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The GOP's Latino Problem

Photo by Anne FishbeinIn September 1997, Attorney General Dan Lungren cheerfully stepped up to the dais at a posh Westside hotel to deliver a simple message: Latinos weren't anti-Republican, the party simply hadn't gotten its message out.

Nearly a year later Latinos responded with a political missive of their own: We got your message and we don't like it.

That answer was delivered during last week's election when Latinos voted overwhelmingly Democratic in just about every major race. Gray Davis captured more than 70 percent of the Latino vote compared to Lungren's 23 percent, while Senator Barbara Boxer garnered 69 percent, compared to Matt Fong's 24 percent, according to L.A. Times exit polls.

And while some blame the GOP debacle in California solely on the legacy of Proposition 187, the Republican-sponsored initiative to eliminate social and educational services to undocumented immigrants, the party leadership also failed to give Latinos anything new to work with this time around.

"Yes, much of how Latinos voted had a lot to do with Prop. 187," says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. "But I think the other part of this is that I don't remember seeing Republicans put out any real message."

Adds Antonio Gonzalez, president of Southwest Voter Registration: "What the California election did was show that Republican efforts to reach out to Latinos failed because they still haven't come up with a substantive message,"

Nowhere was that more evident than in Dan Lungren's campaign. Lungren broke new ground with a $500,000 investment in Spanish-language ads and a pledge last September to walk the barrio and capture 30 percent of the Latino vote. Yet all he could tout from his record was his vote in Congress for immigration reform - more than a decade ago. "The fact that Dan Lungren ran Spanish-language ads should be seen as a complete waste of time," says Gary Segura, a professor of politics at the Claremont Graduate College.

Republican strategists concede this election did little to raise their cachet with Latino voters. "There certainly wasn't a message coming from the top of the ticket," says Mike Madrid, political strategist for the California Republican Party. But Madrid insists the party managed to make some inroads with Latinos. "Was there a backlash? Yes. But at the same time that we were hemorrhaging in every other voting group, we actually managed to increase our support among Latinos."

In fact, the number of Latinos who voted for Republican candidates doubled over 1996, to about 20 percent. But California Republicans have yet to find a way to recapture the 30-plus percent of Latino votes they claimed during the Reagan years. And this year's gains compare badly to the performance of GOP candidates George W. Bush and his brother Jeb in their respective states of Texas and Florida.

In Texas, particularly, Bush worked hard to court Latinos. Not only did he oppose measures perceived as anti-immigrant, but he appointed Latinos to visible posts, endorsed bilingual education and learned enough Spanish to take it on the stump.

"George W. Bush did well with Latinos because he demonstrated himself pro-Latino," says Gonzalez. "Why does Mayor Richard Riordan do well with Latinos? Why does New York's Mayor Rudy Giuliani do well with Latinos? For the same reasons as Bush. They are moderates who have a track record with Latinos."

Despite last week's results, analysts caution both parties that the Latino vote is still up for grabs should Republicans ever learn to fight for them.

"Look, the Democrats also have an excellent track record of taking Latinos for granted," says Vargas of the Latino officials organization. He acknowledged that the Democrats have fielded strong Latino candidates such as Antonio Villaraigosa, but the party must follow through. "The next real test will be in how Latinos hold officials accountable. Dianne Feinstein is up for re-election, and I know a lot of people who are really angry at what she has and hasn't done for Latinos."


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