and begun crafting a Spanish soundbite for radio interviews. But he's learning the most, he says, by just approaching Spanish speakers on the street.

"I go up and say hello, and then they try to teach me something new," says Brownback. "Usually I have to say, 'OK, let me think for a second about what that means.'"

Other lawmakers have taken short, intense trips south of the border to language schools. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas is the latest to take this route. He's spending the week studying Spanish in Cuernavaca, Mexico, after promoting his guest-worker legislation in Mexico City last week.

Nor are Democrats - who attract a larger share of the Hispanic vote - sitting idle. Spouting Spanish is so de rigueur for presidential candidates that Yankees Howard Dean and Sen. John Kerry have both given parts of speeches in Spanish.

But for Republicans, language lessons seem especially important, as the ability to tap growing minority groups goes to the very future of their party.

"The Republican Party has been pretty homogeneous and white for a long time, and they are realizing that they are going to have to adapt to changing circumstances to stay in power," says F. Chris Garcia, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico.

The biggest changing circumstance is the recent announcement that Hispanics are now America's largest ethnic minority. And most of those who vote are bilingual, says Dr. Garcia.

But Republicans have a long way to go. Hispanics have consistently voted Democratic - about 68 percent for Democratic presidential candidates and 70 percent for Democratic congressional candidates.

There have been exceptions, of course, and the most prominent one is the most current: President Bush won with about 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000, making party history when he stumped in Spanish, hired Spanish-speakers for all media-relations departments in the US government, and became the first president to give a radio address in Spanish. Now GOP leaders say their agenda appeals to many Hispanics, with issues such as economic opportunity, better schools, home-ownership, quality health care, and family and faith.

"Hispanic values are really Republican values," says Ben Fallon, a spokesman for Rep. Jerry Weller, who launched the Spanish on the Hill classes. "We just haven't done a good job of communicating our values to the Hispanic community."

These days, learning the language is billed as the first step in communicating those values - a step that, for many politicians, has been half stumble. "These are men and woman who've been very successful, and it's a little funny to watch such powerful people struggling to learn something new," says Mr. Fallon of the 29 members of Congress in classes.

Still, the ability to turn a few Spanish phrases - "Vote for me," "I'm a Republican" - may be more symbol than substance.

"For both parties, to grow the base of support is going to depend on their public policies," says Tatcho Mindiola, associate professor of sociology and director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston. "That is far more important than whether you can say a few phrases phonetically in Spanish."

And beneath the phonemes, dissonance and discord remain. One Republican policy unpopular with Hispanics, according to Dr. Mindiola, was Bush's filing of a brief opposed to the University of Michigan's affirmative-action admission policy, recently upheld by the US Supreme Court. Bush and the Hispanic community also part ways on bilingual education and strong federal government.

But no matter the persistence of those divisions, GOP inroads into the Hispanic community will likely increase pressure on Democrats, traditionally the party minorities favor. And Republican efforts to learn Spanish are just one step.

"Hispanics generally appreciate any effort to show respect for their culture, and using Spanish is a way to honor that culture," says Garcia. "But it's going to take ... sustained actions on policy issues."

And that, he adds, is the real dilemma - for while phonemes come easily, softening its stance on policy issues could shake the traditional Republican base.

For Brownback, the simple desire to communicate with more constituents is reason enough to learn Spanish: "Learning their language gives me a window on their culture, too."

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