February 28, 2003


Filibusted – Democratic Opposition to Estrada Will Backfire

By: Marcelo Rodriguez

Success in politics is ultimately the aggregation of a lot of little things. And when it comes to Hispanics, President George W. Bush has two crafty little victories to his credit. Each makes it look as though he and the Republicans, more than the Democrats, have the interests of Hispanics at heart.

The first was in 2002, when Bush adopted provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that allowed commercial Mexican trucks to operate within the United States. Democrats, in their die-by-the-sword actions on behalf of job-protecting unions, resorted to ethnically charged accusations about the safety records of Mexican trucks and their drivers.

President George W. Bush speaks with The Latino Coalition in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2003. Pictured with the President are Hector Barreto, Small Business Administration Administrator; Alberto Gonzales, Council to the President and Mel Martinez, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. “I’ve named some incredibly fine Americans to serve in this important part of our government. And no finer American is Miguel Estrada. I want to thank you for your work on Miguel’s nomination. I will stand by that man’s side until he is sworn in as a judge.” President Bush said. White House photo by Tina Hager.

The second is happening now. By filibustering Bush’s appointment of Miguel Estrada to the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., Senate Democrats — along with several legal rights groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) that support the filibuster — are playing right into Bush’s hands.

Bush’s conservative allies have asserted that were Estrada not Latino, we would not see this level of opposition. This is most certainly untrue — the Democrats, pointing to Bush’s refusal to work with them, have vowed to make it difficult for Bush to succeed with any of his judicial appointments. But it really doesn’t matter. For the Democrats, there is no upside to blocking Estrada — it’s a strategy that can only backfire.

No one is denying Estrada’s qualifications. The American Bar Association and the Hispanic National Bar Association support his nomination. Many see him as a potential Supreme Court nominee.

The 42-year-old Honduran immigrant came to the United States with his family when he was 17. Within a few years he had graduated from Harvard Law School, where he served as editor of the Harvard Law Review. As an attorney, he has already argued 15 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court (including several pro-bono cases on behalf of death-row inmates), served as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, and worked as an assistant U.S. solicitor under the Clinton administration.

It’s difficult to find a better example of the American immigrant dream realized.

Estrada’s opponents point to two examples of the lawyer’s supposed right-wing extremism. One involved his legal defense of anti-loitering laws in Chicago and Annapolis, M.D. — laws that some say inherently discriminate against minorities. The second is a 1998 USA Today story in which Estrada mildly downplayed accusations of minority under-representation among Supreme Court law clerks. Neither of these is indicative of a broad anti-civil rights agenda.

Nothing in Estrada’s public record indicates that he is an unflinching ideologue of the right, a Spanish-speaking Clarence Thomas, as some Democrats have said, referring to the last Supreme Court justice appointed by George Bush Sr. Yet the Democrats have opposed his appointment with much more zeal than that of the much more extreme John Ashcroft as attorney general — and they controlled the Senate at the time.

Now, as the minority party, Democrats are pulling all-nighters to block Estrada. It’s a double standard that is bound to be seen, justifiably or not, as racially motivated — as if a white, male, ultra-conservative is somehow more acceptable to the Democrats than a marginally conservative minority.

Ironically, had the Democrats chosen not to take a stand against Estrada, had they chosen not to try to block Mexican commercial trucks on U.S. soil, Bush would not have gained any significant political capital among Hispanics on these two relatively minor issues. There are larger, more important struggles, such as immigration reform, on the horizon. But because the Democrats chose to make these matters controversial, they elevated their significance.

As a politically strategic blunder, the Democratic filibuster of Estrada is not of the magnitude of former Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson’s embrace of xenophobic anti-immigrant groups in 1994. Though Wilson’s Prop 187, which denied public services to immigrants, was approved by the voters, it spurred immigrant Latinos to become citizens in record numbers. The percentage of Latinos among all voters nearly doubled in 10 years, from 9 percent in 1992 to 17 percent in 2002. Today, not a single Republican holds statewide office in California, and Wilson, who at one time hoped immigrant bashing would be his ticket to the White House, is forgotten.

Bush, however, seems to understand Wilson’s mistakes. From the very beginning of his administration, when he floated plans for immigration reform (later derailed by 9-11), Bush has made the Hispanic vote something of a priority, ignoring strong and vocal anti-immigrant elements within his own party.

Bush knows that most voting Latinos — not just those who actively advocate for social change — are likely to view Estrada as an immigrant success story. For them, debate about loitering laws or comments about Supreme Court clerks are about as relevant as the cricket scores in Calcutta. Estrada is who they want their children to grow up to be.

With Hispanics, Bush is doing the little things, and the Democrats are shooting themselves in the foot. It’s unlikely that Bush will get a majority of Hispanic votes in 2004. But unless the Democrats wise up, these little things could add up, and enough of those Hispanic voters they take for granted will vote the other way and hand Bush his re-election. As we learned in November 2000, it doesn’t take that many.

Rodriquez (mr@sfblue.com) is the former arts and entertainment editor of the Miami Herald.

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