GOP candidates court Latinos

Republicans face off at summit in L.A

Los Angeles—Rivals for the GOP gubernatorial nomination reached out to Latino voters yesterday in a rowdy courtship ritual marked by increasingly nasty attacks on each other and on Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

With polls tightening, negative ads blossoming and the days until the March 5 primary running short, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, Secretary of State Bill Jones and businessman Bill Simon appeared yesterday at the GOP Latino Summit to make their case to the fastest growing group of voters in the state.

Riordan, whose lead in the polls has narrowed in recent days, leveled an aggressive attack on Davis, who earned more than 70 percent of the Latino vote in the 1998 election and who aired his own Spanish-language ads more than a week ago.

At a press conference, Riordan angrily accused of Davis of failing Latino parents on the issue of Proposition 227, the controversial 1998 ballot measure that eliminated bilingual education. Riordan, accompanied by parents and children from Santa Ana, charged that in that city, some schools — with the backing of the state Board of Education — had begun forcing Latino parents to enroll kids in bilingual education, whether they wanted to or not. “Gov. Gray Davis is trying to undermine the will of the voters and sneak bilingual education back into the classroom,” yelled Riordan at the podium, startling some onlookers. “In the name of God, in the name of our children . . . stop this!”

The attacks by Riordan, who supported Proposition 227, were swiftly rebutted by Roger Salazar, the governor’s spokesman, who was in attendance.

“The man has lost it,” Salazar said, adding that the governor, who opposed Proposition 227, is “committed to upholding the will of the people” on the issue. Salazar called it “insane” for Riordan to argue that the state Board of Education has sought to overrule the governor on the matter.

With less than two weeks left before voters go to the polls, the tense exchanges, and the efforts here to reach Latinos, underscored the political tug-of-war for the booming Latino vote by both candidates and parties.

Even as they tried to present positive messages, Simon faced questions about a new report in the Sacramento Bee. It said that while he accused Riordan of being “ashamed to be a Republican,” Simon was registered an independent in New York in the 1980s and failed to vote regularly there. Simon said he has regretted his past voting record, but now wants to “focus on the issues” of the campaign.

Jones called Simon’s record “appalling,” and argued that he had done the most for state Latino voters as an elected official for more than two decades and as secretary of state. Organizers of the summit said the competition for the Latino vote showed reason for hope.

“It’s the political maturation of Latinos,” said Margita Thompson, spokeswoman for Riordan and a past state spokeswoman for Bush. “When both parties compete for the votes, the issues are going to percolate to the top.”

The push for Latino votes was dramatized here by a heavy presence from high-level California Latinos in the Bush administration, including U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, Small Business Administration head Hector Barreto, White House liaison Ruben Barales, and Assemblyman Abel Maldonado, who all addressed the group.

“Changing the face of the Republican Party has been extremely important to the president,” Gerald Parsky, former chair of Bush’s statewide presidential campaign, told The Chronicle. “The Latino community is extremely important to us.”

Rudy Fernandez, who heads grassroots outreach for the Republican National Committee, said GOP efforts will be boosted by President George W. Bush — a popular candidate with Latinos. “As a party, we have a sales job every day . . . (and) Bush is the salesman,” he said.

Riordan, Jones and Simon all stressed their outreach to Latinos.

But Riordan was able to trump his competitors yesterday, becoming the first GOP primary candidate to unveil a Spanish-language ad, which touted his efforts in business and education in Los Angeles. The 30-second spot said Riordan “tiene la fuerza” — is tough enough — to turn California around.

The mayor, who also has appointed high-level Latinos like Thompson to his campaign staff, was also the only candidate to address delegates in Spanish. “Buenas tardes,” he said, introducing himself gamely as “Ricardo Riordan.”

With such efforts, GOP candidates have their eyes on a particularly critical prize: virtually all the growth in the state voter rolls in the past decade — 1 million new voters — has been Latino. However, just 20 percent of Latinos are registered Republican, compared to 60 percent Democratic.

“Republicans hold summits to meet Latinos,” scoffed Democratic campaign adviser Bob Mulholland. “Democrats hold conventions where the chair is a Latino, 30 percent of the delegates are Latinos, and the lieutenant governor is a Latino.”

Luis Arteaga of the influential Latino Issues Forum says the effort to woo Latinos in this year’s governor’s race says volumes about the demographic changes in California.

“This is . . . a make-it-or-break-it race for the (GOP),” said Arteaga. “With the incredible defeat they saw with Gray Davis in 1998, it’s an opportunity to really change or move the party in a different direction.”

E-mail Carla Marinucci at [email protected].

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