GOP Increasingly Speaks The Language of Hispanics

For the first time, a Hispanic Republican is running for a statewide office.

Back in his first run for political office, Hispanic voters in south Texas would shrink away from Tony Garza when he told them he was a Republican.

Undaunted, Mr. Garza kept talking and won some voters over with his conservative message of lower taxation, tougher crime laws, and local control of schools.

"You could really see the body language loosen up," says Garza, who rose from a county judgeship in Cameron County to be Gov. George W. Bush's secretary of state. "Suddenly, they realize you're not some miscast Republican - you're an individual who has a value system like theirs."

It wasn't so long ago that Texas Hispanics would have felt comfortable only in the party of Roosevelt and Kennedy. But since the 1994 election of Governor Bush, the political landscape here has changed dramatically. Seeing the potential of a growing Hispanic population - currently 13 percent of the state vote - Republicans now are making Democrats work harder to keep a demographic group they once took for granted.

Republican gains

"Republicans really began to show interest in Latino voters, in a serious way, with the election of Governor Bush," says Rudolfo de la Garza, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Texas in Austin. Under Bush, Texas Republicans have dramatically increased the recruitment of Hispanic candidates and appealed to the growing numbers of affluent Hispanics.

Already, the state GOP can claim one symbolic victory. For the first time in memory, the one Hispanic running for statewide office is a Republican, not a Democrat. (Garza is favored for the powerful economic post of Texas railroad commissioner.)

Many observers credit Bush for setting the right tone. Instead of calling for the cutoff of welfare benefits for legal and illegal immigrants, as his California counterpart did, Bush talks of beefing up law enforcement on the Mexican border. And he calls for improving English proficiency for all students instead of pushing English-only statutes.

Fundamental differences

But the challenge in attracting - and keeping - Latino voters to the GOP may be harder than many Republicans want to admit, Dr. de la Garza adds. "They say Latinos believe in family values and hard work, and that makes them Republican. But Latinos also believe that the government should create jobs if they aren't available otherwise. That's not very Republican."

Indeed, it's these cultural differences that have set the Republican Party at odds with the Hispanic community for years, particularly in California. "There's not much of a fight for the Hispanic vote here in California," says Fernando Guerra, a professor of politics and Chicano studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. "Here, the Republican Party has attracted more conservatives at election time by scapegoating Latinos. But now they've got themselves stuck into a situation where they can't backtrack."

Of course, it takes more than a few election cycles to realign any state and the Democratic Party here still has hundreds of communities to call home. One of these is the 20th District, on San Antonio's west side. For as long as anyone can remember, this district has voted Democratic, and for 36 years it has sent one old-school liberal, Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez (D) to Washington. Now, as Mr. Gonzalez heads into retirement, nearly every Democrat with a pair of tennis shoes is running to keep the seat Democratic.

"My view is anytime the Republicans want the votes of Latinos, that's a good thing," says Democratic candidate Maria Berriozabal, on a recent campaign visit to a senior-citizen center in west San Antonio. "But it's not a PR thing. They can't just put on a sarape and do an ad in Spanish. They need to see the needs of the community."

Moving around the center, occasionally delaying a dominoes game, Mrs. Berriozabal speaks of what she would do as a congresswoman. From the reaction in the room, it's clear that no one here would be receptive to a Gingrich-style speech about smaller government. "My husband and my family have always been Democrats," says Rachel Luper with a shrug, as if there were only one choice. "The Republicans are more for the rich people."

For their part, Texas Democrats are hoping that voting habits and family values will keep Hispanics voting Democrat. "Historically, when Hispanics become successful, they may move into a nicer part of town, but they still go to the Roman Catholic Church they grew up in," says Garry Mauro, the Democratic candidate for governor. "That tie to the community keeps them Democrats."

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