News Column

Congress Grapples with How to Translate the Hispanic Vote

Jan 30 2001 12:00AM

By James E. Garcia

January/February 2001 - Throughout the 2000 election cycle, the following question nagged political organizers: Would Hispanics deliver the vote on November 7?

In the end, they delivered. Early reviews of polling data found that as many as 7 million Hispanics went to the polls on Election Day an astonishing 29 percent increase over the approximately 5 million Hispanic voters who participated in 1996.

Never again will Hispanic voters be viewed as "an emerging part of the electorate," says Congressman Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrat and incoming chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The extraordinary results have "established the credibility of the Hispanic vote," Mr. Reyes observes. Finally, the Hispanic community has proved its power, and it is that power that Mr. Reyes intends leverage during this year's session of Congress.

But Hispanic clout at the polls might be discounted with a Republican president, since all members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are Democrats. Still, Mr. Reyes tells HISPANIC BUSINESS, a Bush presidency could avoid antagonizing a majority of the nation's Hispanics by curbing the influence of the Republican right wing. A resurgence of the right wing which dominated the party's congressional agenda in the mid-1990s would simply exacerbate the partisan clashes so evident in recent years.

Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida, says that under a Bush administration, Hispanics will have a friend in the White House, and he further predicts that GOP leaders in the House and Senate will pursue a centrist policy agenda. "I think there will be bipartisan agreement on Medicare reform, for example," Mr. Diaz-Balart says. He believes the issue is one of many in which so-called centrist Democrats will be willing to side with a centrist-minded Republican president.

Self-described liberal Congressman Jose Serrano, a Democrat from New York, agrees that Mr. Bush needs to be a centrist president or Hispanics will suffer. "If a Bush presidency falls into the hands of the Republican right wing in Congress, then we've got a serious problem," Mr. Serrano offers, saying another right-wing attack on immigrants, as occurred in the 1990s, would bode poorly for the GOP's long-term goal of attracting more Hispanics to the party. Mr. Bush garnered about 30 percent of the Hispanic vote in the November 2000 election a respectable showing, but far short of President Ronald Reagan's 38 percent tally in 1984 and the Bush campaign's own goal of 40 percent.

A test of Mr. Bush's commitment to New Republicanism could come early in his administration. Major legislation on immigration stalled during a lame-duck session of Congress in December, but the issue will undoubtedly resurface in the next session. Larry Gonzalez, a spokesman for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, says his organization will be closely monitoring Hispanic appointments to administrative posts and the federal courts.

The Clinton administration, according to Mr. Gonzalez, set a benchmark that the next president must match. He thinks the election of more Democrats in the Senate and the closeness of the presidential race will reduce the likelihood that Hispanic nominees will be rejected.

Mr. Diaz-Balart adds that as president, Mr. Bush will be mindful of the record number of Hispanic appointments made during the Clinton years, and he touts Mr. Bush's record of appointments in Texas.

The only new Hispanic face in Congress this year is Congresswoman Hilda Solis, who ousted incumbent Matthew Martinez in the Democratic primary for California's 31st District. The 2002 election, however, might bring more changes. Legislative redistricting based on the 2000 Census could result in more Hispanics in Congress.

Mr. Reyes has his own plan to boost the number of Hispanics in the House. He wants the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to launch a nonpartisan political action committee to identify and help fund potential candidates nationwide. "The more Hispanic members of Congress there are, regardless of political affiliation," Mr. Reyes says, "the more political clout we would have."

On that point, Hispanic Republicans and Democrats in Congress agree.

James Garcia is editor and publisher of PoliticoMagazine.com.

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