Downturn, Job Shortages Trouble Hispanic Voters

RECESSION has boosted Ramiro Martinez's shoe-mending business so much that he has added part-time help. "People are holding on to their old goods and repairing them," explains Mr. Ramirez. Despite his own prosperity, he frets over the lines of jobless people he sees and over his father's high health-care bills.

For carpet cleaner H. A. Guerrero, the national recession has delayed regional recovery. When oil prices crashed in 1986, the Austin entrepreneur laid off 4 of 5 crews. He's finally back up to two, but pinched homeowners hire them to scrub just living and dining rooms, not the whole house like before. "It's been hard - really rough," Mr. Guerrero says.

Roberto Alonzo, a Dallas lawyer who is the state chairman of the Mexican-American Democrats, charges that Hispanics as a group made no economic progress under Republican Presidents Reagan and Bush.

In fact, Hispanics have been catching up. But they remain far behind. Over the 1982-1990 boom years their after-tax aggregate income increased 70 percent, compared to 26 percent for other Americans, the Census Bureau reports. But their 1990 median family income of $22,300 was one-third less than that of non-Hispanics.

During the current economic contraction, Latinos have been "a recession within a recession," Mr. Alonzo says. Last week the Department of Labor said that 11.3 percent of Hispanics were unemployed in January, compared to the 7.1 percent national average.

Those rates fit the usual rule of thumb of unemployment hitting Hispanics 1.5 times harder than the general population, says Harry Pachon, director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).

Still, last March was the first time in six years that a NALEO survey of 4,000 elected Hispanics found jobs to rank as a top-three issue.

"When people can't find a job, that's bringing politics into everyday life," Mr. Pachon says. It's too early to say how the Hispanic vote will be affected, Pachon adds, but he expects some linkage. He criticizes Mr. Bush for denying that hard times were at hand and then applying remedies that have been slow to work.

Hispanics have long favored the Democratic Party, attracted by presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy and by social programs that address jobs and education. As a migrant farm worker from age 7, Alonzo says he couldn't have afforded college without the scholarship he received under a Kennedy-Johnson program.

Some 91 percent of Hispanic elected officials are Democrats. Among Puerto Ricans, 80 percent of voters prefer Democrats. Seventy percent of Mexican-Ameri- cans, the other main subgroup of Hispanics in the United States, are Democrats.

But changes within the Hispanic community have put an increasing share of its vote up for grabs. Hispanics still primarily work in blue-collar jobs, Pachon says, but "Huppies" and self-made Hispanic businessmen are moving up and becoming more conservative.

Guerrero and Martinez, for instance, feel detached from the Democratic Party they were raised in. But they are not attracted to the Republicans.

"I haven't seen a good Democrat since Kennedy," says Guerrero, who has unhappily continued to vote with his party. Martinez has cast his ballot for Republicans and Democrats without satisfaction. "Who do you vote for?" he asks. "Who is actually going to provide the things we need? The way I feel right now, I wouldn't vote."

In 1984, Reagan received 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. But that owed to his overwhelming popularity, not to a Hispanic realignment. In 1988, Bush received only 32 percent.

By appealing to affluent, suburban Latinos, Republicans can increase their usual 25 percent share of the Hispanic vote by 10 to 15 points, Pachon says.

That can be enough to swing an election. Democrat Diane Feinstein received 64 percent of the Hispanic vote in the California governor's race. She would have won, Pachon says, if she had received 72 percent, the share that fellow Democrat Ann Richards gained in her successful race for the Texas governorship.

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