LONG BEACH, Calif. — Vice President Al Gore reached out to American Hispanics during a visit to Southern California on Saturday, pledging to support bilingual education and to reject “wedge politics” that punish immigrants.
Gore, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000, praised Hispanic leaders for making big political strides and promised to help them go further in the next millennium.
“You did more than dream, you organized,” Gore told about 800 people attending a Southwest Voter Registration Education Project conference here. “Your voice, your vote and your hard work are making a historic difference.”
Hispanic political and civic leaders were in Long Beach celebrating the 25th anniversary of the San Antonio, Texas-based voter project, which works to empower Hispanics through political activism.
Although panel discussions at the two-day conference were dominated by California Democrats, the voter project’s executive director, Lydia Camarillo,
said the event was nonpartisan. She said several prominent Republicans, including Texas Gov. George W. Bush, were invited, but declined to attend.
Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said the Republican presidential front-runner was campaigning in Iowa last week, and could not fit the Long Beach conference into his schedule.
“He receives hundreds of scheduling invitations each week and though he would like to attend all of them, he is just not able to,” Hughes said.
Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, a former Democratic congressman from New Mexico, addressed the conference Friday night.
Gore, speaking to the group Saturday, vowed to help improve schools in Hispanic neighborhoods, boost the minimum wage and fight for policies that protect and improve legal immigration rights. He drew wild applause when he promised to fight ballot initiatives, such as recent ones in California, that are viewed by many Hispanics as anti-immigrant.
“Some will try to push phony ballot propositions that try to drive a wedge rather than build a bridge not me,” Gore said. “I will always stand for full and equal opportunity for all Americans.”
One of the California initiatives to which Gore referred banned the use of affirmative-action policies that helped some minorities gain admission to the University of California. Another, which is being challenged in court, denies children of illegal immigrants access to public schools.
Gore said candidates who support such measures will regret it when the nation’s 7 million registered Hispanic voters go to the polls.
“If a candidate wants to divide this nation instead of uniting it if a candidate deals with fear instead of hope they will pay at the ballot box. You will make sure of that,” Gore said.
Gore took a swipe at proponents of taxpayer-financed school vouchers, condemning them for abandoning the nation’s children. New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson pushed unsuccessfully for vouchers during a recent legislative session and has promised to keep the issue at the forefront of public debate during the final three years of his term.
Gore said public schools need more investment, not less.
“Some will try to weaken public schools by draining away the dollars with vouchers,” he said. “I say we can’t pass the buck when it comes to public schools, we have to fight to make them the best we can.
“We will never close the opportunity gap in America if we don’t bring revolutionary improvement to our public schools,” said the vice president, who also said schools need more money for technology, after-school programs and security.
Camarillo said the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which hopes to register 1.5 million new Hispanic voters before the 2000 election, is committed to showing Hispanics that their vote is the key to their future.
“There is a lot to be gained or lost in the Latino community,” Camarillo said. “Our vote really is our ticket to respect and dignity.”