February 13, 2009

Commentary:

Losing Latinos in the Republican Party

By Vince Vasquez

For the Republican faithful, the opening weeks of 2009 may prove to be a pivotal moment in their party’s future. Two key internal party elections are taking to task the lackluster campaign strategies used last year, which saw fewer Hispanics declaring their support for Republican candidates since the 1990’s. If stronger Latino support is a long-term priority for GOP leaders, real solutions are needed to build a permanent political presence in a skeptical community.

Already, the results have come in for the national race for GOP Chairman. Last week, senior party stalwarts elected former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele to lead the Republican National Committee (RNC), ousting the incumbent chairman. Steele brings with him a fresh new approach to organizational development, and a unique perspective as the first African-American to lead the RNC. He’s championed minority outreach as the former chairman of the Maryland Republican Party – which is a charge he must keep, as Latino voters have drifted away from the party ranks, particularly in the Golden State.

According to a December 2008 survey from the Public Policy Institute of California, 78% of Latino voters statewide cast their ballot for Barack Obama, a figure that’s even higher than the national Latino support he received (66%). The California GOP didn’t have much more success in its down ticket races, losing more legislative seats in Sacramento than they gained. State Republicans also lost Bonnie Garcia, a termed-out Latina Assembly-member representing Riverside and Imperial Counties, and failed to recapture her seat, leaving the party with only one elected Latino Republican in a partisan office. This “Caucus of One” is a sad state of affairs which hasn’t occurred since 1996, which should be on the minds of California GOP delegates, as they convene for an internal party leadership election at Sacramento later this month. Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that winning back control of the state legislature will require a renewed focus on improving Latino representation and electorate support. Two proven opportunities for institution building would seem to present themselves at this time.

First, Republican donors and grassroots leaders should concentrate on reviving the Latino Republican Caucus at the state capitol, which at its peak boasted four elected members. Consider that it was not a foregone conclusion that the California Democratic Party would have a 25-member Democratic Latino Caucus – for all of the blue electoral seats in the state, there are even more heavyweight political factions aiming to wrest power for themselves. It took an independent coordinated effort in the 1990’s led by former State Senator Richard Polanco to raise thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and deliver armies of election volunteers to muscle Hispanic candidates through highly-contested primary contests. Polanco, known as “the godfather” by his political protégés, worked tirelessly and fought within his own party to grow the Democratic Latino Caucus from seven members to 24. Republican State Senator Abel Maldonado or retired Latino legislators should consider spending their political capital on broadening the bench in state government, training a viable farm team that can aspire for statewide office down the road.

A new approach must also be on the table for connecting with voters. For all the millions of GOP dollars spent on Spanish language TV ads and bilingual mailers, it is only a brief “dialogue” that Republicans have every other year. Skepticism abounds in Hispanic households, which are more accustom to seeing Republicans featured in news stories about illegal immigration, polarizing racial issues and budget cuts to public programs. The Republican Party must be a sincere active partner in the success and prosperity of Latino families, and acknowledge its shortcomings are more than simply poor messaging – it’s a mis-prioritization of politics. A permanent presence in Latino communities may foster goodwill and higher approval for the GOP, which lacks the track record and respectability of Democrats on community-centric projects. One such effort in Orange County may serve as a future model to emulate.

Based in Santa Ana, the Lincoln-Juarez Opportunity Center (LJOC) was a 501(c)(3) community organization that provided thousands of Latino residents with free assistance and referrals for important household needs, including immigration, education, health care and employment issues. Opening its doors in March 2003 with seed money from two key Republican donor groups (the Lincoln Club and New Majority) the LJOC employed bilingual volunteers six days out of the week to help thousands of “clients” with everything from enrolling in ESL classes, to job searches, to connecting with pro-bono attorneys. LJOC partnered with other non-profits on community-based campaigns, and was host to numerous party VIPs, including Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. However, after four years of popular community support, the LJOC shuttered its office, a victim of short-sighted political leaders, which were unable to understand its long-term importance. Still, LJOC founder Dale Dykema is optimistic of the party’s prospects among Latino voters. Dykema mused, “It’s unfortunate that politics looks for only immediate results, like corporate entities looking for quarterly earnings reports. If the GOP could take a longer range viewpoint and be willing to put dollars behind its decisions, the outcome would be positive in terms of the Latino community.”

Dykema is right, and the Republican Party would stand to gain immensely if it encouraged more out-of-the box thinking from its donors and volunteers. Latinos are not a monolithic voting bloc, and are open to supporting strong candidates and positive legislation if given the chance. With nowhere to go but up, GOP leaders must ask themselves how their electoral efforts tomorrow will be different than yesterday.

Vince Vasquez is a registered Republican and a resident of California.

Letters to the Editor Return to the Frontpage