Gore pursues Latino votes in south state appearance

LONG BEACH — Predicting a “pitched battle” for the presidency, Vice President Al Gore appealed to Latino voters on Saturday by vowing to defend bilingual education, oppose school vouchers and fight the “wedge” politics of past state ballot initiatives.

“Some will try to weaken our public schools by draining away the dollars for vouchers,” he told a luncheon crowd of about 700 Latino activists. “I say we can’t pass the buck when it comes to our public schools. We have to fight to make them the best schools.”

In a 25-minute speech laced with Spanish phrases, the leading Democratic presidential candidate made his strongest pitch thus far for Latino voters at the Southwest Voters Registration Education Project’s 25th convention.

The leading Democratic presidential candidate never mentioned his opponents by name, saying instead that “some will exploit” bilingual education “for political gain.” Gore won a standing ovation by promising to support it.

He went on with that theme, claiming “some will push phony ballot initiatives … to try to drive a wedge rather than build a bridge. Not me.”

He listed California’s anti-illegal immigration initiative, Proposition 187; its anti-affirmative action ballot measure, Proposition 209; and Proposition 227, which ended most bilingual education in the state.

Gore’s comments seemed aimed at his Republican foes because each measure was supported by leading members of the GOP. But his chief Republican opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, opposed each of them — except for school vouchers.

Gregory Rodriguez, Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy research scholar, said Democrats like Gore use these issues as their “political bogeymen” and urged the party to move beyond them.

Gore did that Saturday by calling for improvements in education and tougher gun-control: issues Latino leaders said play well among the fast-growing segment of the California electorate.

Since 1988, Latino voter registration in California has grown by 58.3 percent, according to a study by the William C. Velsquez Institute. The nonprofit, nonpartisan institute also found that 79 percent of Latino voters identified themselves as Democrats, while only 12.9 said they were Republicans.

As a result, analysts said California’s Latino voters are “Gore’s to lose,” but that he must pay attention to them to win the 2000 presidential election.

“California is very, very important battle ground for Gore,” said Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles. “He can’t win without California.”

Antonio Gonzlez, Southwest Voters president, put it more bluntly in comments before Gore’s speech.

“If you want to win America, you need the Latino vote,” he told the crowd. “If you want to win California, you need the Latino vote.”

Of all the Republican candidates, Bush is expected to be the most attractive to Latino voters. He won 39.1 percent of the Latino vote in his last gubernatorial race and speaks fluent Spanish. But Latino leaders said that won’t be enough to overcome Latino voters’ anger at Republicans for past support of initiatives Latinos felt were aimed at them.

“Texas is not California,” Sen. Hilda Solis, D-El Monte, said. “We are still trying to heal from the wounds of the Proposition 187 debate.”

Despite Bush’s record in Texas, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, said the Republican can’t distinguish himself from the positions taken by California’s GOP leaders.

Rodriguez, the Pepperdine research scholar, said Bush does have a “rapport” with Latino voters, with his Spanish and his “charm.” But he said the best Bush can hope for is 35 percent of the Latino vote.

“It’s a Democratic constituency,” Rodriguez said. “The Democrats have a lock on it.”

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