Inspired by `Superstar' Congressman, Hispanic Republicans Run for Office

WHEN congressional districts were last redrawn, United States Rep. Albert Bustamante (D) of Texas designed his to be what state legislator Henry Cuellar (D) calls ``an incumbency protection plan.''

The 58,000-square-mile district, with its numerous media markets, would be a black hole for a challenger's campaign dollars. ``Bustamante knew what he was doing,'' says Mr. Cuellar.

But in 1992, before Representative Bustamante could call his new district home, a TV-savvy political novice named Henry Bonilla (R) evicted the scandal-tarred Democrat.

In the process, Mr. Bonilla became the first Hispanic Republican Texas has sent to Capitol Hill. Suddenly, Democrats were no longer able to take for granted their traditional hold on heavily Hispanic south Texas.

``The Republicans have made some headway,'' Cuellar says. ``If anybody says `no,' I think they're deceiving themselves.''

Democrats have cause to worry. Hispanic identification with the Democratic Party is down from 48 percent 10 years ago to 33 percent today.

GOP chairman Fred Meyer calls the freshman congressman, who is up for reelection this year, a ``superstar.''

``I don't know exactly how he surfaced,'' Mr. Meyer says. But, he adds, Bonilla's success will do more than party officials could do to convince more Hispanics to run as Republicans.

Before Bonilla, it would have been ludicrous for a Republican to run for office south of San Antonio. Now many Republicans, both Anglo and Hispanic, are running for county office.

``It seems like the Republican Party is traveling south,'' says Fernando Cantu, a Laredo motel owner who switched to the Republican Party after working for the Bonilla campaign in 1992.

Now Mr. Cantu seeks the state Senate seat of Judith Zaffirini (D) of Laredo. His wife, Mary Helen, is on the GOP ticket for the state Board of Education. He says Ms. Zaffirini is ``part of the old clique'' that has long controlled Laredo. ``We need a two-party system in Laredo,'' he concludes.

Pete Nieto is another Mexican-American inspired by Bonilla to join the GOP. He says he was never impressed by Democratic rule in south Texas, gripped by poverty, unemployment, and dependency on government programs.

``The guys that run the social programs are the new patrons,'' Mr. Nieto says. ``The ranchers used to tell everybody how to vote. Now the poverty pimps tell everybody how to vote.''

Nieto reached his limit with the Democrats last year, while finishing his first term as a state representative. He says the party leadership snubbed him and passed legislation that caused devastating tax increases in his district. Pondering a party switch, Nieto considered Bonilla, whose district overlapped his own. ``I saw him gaining support among people that had always been dyed-in-the-wool Democrats,'' he says.

Nieto defected last May, becoming the first Republican Hispanic in the Legislature. In a special election on Nov. 2, Elvira Reyna became the first Hispanic Republican elected to the Legislature.

Nieto says workers compensation and what President Clinton does on health care concern the small businessmen in his district. ``I've heard a lot of Hispanic business people talk just like what I think a Republican would say about those kinds of matters,'' Nieto says. ``They're supporting me, even though they're hard-core Democrats.''

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