The California Republican Party is on a charm offensive. Last week it held an unprecedented Hispanic outreach summit in an effort to mend fences with Latino voters. If the 96 elections proved anything, it’s that the Hispanic community has come of age, and is now a powerful political force to be reckoned with in California.

Latinos turned out at the polls in unprecedented numbers, far surpassing any other minority group in the state, and demographers are convinced that we have only witnessed the beginning of a long term trend.

Recognizing this reality, state GOP leaders are reevaluating how the party presents its message. Latino’s voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in the last election cycle, and if immediate steps aren’t taken by the GOP to reverse that trend, it could become a permanent voting pattern lasting for generations, and virtually demolishing Republican hopes to become the majority party in the largest state in the union. The stakes for both political parties are enormous, on the local, state and national levels.

In their efforts to reach out, GOP leaders are walking tightrope and they know it. They are running a number of risks that if not handled correctly, could end up backfiring and achieving the exact opposite of their desired affect.

Yes, the Party must reach out, but if it is perceived as compromising on fundamental principles, or engaging in overt ethnic pandering, it will very likely lose the support of many longtime loyal activists, and gain very little support in the Hispanic community in the process. It’s a fine line that must be navigated.

To make substantial inroads in the Hispanic community, there can be no quick, easy solution for the GOP. If real inroads are to be made, It will entail a large investment in time, energy and resources, as well as a sophisticated re-calibrating of message.

Lets start with the message.

One troubling sign that the nuances of reaching out to that Hispanic community are not yet fully appreciated, can be found in how the party’s establishment is relating to the proposed English for Children initiative, which will eliminate most mandatory bilingual education programs in the state. To be blunt, the initiative is being treated like the plague by GOP higher-ups, even though it is clearly supported by a majority of the rank and file.

Conventional political wisdom is that the English for Children initiative will be viewed by Hispanic voters as “just another Republican assault on their community “like propositions 187 and 209″, and therefore, the party should distance itself from the initiative, and from the activists behind the initiative.

This is a wrong approach in my view. Eliminating mandatory bilingual education is a very popular concept not only with Republicans, but with a great majority of Hispanics according to a number of polls conducted on the issue. In fact, last summer, the Center for Equal Opportunity conducted a national poll of 600 Hispanic parents.

When asked the question “In your opinion, should children of Hispanic background, living in the United States be taught to read and write Spanish before they are taught English, or should they be taught English as soon as possible?” 63% expressed the strong opinion that children should be taught English first, and as soon as possible. 16.7% suggested that Spanish should be taught first, while 20.3% either weren’t sure or thought the two languages should be taught equally.

The opinions expressed by the solid majority of Hispanic parents in that survey on bilingual education, are, like many other concerns felt strongly by Latinos, entirely consistent with opinions shared by the large majority of Republicans. So why is the party establishment running away from an issue that, if argued forcefully and articulately, could appeal to a large majority of Latino voters?

The answers are complex, but in the end it pretty much comes down to fear. Fear that the opposition will successfully portray the issue as an insensitive attack on immigrants and their native language, that the intellectual reasoning will get lost in the heated campaign rhetoric of sound-bites and slogans, and that Republicans will once again be branded as anti-Hispanic.

Yet on this, and may other issues of concern to the Latino community, Republicans have nothing to fear but fear itself. Playing defense in politics is the worst possible position to be in.

The GOP should boldly take the offensive and attack supporters of Bilingual education as denying opportunity for immigrant children, contributing to ethnic balkanization, and impeding integration. The same aggressive approach should be taken, and the arguments should be framed in such a fashion, on a wide variety of issues that would strongly resonate with the Hispanic community

But beyond the re-calibrating of the message, Republicans should also consider making a long term investment in reaching out to the largest growing community in the state, and indeed in the nation.

The GOP should move quickly to establish a high profile presence in the heart of heavily Hispanic populated neighborhoods. Numerous community storefront headquarters should be opened, manned by volunteers, and even staff if necessary. These storefront operations should be aggressive and proactive in nature, organizing regular community functions, distributing information and grooming future activists, spokespersons and leaders.

Jewish, Italian, Polish, and many other immigrants that came to our shores at the beginning of this century were swept up by the Democratic party, because the Republican Party at the time was considered anti-immigrant. It took generations for the Republican party to crack the FDR coalition. Those who do not learn from history, are bound to repeat it.

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