Nearly 20 years in Congress have made Rep. Jerry Lewis fluent in politics.
The veteran Republican lawmaker from Redlands now hopes a five-week stay in Mexico will allow him to speak that language in two tongues and connect with the fastest-growing group of voters in California and the nation.
“I’ve always had an interest in speaking Spanish,” Lewis said this week. “But with the changing face of Southern California, you have to speak more than one language to be active. “
Lewis plans to spend his time near Mexico City attending Spanish classes and living with a Spanish-speaking family, immersing himself in the language. He was to leave Thursday, but the leadership shakeup in the House has forced him to delay the trip for at least a few weeks.
The elections that prompted that shakeup sent at least one clear message to Lewis.
California Republicans, saddled with their support of recent ballot measures that alienated Hispanic voters, came up lame at the polls.
Meanwhile in Texas, an incumbent Republican governor who spoke Spanish and championed Hispanic causes such as immigrant rights and bilingual education scored a landslide victory.
Hispanic leaders praised Lewis for planning to learn Spanish but warned him and other politicians that knowing the language won’t be enough.
“The ability to communicate in Spanish I’m sure goes a long way with some voters,” said Marcelo Gaete, spokesman for the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.
“But what’s really important is what you’re saying,” he said, noting that in Texas, Gov. George W. Bush denounced California’s Prop. 187, which attempted to deny public education and health care to illegal immigrants.
“He made it clear immigrants were welcome in Texas, and that some of the policies folks in California supported won’t wash in Texas,” Gaete said.
Lewis said he has always championed diversity in the Republican Party and believes Prop. 187 and subsequent GOP-backed initiatives to end affirmative action and bilingual education drove Hispanics away.
“I’m very interested in having a big impact on my party in its effort to rebuild that bond,” Lewis said.
More than 600,000 Hispanics have registered to vote in California since 1994. Their participation in elections also rose from 10 percent in 1996 to an estimated 13 percent in last week’s elections, according to exit polls.
Lewis acknowledged a “pure political interest” in learning Spanish. He said his mostly Republican, mostly white congressional district will be redrawn in 2001 – probably by a Democratic governor in conjunction with a Democratic Legislature.
The prospect of having portions of heavily Hispanic San Bernardino added to his territory – and his prospects as a possible candidate for statewide office – have made what began as an expression of Lewis’ interest in foreign affairs an effort to remain politically viable.
But can speaking Spanish help a white candidate connect with Hispanic voters? Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, thinks so.
Green has studied Spanish for several years and earlier this year spent a week in Mexico to polish his second language. He says he isn’t fluent enough to give a speech in Spanish. But just being able to understand Spanish-speaking constituents made a difference for him as he campaigned for re-election in his north Houston district, where 46 percent of the population is Hispanic.
“I do a lot of work with senior citizens. Most of them speak English, but Spanish is their native language and that’s what they prefer to speak. I can tell they’re a lot more comfortable with me if they can speak to me in Spanish,” Green said. “It’s made me a better elected official. “
The House of Representatives does not keep records on how many of its 435 members speak Spanish or any other language besides English.
But Green said daily Spanish classes once offered to members by the State Department were well attended by representatives from his state, Illinois and New York – all states with burgeoning Hispanic populations.
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HEADLINE: W. Chicago opens discussion on bilingual education
BYLINE: Kevin Barrett Daily Herald Staff Writer
BODY: Tom Tawney’s concerns about the bilingual program in West Chicago Elementary District 33 are not unique, according to the Hispanic community activist.
“We have concerns regarding students being kept in the program four and five and six years,” he said.
He also worries the district isn’t communicating with parents of Spanish-speaking students.
And he questions efforts by the district to include Spanish speaking students in the same activities other students enjoy. On the district board’s part though, Tawney may have been preaching to the choir.
“The questions you ask are questions we’ve all had at one point or another,” said board president Barbara Toney.
With that the board Thursday opened up what school officials described as an informal review of its own bilingual program.
“I’m hoping to get some answers tonight and in the next couple meetings,” said Toney.
The review comes just months after the district entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education to monitor its bilingual programs.
That agreement was the result of a year-long study in the district’s schools during the 1997-98 academic year by the department’s office for civil rights.
A letter sent at the conclusion of that study complimented the district on many of its efforts.
“Your staff is clearly dedicated to providing alternate language services to those in need of such services. We applaud your efforts … ” the letter read. However, the district was asked to report to the department on its bilingual programs on a regular basis through June 2002.
The district is about 45.5 percent Hispanic about 26 percent of its students are in bilingual education programs.
On Thursday the board heard from several teachers on the components on their day to day activities in bilingual classrooms.
They also reviewed efforts to integrate Spanish speaking students into the general student population and the process by which students are moved from bilingual programs to standard classrooms.