In what some Republican leaders view as a matter of the party’s survival,
the GOP is making a concerted effort statewide to end its estrangement from the Latino community and grab a larger share of the growing Latino vote.
The complicated nature of wooing such a varied group is no better illustrated than in Orange County, where the local GOP today is sending its biggest Valentine of the year to the Latino community: the Hispanic Leadership Outreach Breakfast.
The venue: an upscale hotel. The target audience: 2,400 Latino professionals and entrepreneurs. The message: Mix and mingle with the people in charge in Orange County. “We are going to have to appeal at all levels of society, that is essential,” county GOP Chairman Tom Fuentes said.
“But I think that young professionals and successful businesspeople tend to be the quickest and most fertile soil in which we can achieve growth.”
GOP leaders hope to use that foothold to build a bridge to the larger community. Overshadowing such efforts by local and state leaders, though,
is one daunting fact: Latinos are casting their lot overwhelmingly with Democrats.
State voter registration data show that the Democratic Party can claim 64% of Latinos, compared with just 19.5% for the Republicans.
In Orange County, Democrats have 54% of Latino voters, Republicans 29%,
according to the nonpartisan Political Data Inc. of Burbank. In Los Angeles County, the Democrats have 67% and the Republicans 17%.
Republicans are worried. In 1996, 75% of the state’s Latinos voted for President Clinton and 18% for GOP nominee Bob Dole, according to Los Angeles Times exit polls. The results were similar in congressional races.
“We are doing outreach because it is the right thing to do,”
said Michael Schroeder, state GOP chairman. “But the party cannot survive without Latinos. They are the fastest-growing voting population in the state.”
Democrats belittle the statewide effort and openly mock GOP outreach in Orange County, noting that almost all the state’s elected Latino officials are Democrats. “An outreach meeting? Gaddi Vasquez and who?” Democratic activist David Perez said, referring to the former county supervisor who was a rising GOP star before quitting politics three years ago. “Texas Gov. Bush seems to be doing a good job of outreach to Latinos, but in Orange County and California the Republicans’ appeal to Latinos is hopeless if not hostile.”
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At the heart of such antipathy is a sense that the state GOP is dominated by anti-immigrant and anti-affirmative action forces. Critics cite the attempt to overturn the 1996 election of Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and the successful campaigns to pass Proposition 187, the 1994 measure intended to bar illegal immigrants from social services, and Proposition 209, the 1996 initiative that ended state affirmative action, including admission standards for state universities.
Schroeder, who represented Robert K. Dornan in challenging his loss of a congressional seat to Sanchez, is well aware that the party’s popularity with Latinos is waning. He notes that in 1996, 22% of Latinos registered Republican, down from 26% in 1992.
He attributed the decline to the GOP’s backing of the twin initiatives and to campaign ads by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994 and Dole in 1996 that used negative images of immigrants.
“They created the impression that Republicans don’t like Hispanics,”
Schroeder said. Republicans, including Latino party activists, say that the GOP’s philosophy of hard work, low taxes, emphasis on family, education and entrepreneurship, as well as its opposition to abortion, jibes with Latino values and aspirations.
“We have a Herculean task to get that message out unfiltered,”
said lawyer George Jaramillo, one of the organizers of today’s breakfast.
It’s no wonder, said several Latino Republicans, who maintained that GOP-Latino harmony should never have been subordinated to the divisive initiatives backed by party leaders.
Ruben Barrales, the lone Latino running for statewide office this year as a Republican, is at the head of the outreach. The San Mateo County supervisor calls the GOP the party of opportunity, but he worries about continuing Republican isolation. “We need to be aggressive,” he said. “Republicans can’t shy away from going into barrios and talking about what we believe in.”
Barrales will be a featured speaker at the breakfast, along with Assemblyman Rod Pacheco of Riverside, the only Republican Latino now holding a state office. Barrales laughed when asked to identify other elected Latino Republicans at the state level. “That’s it right now,” he said. “One way of looking at it is that it provides plenty of opportunity for growth
. . . and that the challenge is great.”
Barrales’ relationship with the party illustrates the GOP’s tin ear and inconsistency in connecting with Latinos. Despite being a key part of GOP outreach strategy, Barrales was muscled out of competing for the open state treasurer’s seat by Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove). Now, Barrales is seeking the GOP nomination for controller and would have to run in November against the incumbent, Democrat Kathleen Connell.
Elected a county supervisor on an anti-tax platform, Barrales said the GOP has neglected Latinos while “the Democrats have been doing a good job of getting out in the communities and signing up citizens as voters.”
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The place to meet elected Latinos, of course, is in the Democratic Party.
There are two dozen Latino Democrats in the Legislature and Congress, including Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles and his predecessor,
Cruz Bustamante of Fresno. Three other Latino Democrats are running for statewide office this year. The disparity is never lost on Barrales.
“When I go to a community, people inevitably ask: How can you be a Republican? I tell them I believe in free enterprise and competition in life and politics. And also that it does not serve the Latino community to be taken for granted by any party.” Republican leaders know the math of the growing Latino ballot strength in California. Statewide, the Latino share of votes cast has risen in this decade to more than 12%, up from less than 9%. In Orange County, the Latino vote has risen to 9%, up from 6%; in Los Angeles County, 18%, up from 11%.
At the same time, GOP registration among Latinos has been falling, according to Political Data.
“The GOP knows it needs to recruit Latinos to survive,” said Brenda Quintana, who works for Assemblyman Jim Morrissey (R-Santa Ana).
“They may not need the Latino vote to survive in this county now, but they will in a few years.”
The Orange County breakfast is an attempt to prevent the problem.
It is similar–albeit grander–than outreach events being hosted by Republican groups elsewhere after several so-called Latino summits in 1997, culminating with a major event in Los Angeles in September attended by about 300 party activists, including Gov. Wilson and Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren.
Based on the summits, party leaders concluded that mailers or TV ads will not build Latino interest in the GOP. The strategy now is to sponsor grass-roots, one-on-one events. The goal is to reach each of 10 state regions by the end of the summer.
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Today’s leadership breakfast is hosted by the county GOP and the Lincoln Club, a conservative group of 350 wealthy Republicans whose members include about two dozen Latinos. Recognizing that past events have not created enduring ties, organizers have broadened the invitation list to 2,400, said Dale Dykema, Lincoln Club president. “Republicans generally have not done an effective job in reaching out to Latinos on a local, state or national level,” Dykema said. “We have missed the boat.”
Organizers have planned this event to do better. While last year’s breakfast was at the exclusive Center Club near South Coast Plaza, this year it has
“moved out into the community” to the Hyatt Regency Alicante in Garden Grove, one said. The speakers are different too. The lineup last year featured Dornan, who was in the midst of a crusade against noncitizen voting.
Democrats question how a meal of ham and eggs will translate into mass Latino appeal at the same time Republican leaders are attacking bilingual education and praising the end of affirmative action.
“I think it is too little, too late, and it is going to come across as cynical and duplicitous,” Villaraigosa said. “You are not what you say you are–you are what you do.”
Even some Latinos on the host committee wonder about GOP sincerity and say Proposition 227, which would dismantle bilingual education, could be
“the third strike” for the state GOP.
John Raya, a Santa Ana plumbing sales manager and a veteran of earlier GOP outreach efforts, sees the event “as a tremendous opportunity”
but cautions: “We all are tired of being Mariachi Republicans, where every two years at election time they come to you and say: ‘Viva this and sign here.’ Then we don’t see them for two years.”
Raya called it “mind-boggling” that the party did not back Barrales for treasurer. “Here was the perfect opportunity to step up to the plate,” he said. Others ask why party leaders do not back proven Latino Republican vote-getters for higher office, such as Anaheim Councilman Lou Lopez, who is running for county supervisor.
“All this outreach looks like fluff,” said Sal Mendoza, a host committee member who for nine years was a Santa Ana school trustee. “You have to ask the question: Is it P.R., or is there really going to be any substance?”
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Statewide registration data show the Democratic Party has 64% of Latino voters, with 19.5% signed up as Republicans. A look at Latino registered voters and how they voted in 1996:
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Los Angeles County
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According to exit polls, Latinos favored a Democratic ticket in the 1996 presidential and U.S. House of Representative elections:
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U.S. House of Representatives
Sources: Political Data Inc. of Burbank and Los Angeles Times exit polls