[sidebar] The Boston Phoenix
March 9 - 16, 2000


Going south

George W. Bush has strong Latino support in Texas. But he's not likely to extend it nationwide by November.

by Seth Gitell

State Representative Jarrett Barrios of Cambridge stood on the stage at the Middle East on March 2, amid signs reading VIVA GORE 2000!, and warned some 100 Latino political activists of the dangers of a President George W. Bush. "I like a candidate who can speak a little Spanish," said Barrios of the Texas governor, "but the question is whether a well-funded campaign that is going to go on Univision will convince us to support a party that opposed programs vital to our community." Barrios, a Cuban-American from Tampa, Florida, then listed a series of government statutes and programs that Latinos support, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Title I, which helps support low-performing schools; and the preschool program Head Start. Asked Barrios: "Who do you think brought that to us, compassionate conservatives?" The crowd responded with a resounding "No."

Barrios and other Latinos who support Al Gore are trying to head off George W. Bush's political advances into the Latino community -- a community that in Massachusetts includes Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and the more recently settled Hondurans and Salvadorans. In his 1998 Texas gubernatorial election, Bush captured more than 40 percent of the Latino vote, which consisted primarily of Mexican-Americans. And he has built his campaign on the idea of bringing Spanish-speaking Americans and their descendants into the Republican Party. Bush has already started running Spanish-language advertising in California and is frequently featured on Telemundo and Univision. He is also enlisting his charismatic young nephew George Prescott Bush, himself a Mexican-American, to campaign for Latino votes.

Yet Bush's effort may fall short because of the course the Republican Party took during the mid 1990s. That's when Republicans backed a series of anti-immigrant measures in California, as well as the national welfare-reform law that banned legal immigrants from all federal assistance. Under the original law, a legal immigrant who had worked in the United States for 30 years and paid payroll taxes would have been denied Social Security. Although Bush himself opposed these measures, they were supported by the party whose nomination he seeks.

Even worse for Bush, though, is that many of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants hurt by welfare reform became citizens in response to that very law. Muriel Heiberger, the executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, says that almost four million immigrants became American citizens in the five years between 1994 and 1999. And in Massachusetts, that number was 109,837 between 1994 and 1998. (The rush to naturalize immigrants took place as lawmakers fought, with only partial success, to restore funding to immigrants after the 1996 presidential election.) Next fall's general election will be their first opportunity to vote in a presidential race.

Listening to the activists at Barrios's rally, it becomes apparent that Bush's efforts to win Latino support are failing locally. Juan Vega, executive director of Centro Latino de Chelsea, oversees a program that has turned out hundreds of new American citizens this year. He says there are similar programs in East Boston and Everett. And although Vega's program is nonpartisan, many of these new Americans are likely to follow his political example: Vega, a Chelsea city councilor, is a registered Democrat. "These people who just became citizens are more likely to vote than people who have been citizens for years," he notes.

Jeffrey Sánchez, an adviser to Boston mayor Thomas Menino, explains that at least three voter-registration drives aimed at immigrants are under way in Boston this election cycle. Representative José Santiago, a Gore supporter, personally registered 1000 people to vote in his hometown of Lawrence last year. He plans to register another 1000 people this year. "The people in the Latino community are coming from poor countries. They're registering Democratic," says Santiago, whose district includes Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Colombians, and Mexicans. Santiago's efforts have been aided by the so-called motor-voter law, which makes it easier for people to register when they get a driver's license.

Jaime Rodriguez, a Jamaica Plain resident and the president of the oversight committee of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, says that Latinos will remember the Republican-backed anti-immigrant efforts. "That's why we as Hispanics have to get involved with the political process," says Rodriguez, who is known as a local leader in voter registration. "When you don't have power, no one respects you." (Puerto Ricans, as American citizens, were immune from the anti-immigrant aspects of welfare reform.)

Barrios, who helped found the House Latino American Caucus in March 1999, is organizing Latinos statewide. The ethnic minority is an important swing vote in urban communities, particularly in Lawrence, Chelsea, and Holyoke, where Latinos make up 48 percent, 38 percent, and 37 percent of the population, respectively. "This hasn't been done before here," says Barrios of the coordination efforts.

Similar organizing drives are taking place nationwide. The Democratic National Committee has prepared a document pointing out that Latinos have not prospered in Texas under Bush and that his education reforms have hurt Latinos. "We're going to focus on the issues of concern to the Latino community," says Dag Vega, deputy press secretary of the DNC, citing a litany of issues on which he believes the Democrats are better: the census, immigration policy, health care, Social Security, and Medicare.

And William Schneider, CNN's senior political analyst, confirms that the anti-immigrant efforts of former California governor Pete Wilson and other Republicans have produced a groundswell in Democratic voter registrations. "Latinos have been registering particularly Democratic in California," he says. "Wilson created a tremendous boom for Democrats. Can Bush tilt it back? Probably, but not entirely."

The Bush campaign is trying, though. Spokesman Scott McClellan, who argues that Bush's tax and education policies have helped Latino voters in Texas, maintains that Bush is now doing nationwide what he did in Texas: making "a concerted effort to reach out to new faces and new voices."

George W.'s secret weapon in his fight for Latino support is his 23-year-old nephew, George P. Bush. The son of Florida governor Jeb Bush and his wife, Columba Bush, a native of Guanajuanto, Mexico, George P. is one of the grandchildren President Bush referred to as the "little brown ones" during his presidency.

George P., who has been stumping for his uncle around the country, recently met with a Latino community group called Los Amigos in a Sizzler Steak House in Orange County, California. During the event, which was broadcast on C-SPAN, one questioner asked him about the succession of statewide ballot initiatives in California that soured Latinos on the Republican Party -- Propositions 187 (illegal immigration), 209 (affirmative action), and 227 (bilingual education). "All Republicans are not the same," he told the group. "He [George W. Bush] was one of the Republican governors who spoke out about it." The young Bush, who is good-looking and appears more at ease with public speaking than his uncle, quoted one of George W.'s sayings: "Family values doesn't end at the Rio Grande."

Showing that he wasn't above engaging in identity politics, George P. also told the group: "Racism and discrimination definitely exist. I've been the victim of discrimination myself." It seemed to work. When the event concluded, one old-timer gestured to George P. and said, "That's a young Ricardo Montalban." Another told him, "You should know that once you come here, you're always a Los Amigo."

George W. Bush's popularity among Latinos in Texas is sure to win some support in the Latino community elsewhere. So are his nephew's stumping and the fact that, as the Wall Street Journal reported last week, Bush actually made stump speeches on behalf of Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo in 1995 and lobbied Congress on a $40 billion loan guarantee for Mexico. But Mexican-Americans in Texas are more politically conservative than Mexican-Americans elsewhere in the country, says Tom Longoria, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Texas at El Paso, who has studied Bush's support among Latinos. They're more conservative than Puerto Ricans, too. "Mexican-Americans in Texas tend to be different than other Hispanics -- on military spending, on welfare spending," he says.

Longoria suggests that Bush, with his Latino relatives and his ease among the Mexican business and political elites, may be a cultural and historical archetype. "There's a whole history in Texas of the patrón system," he says; Anglo businessmen moved south and "assimilated themselves into the Mexican culture. They bought land and were running ranches with Mexican-American workers. It was assimilation in reverse." Of Bush's nephew, Longoria says, "When George W. Bush brings out George P. Bush, it's Bush saying `I don't have social distance from you.' "

But the idea of the patrón doesn't resonate in the Northeast or the Midwest. Bush's appeal in Texas is a unique phenomenon. Gregory Rodriguez, a research scholar at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and a fellow at the New America Foundation, distinguishes between the Tejanos -- many of whom have lived in the United States for generations -- and Puerto Ricans and other Latinos. "The notion that Bush was ever going to get Puerto Rican support is a little far-fetched," he notes.

At the Latino event for Gore last week, Jarrett Barrios rallied the troops by promising: "This isn't a gringo political event. We're going to be loud. We're going to be passionate." It was an odd thing to hear at a Gore event: if any politician epitomizes the notion of the stiff gringo, it's Gore. But a gringo who can deliver the goods is sure to be looked upon more favorably than a Spanish-speaking Texas patrón who can't.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.