April 28, 2000


Commentary

Latinos are `soccer moms' of election

By James E. Garcia

It's been said that Latino voters are the "soccer moms" of the 2000 election. Win the Latino vote in key electoral states like Texas, California, New York, Florida and Illinois and you're all but destined to be president.

The Republican Party knows that. That's why the GOP is spending $10 million in a national advertising and recruiting campaign aimed at convincing Latinos that the Grand Old party has a brand new message.

And according to Tomas Bilbao, deputy director of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, one of the new messengers is Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republicans' presumptive presidential nominee.

Expect to see a lot of photo opportunities featuring Bush on the campaign trail talking to average Latinos about everything from education, health care and taxes to the ethical and legal lapses of the Clinton-Gore years.

The Democrats and Vice President Gore also are speaking our language.

That explains the DNC's own $10 million Hispanic outreach effort meant to keep us from defecting. That's why Gore has Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, a Mexican American, spearheading his campaign efforts among Latinos. And that's why a Latina, Lydia Camarillo, is heading up the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in mid-August.

With seven months until the general election, no one can argue Latino voters don't have the time to figure out where the candidates stand on the issues. The question is whether they'll be talking about the issues that matter to us?

Early in the campaign, Bush and Gore were speaking Spanish at the drop of a sombrero. Now they spend their time sniping at each other in English only. While polls show that Latinos appreciate the candidates' linguistic gestures, what we really want are words of substance, no matter the language.

In the end, voters want to know one thing: What do I get for my vote? Despite the media focus on which candidate is more liberal, anti-Catholic, dishonest or aloof, Bush and Gore have been talking about the issues.

In areas such as reducing crime, managing the economy, preserving social security and enacting tax reforms, early bipartisan polling found that Latinos think Bush would do at least as good a job as Gore.

Latino voters, however, see the Vice President as better prepared to handle foreign policy matters and public education. And Gore's support among women, especially women of color, is strong and growing. His support has also grown among Catholics.

At the top of the policy agendas of both candidates is education. Lisa Navarette of the National Council of La Raza calls it "the issue" of the election.

Bush takes a more measured approach to the issue than Gore. His mantra has been "local control," though he does plan to use the White House as a bully pulpit to promote the view that students, teachers and schools need to be held more accountable.

"Public education-the opportunity it creates- are still worth fighting for," Bush said in a recent speech.

Those who know Bush say he's well versed on the subject of education and feels passionately about. It started out as the central issue in his campaign and was the subject of his first major policy speech-delivered, not by accident, at the Latin Business Association's annual convention in Los Angeles last year.

Bush wants to reward and punish school districts based on how well they perform. In some cases, Bush would cut off federal funds to poor-performing schools, then send the money to parents in the form of a voucher they could use to send their children to private schools.

Critics, including Gore, say using taxpayer dollars to fund private school vouchers is wrong because it cuts into the public school systems' already tight budgets.

Triana R. D'Orazio of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund says what Latino voters ultimately want to hear from Gore and Bush is how their education plans will reduce the school dropout rates in their
communities.

Still, the new twist that Bush brings to the equation debate is that he, unlike many of his Republican colleagues, spends a lot of time talking about the "education-quality gap" between whites and minorities "There is a tremendous gap of achievement between rich and poor, white and minority," Bush told an audience in March in Little Rock, Ark.

Gore, meanwhile, also promises to make education a priority if elected president. He's proposed a $115 billion, 10-year plan that would cut class size, hire more teachers, expand preschool, set national testing standards, and repair and build new schools. College financial aid would also be increased.

The Clinton-Gore administration has also pushed through legislation that included millions of additional dollars in spending as part of its Hispanic education initiatives in recent years. Bush says he would boost spending for education by $10 billion over five years, most of it going to boost literacy among elementary-aged school children. He concedes that he has no intention of trying to outspend Gore. Bush promises instead to get Congress to go along with a massive tax cut.

Bilingual education reform isn't high on the Bush and Gore agendas. Bush has said he would not support the kind of drastic bilingual education reforms recently instituted in California under Proposition 227. He does, however, support "English Plus" programs that concentrate on increasing the English proficiency of foreign students. Gore is a strong supporter of bilingual education and vehemently opposed 227.

On affirmative action, Bush and Gore differ markedly.

Gore strongly supports maintaining federal affirmative action programs, which have been under assault nationally. Bush has indicated he would curtail, if not outright repeal, such programs.

In Texas, Bush endorsed a ban on admissions policies at state universities that considered race or ethnicity in helping to decide which students to accept. And his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has proposed ending affirmative action in college admissions in his state.

Unlike 1996, the issue of immigration is not expected to attract much attention from either the Republican or Democratic presidential or congressional candidates. The strong economy has produced a worker shortage, according to farm owners and service industry officials, prompting proposals to revive a massive temporary foreign-worker program that ended in the early 1960s. Supporters are not likely to push through the bill this year, though Bush would likely back it and Gore would likely oppose it if elected president.

Congress, meanwhile, has repealed some of the more draconian anti-immigrant measures it approved in the mid-1990s under Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Pro-immigrant groups still believe a Democratic takeover of the House would help their cause significantly, but they acknowledge Republican leaders have moderated their approach to the issue in recent years.

Nationally, the race is close. The latest Tarrance Group "Battleground Poll" found Gore running about even in a survey of 1,000 Latino voters nationwide.

And the stakes have never been higher, not only for the candidates, but for Latino, as well. If we expect to influence the process, we need to flex our political muscle by showing up at the polls.

Antonio Gonzalez, of Southwest Voter Registration Project predicts that will happen. Latino voter participation is up over the past decade, and a major Latino voter registration drive is already underway. Gonzalez predicts that 1 million more Latinos will be registered by Election Day.

Some estimate as many as 6.5 million Latinos will vote nationwide in the general election. In November, we'll see whether Bush or Gore did a better job of speaking our language and whether it was worth hearing.

(Garcia is editor-in-chief of Politico magazine, www.politicomagazine.com. and a national political correspondent for www.todos.com.)

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