Democrats, Republicans courting Hispanic voters
Corpus Christi Caller Times
By Rick Spruill
Published Sunday, April 8, 2012
CORPUS CHRISTI — Texas’ population surge in the past decade was 70 percent Hispanic and shows no sign of slowing down. Neither does the surge of political maneuvering to capture the Hispanic vote. How Democratic and Republican leaders around the state respond to the influx is, for both parties, a referendum on the status quo.
In Nueces County, Hispanics accounted for six of every 10 people counted in 2010. Republicans and Democrats both are acutely aware of what this means: Hispanics are the future of their parties. Such growth also has been a puzzle for state lawmakers and judges who have grappled during a long redistricting fight to protect Hispanics’ stake in Texas’ political landscape. Yet no one political leader or party guru has a clear message on how best to capture, or keep, Hispanic voters. On Nov. 8, 2010, Nueces County, long a Democratic stronghold, woke up red after voters elected a Republican in all but one of the contested races on the ballot. However, as the population surge continues, what some see as a temporary state of affairs — Republican majorities emerging in concentrated Hispanic populations — depends on how well Republican kingmakers can tweak the machine that delivered so many stunning upsets. If the 2011 legislative session was indicative, it may be a rocky road.
Local state Rep. Raul Torres, one of six Hispanic Republicans who had seats in the House last January, has since seen his political fortunes shift. He recently announced plans to challenge longtime Democratic state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa for the District 20 seat after his House District 33 seat vanished in redistricting. The redistricting process also became a rallying cry for local Democrats who saw the loss of the seat as reflective of a statewide effort to suppress the Hispanic vote. Republican leaders insist last year’s legislative session will not harm their appeal to Latinos despite criticism from prominent minority groups that their policies were, at best, shortsighted and, at worst, discriminatory and illegal.
Republican efforts at passing voter ID legislation combined with the rancorous redistricting process and the national buzz created by the now-dead DREAM Act reveal the disconnect between politicians and the changing population they serve, said local Democratic activist Lisa Hernandez, who led the fight against precinct maps drawn by a Republican majority on the Nueces County Commissioners Court. She said how well Republicans adapt to Hispanic growth is a do-or-die proposition. “Both parties need to evolve, though, not one or the other,” she said. “So far, both parties have fallen short. The Republican Party gets little flitters of love but, by and large, Hispanics are not Republican and are not voting Republican.” Hernandez said Republicans took a step back in 2011 with Hispanic voters. “When Hispanics have to pull every stop to fight the state just to be fairly drawn into our districts that we earned with our growth, what sort of message does that send?” she said.
Torres scoffed at the notion that Hispanic voters are tuning out Republicans based on redistricting and other issues. “Hispanics are like everyone else,” he said. “Most are worried about securing good jobs for themselves and properly funded schools for their children.” Torres said state Republican Party leaders, however, may be bungling the opportunity to snatch them up. “Republicans cannot communicate to the heart of the Latino culture,” Torres said. “They’ve been very poor at doing that, and until they change their strategy and message, they’re not going to get it right.”
David Zapata, outreach director for the Republican Party of Texas, acknowledged the party remains in a learning curve but said it is not coming off the throttle. “We’re encouraging counties and clubs to push at the grass-roots level to contact local voters who have shown interest in our events and message,” he said. “We’re not waiting for them to come to us; we’re taking it to them.” The straightest line to the heart of Latino culture may be through its wallet, suggested Artemio “Temo” Nuniz, Texas chairman of the Latino National Republican Coalition.
As Latinos own an ever-growing piece of the American economy, Nuniz said, they become less interested in dogma from either party. “Latinos are opening businesses and understanding the power of taxation, and they want free enterprise,” he said. “They are becoming more informed, and they are looking beyond stereotypes.” Whatever the message, there may be fewer Hispanic Republican mouthpieces heading into 2013 state Legislative session.
Torres is one of three Hispanic Republicans on the House floor in 2011 who will not be back in 2013. Others are facing stiff competition. Only one of the six Hispanic Republicans on the House floor last session, first-term Rep. Larry Gonzales, is a sure bet to be back next session. Gonzales is a Republican running unopposed in a Republican monolith of a district outside of Austin. Some say the turnover is proof that a Latino officeholder in the Republican Party comes with a short shelf life.State Rep. Trey Martinez Fisher, D-San Antonio, chairman of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, compared a Latino Republican’s time in the state House with taking a dip in a shark tank. “You are more likely to survive a shark attack than you are to survive being a Latino Republican during the 82nd legislative session,” he said in a statement.
Zapata said the turnover reflects a set of political circumstances more than it is a referendum on how Hispanic Republicans are treated. In 2010, Zapata said, 13 Hispanic candidates ran in Republican primaries. This year, that number is up to 17, he said. More Hispanic Republicans in Austin will help the party get its message out, said George Antuna, Hispanic Republicans of Texas co-founder. “You can pass all the pro-Hispanic initiatives you want, but until you get Hispanics on the ballot and into office, you won’t see more Hispanic participation,” he said.
Antuna said he and co-founder George P. Bush formed the organization with one thought: develop a farm system of Hispanic candidates and start swinging for base hits, rather than for home runs. “Local school board, council, whatever it may be, we have a bench set up to meet the opportunity,” he said. “Democrats have done it for years and they are ready to roll when something comes up.”
One hurdle for both parties will be stimulating more participation, said Bob Bezdek, a political scientist at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. He said the gap between population growth and voter participation among Hispanics in the 2008 presidential primaries and 2010 midterm elections tells the tale. “The disparity is enormous,” he said. “Hispanic population is accounting for the overwhelming growth in Nueces County and statewide, and yet they’re voting at less than 40 percent.” He said in many ways, national rhetoric on the issues may be dulling Hispanics’ appetite for politics. “I don’t see much that’s turning on Hispanic voters,” he said. “I see a lot that’s turning them off.”
Hernandez, president of the Nueces County Hispanic Republicans and former candidate for Commissioners Court, said he is offended at the suggestion that either party is better for Hispanics. “To say someone is the preferred candidate just because of their skin color is offensive,” he said. “The Democratic Party is very good at positioning that Republicans are for rich white people and the Democrats are for poor Hispanics. That’s not always the case.”
Nueces County Republican Party Chairwoman Kimberly Curtis said state GOP leaders understand Latinos have conservative principles and values, but “making it safe to be GOP” is an uphill battle. “‘I’m Hispanic and proud to be Republican’ — you don’t hear that much among Hispanics around here,” she said.
Hinojosa, the Democratic state senator, said Texas’ long tradition of bipartisan work is being threatened by the polarized national rhetoric. “The presidential elections have more than in the past started to influence state policy, particularly in states with large minority populations,” he said. He said voter ID was a prime example of one-size-fits all legislation crafted by policy makers at the national level. It didn’t fit Texas, he said. “The (Department of Justice) overturned that law for a reason,” he said. “It would have suppressed votes. Unfortunately, it’s a nationwide strategy being used.”
State Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, said South Texas has long been able to meld Anglo with Hispanic, Republican with Democrat, and to work through differences that arise during every legislative session. “‘Hispanic’ and ‘Anglo’ is a blended culture in South Texas that works together,” he said. “We are the example the rest of the state should follow.”