Republicans' New Best Friend

The struggle for Hispanic voters among the parties is starting to look less like a battle of wills and more like a fight to the death. For Republicans, gaining the support of the growing Hispanic community -- a group that is projected to account for 46% of Texas' population within the next 30 years -- is crucial to sustaining their lock on statewide offices. For Democrats, holding on to the Hispanic vote is key to the future of their party. But victory among Hispanic voters is something Democrats can no longer take for granted. According to the most recent Texas Poll, Republican Gov. Bush currently leads Garry Mauro 58%-25% among Hispanic voters -- a number which, while not entirely overwhelming, marks a major shift in the traditionally Democratic constituency. With Bush widely expected to sweep all demographic groups in the upcoming election, analysts are speculating that an unprecedented number of down-ballot candidates will be swept up in the tide. If Tony Garza is among that group -- and all the evidence indicates that he will be -- the statewide Republican club will have grown, demographically, a little larger. A win for Garza next month would be a symbolic victory for the GOP -- and, perhaps, a hint of greater things to come.

Although Garza himself, for whom the label "potential first Hispanic Republican elected to statewide office" has practically become an honorary title, disdains the idea of such "hyphenated Republicanism," others are more than willing to employ such symbolic shorthand. As Bush, who speaks Spanish fluently, attempts to appeal directly to Hispanic voters through ads on Spanish-language radio and television, other Republicans are vying for votes with more blatantly political appeals, reflecting their view of Hispanics as socially conservative, deeply religious, and politically independent. "There's no doubt that the Republican party has recognized the importance of the Hispanic community in terms of political constituents," says Garza. "It's really coming of age as a voting population in Texas. ... We have to realize that we have to speak to issues that are important to the Hispanic community."

But Phillip Vasquez, former president of the Mexican American Bar Association of Texas, argues that Republicans have offered Hispanic voters more rhetoric than reasons in their attempts to court Hispanic votes. "The Democratic Party is the only party that has allowed Hispanics to fully participate in the political process," says Vasquez, who notes that Garza, the party's only statewide Hispanic candidate, is running for a low-profile, down-ballot position. Ultimately, he adds, any appeal to a traditionally Democratic constituency "becomes a collision course between the Republican ideology and the Republican sales pitch." For all their appeals to Hispanics' supposed cultural conservatism, Vasquez says, GOP positions on immigration, affirmative action, and aid to the poor and elderly are diametrically opposed to most Hispanics' interests.

Garza's opponent Joe Henderson, who has been active in the Democratic Party for almost 25 years, agrees. "Hispanics have voted Democratic [historically] not because we've recruited them, but because we represent their values better than Republicans," Henderson says. "I think Hispanics recognize that the Democratic Party is more interested in working people, people of color, people of other national origins." Republicans, he says, are trying to take a shortcut to gain the kind of support Democrats have worked decades to sustain. "The proper way to do it is from the ground up, and Repub-licans don't want to do it that way."-- E.C.B.

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