Shifting allegiance of Hispanic voters

As loyalty to the Democratic Party erodes, Bush makes gains with his education plan.

From his cracked-vinyl throne in the office of his used-car dealership, local Latino leader Ray Aguilera is busting up conventional political wisdom about Hispanics - and loving it.

Mr. Aguilera is famous in this once-upon-a-steel-mill town for doing the unthinkable: backing a Republican for president.

Like many of the nation's Latinos, he's a lifelong Democrat. But in 1992, he'd had it with Democrats "ignoring" Hispanics, so he backed Republican Bill Owens for governor of Colorado.

"We had every Democratic cockroach in here begging me to change back," he laughs, recalling the local reaction. He didn't. Mr. Owens won. And now Aguilera is a fan of George W. Bush, especially the GOP candidate's test-every-child education plan.

"I'm past being idealistic as far as parties," Aguilera says, his tufted gray eyebrows furrowing. "I want to know who'll put bread on the table."

Aguilera symbolizes a new pragmatism among Latinos, who are becoming both more crucial to winning elections and less attached to the Democratic Party. This leaves them open to being wooed by either party, observers say, especially on education.

"This is the first election in which Latinos are a theme that's just as important as soccer moms or angry white men," says Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli. "You can't lose this growing group and expect to win elections."

Last week, both major-party presidential candidates spoke to a prominent Latino group in Washington. Vice President Al Gore stressed education. Governor Bush did, too, while also unveiling a plan to restructure the US immigration agency to better welcome immigrants - a move apparently aimed at wooing recently arrived voters.

Latinos' shift to the GOP camp is not a wholesale move, but it is nonetheless significant enough to show up in voter surveys.

A Knight-Ridder poll last week found Mr. Gore leading Bush 50 percent to 34 percent among the nation's Latinos. But this 16-point lead is significantly smaller than Bill Clinton's 62-to-25 percent win among Latinos over President Bush in 1992.

Not a monolithic bloc

There are also distinct differences among Latinos. Cuban-Americans typically back Republicans by 2-to-1 margins. Texas Latinos also tend to be more willing to vote Republican. One poll found 49 percent of them backing Bush in his 1998 re-election.

In California, however, Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot initiative that denied many public services to illegal immigrants, set many Hispanics against Republicans. There, Gore is leading Bush 2 to 1.

But it's Colorado's middle-of-the-road Latinos - less conservative than their Texas brethren, but not as liberal as those in California - who may provide clues to the direction the group is headed. "They're kind of the swing voters among Latinos," says Mr. Ciruli, the pollster.

For Aguilera, the biggest pull toward Bush is education - a subject he is passionate about.

In fact, Aguilera is best known here in Pueblo for starting a telethon to raise money to send Hispanic kids to college. It raises more than $90,000 a year. "I thought, 'If Jerry Lewis can do it, so can I,' " he says with a smile.

But something else has had an even bigger impact, Aguilera says: a state skills test for elementary-school students. The test was spearheaded by Governor Owens - and is similar to the one Bush champions as a nationwide plan.

Aguilera loves telling the educational rags-to-riches story about the skills test and Bessemer Elementary, a school in a tumbledown Latino neighborhood in Pueblo. About 80 percent of Bessemer's kids qualify for free lunches, a hint of the poverty that pervades the place.

For years, its students struggled. But no one knew how bad things were until three years ago, when the new test revealed that just 12 percent of the school's fourth-graders could read.

The next year, the school upended its priorities. Gone were recess, pottery classes, and more. The kids spent the entire morning reading - to themselves, to one another, to teachers. The turnaround was dramatic: This year, the skills test showed that 3 in 4 fourth-graders can read.

This, Aguilera says, is proof that "we don't really need more money. We just need to know how things are goin'." Then, he adds, "We can take care of ourselves." That's why he backs Bush and thinks Gore's plan to hire more teachers and shrink class sizes - by increasing federal spending - is superfluous.

Critics say such tests may sometimes help in elementary school, where basic skills are taught, but not in high schools, where learning is more complicated. Testing, they argue, is not a cure-all that lessens the need for more funding.

Bush's strength

But for many Latinos, education is the issue on which they most trust Bush. While Gore still garners a majority, the Knight-Ridder poll found 33 percent say Bush would be best at improving education, while 51 percent say Gore would. On other issues, the gap was even wider.

Still, to Aguilera, Latinos' willingness to consider another party shows political maturity - and a determination not to be taken for granted by state Democrats. "They thought, 'Hey, they're the Mexicans, they're not smart enough to know better,' " he says. "Now we're showing them we do."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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