Mannix, Smith going after Hispanic vote

PORTLAND, Ore.—Taking a page from George W. Bush’s election strategy of two years ago, gubernatorial candidate Kevin Mannix is going after the Hispanic vote. So is U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, a fellow Republican running for re-election.

Mannix has been pointing out that he spent part of his childhood living in Latin America, and he has used his Spanish during some campaign appearances.

Smith last month launched a Spanish version of his Web site – the first major candidate in Oregon this election cycle to do so – and in recent months has made appearances at a variety of Hispanic functions. The efforts of Mannix and Smith are the GOP’s acknowledgment of the potential political power of Oregon’s 250,000 Hispanics – the state’s largest minority. Their numbers are expected to reach 500,000 by 2025.

“The last five and a half years there has been a lot of Hispanic growth since Senator Smith’s last election,” said spokesman Chris Mathews. “The senator wants to make sure he gets Hispanics involved in this campaign.”

At this stage, the campaigns by Mannix and Smith to appeal to Hispanic voters are more developed than those of their Democratic challengers – Ted Kulongoski and Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, respectively.

But Smith and Mannix may find it difficult to make inroads into Hispanic circles. The Hispanic vote has been overwhelmingly Democratic, Hispanic leaders say.

“Hispanics in Oregon have a tradition of voting for Democrats,” said Estela Garcia Leon, executive director of the Mexican Center of Oregon, a branch of the Mexican Consulate in Portland. “But many who get to know the Republican platform, especially the family values part, vote Republican.”

In part, Smith and Mannix are following a Republican trend set by Bush, who by drawing on his limited Spanish and emphasizing his conservative values may have more support among Hispanic voters than any previous Republican president.

Since voter registration forms in Oregon don’t have a race question, it’s impossible to know exactly how many Hispanics are registered voters. Hispanic community centers across the state estimate the number to be between 25,000 and 50,000 votes.

Mannix says he’s hoping to win more than 50 percent of the Hispanic vote. He says attracting Hispanic votes will be natural for him because of his background. As a child, he spent a few years in Panama, Bolivia, and Ecuador while his father worked for the Agency for International Development. He went to school in Spanish, and says he is a product of total language immersion, an issue he plans to challenge Democratic thinking on during this election.

“There is too much of an assumption that the Latino community wants their kids in bilingual education,” said Mannix. “Many Latino parents want total immersion (in English).”

Mannix says he also plans to attract Hispanic voters by emphasizing two Republican strengths: support for small businesses, and conservative family values.

Coming from predominantly conservative Catholic countries, a majority of Hispanics are Catholic and anti-abortion.

The problem for Mannix, political analyst Jim Moore says, is that Democrats support farm workers, their unions and multi-lingual programs in schools and “Republicans are against all that.”

Many Hispanic leaders in Oregon don’t see how Mannix or Smith can get more than a small number of Hispanic votes.

“Unless something magical happens there’s no way they’ll get those votes,” said Juan Argumedo, who works for Voz Hispana, a Woodburn-based nonpartisan agency that works to register Hispanic voters.

Argumedo says that until a Republican candidate publicly supports an amnesty law for Hispanics living in the states illegally, and an increase in the minimum wage for farm workers, most Hispanic voters simply won’t get behind him.

Ramon Ramirez, president of the Northwest Tree Planters and Farm Workers Union, also known as PCUN, agrees.

“When it comes to farm worker issues, Democrats have been much more supportive,” he says. “Mannix and Smith might get a small slice of middle class Hispanic votes, but they certainly won’t get a majority.”

Republicans and Democrats know that beyond the task of persuading Hispanics to vote for their respective parties is the challenge of simply getting them to vote.

Many Hispanics are unaccustomed to voting because they come from countries that don’t have strong democratic traditions. Add to that problems understanding ballots in English and the often limited education of Hispanic farm workers, and the result is a voting block that is potentially powerful but has yet to completely weigh in.

In any case, the Kulongoski and Bradbury campaigns say they are not taking the Republican challenge lightly.

“I think it’s great for him (Smith) to have a Web site in Spanish,” says Kim Baldwin, communications director for Bradbury’s campaign, “but it doesn’t make him a friend to Hispanic communities on issues that are important to them.”

Baldwin said Bradbury’s site will soon also be in Spanish.

Kulongoski’s campaign manager, Sean Sinclair, said the Hispanic vote “is not something we are taking for granted.”

It’s not yet clear how Kulongoski will be countering Mannix’s pitch for the Hispanic vote.

When asked recently what Kulongoski was doing to attract Hispanic voters, Sinclair said the campaign planned to get behind House District 22 candidate Anthony Veliz, who is a Democrat and Hispanic. The problem is that Veliz already lost – and lost badly – in the May 21 primary.

Sinclair also said the campaign is looking at producing campaign materials in Spanish and has some other plans that he didn’t want to divulge.

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