Houston Chronicle

Bush gained among Latinos

Harris County Hispanics voted Republican in larger numbers

Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

December 23, 2004

In a heads-up to the Democratic Party, President Bush and his administration made measurable inroads among Latino voters in Harris County and nationwide in the November election.

More Latino voters in usually diehard Democratic precincts chose the Republican ticket than in the last presidential election, according to a turnout analysis by the Houston-based consulting firm Campos Communication.

In 16 precincts where more than 90 percent of voters are Latino, the GOP share ticked up by as much as nearly 9 percentage points between the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. Though Democrats held on to at least 60 percent of the Latino votes in the precincts, the erosion of the historically Democratic hold speaks to the Republican grab for the fast-growing Latino vote, said Marc Campos, a Democratic consultant who compiled the analysis.

Campos has worked in Houston's political trenches since the first flex of Hispanic muscle here; he says he believes GOP policies are fundamentally unfriendly to Latinos. But Campos also thinks Bush has honed his Latino appeal while Democrats have taken the group for granted.

"The battlefield now is in the Hispanic community. They know it. We don't know it," he said.

"Give credit to Bush when he became governor of Texas. He was not going to visibly alienate the Hispanic community. He knew he needed them. He spoke Spanish, made key appointments, surrounded himself with Hispanics and didn't embrace the anti-immigrant Pete Wilson agenda," said Campos, referring to the former Republican governor of California.

Broad appeal
Bush's share of the vote jumped between 2000 and 2004 in the historic Second Ward along Navigation northeast of downtown, where Latinos settled after the Mexican Revolution; in the Denver Harbor, Magnolia and Manchester neighborhoods to the east; and in Hispanic enclaves on the Near Northside.

He enjoyed even greater gains throughout the South as a whole, according to a survey released this week by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

In the South, the percent of Hispanics who voted for Bush increased from 41 percent in 2000 to 55 percent in 2004, according to the survey. The South includes Florida, where many Cubans lean Republican. The survey did not provide individual state figures, Cox News Service reported.

"There is debate over how much of the Latino vote went Republican, but no matter what the exact number was, the important thing is that there is gain happening," says Democratic political consultant Robert Jara, who specializes in reaching the Latino vote.

"Republicans are making inroads, and a big part of it is because there is such a difference between Latinos now."

Diverse demographic
Latino voters are Catholic, Protestant, rural, urban, suburban, assimilated and unassimilated, Jara said. They include what he calls the revolution generation, whose ancestors came from Mexico in the early 1900s, and subsequent waves of recent immigrants from Central and South America.

"Many of these voters don't know who Cesar Chavez or John F. Kennedy were," said Jara, referring to the late leader of the United Farm Workers and the assassinated president.

"The civil rights movement isn't part of their culture. For these voters, it's as simple as, 'This president appointed Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general. That sounds good to me.' "

In Houston, the first major race to attract newly registered and tuned-in Latino voters was the 2001 mayoral bid by Orlando Sanchez, a Republican and a Cuban immigrant. At grass-roots political gatherings in the barrios, Sanchez spoke in his native Spanish about his dream of becoming the first alcalde Latino (Hispanic mayor) of Houston."

"We knew we couldn't grow his vote by targeting traditional Hispanic Democrats," says GOP consultant Hector Carreņo, who ran Sanchez's Hispanic effort.

"We had to target the new voters. ... These voters had never been targeted by anyone. They were literally an open canvas."

Seed planted
Sanchez lost a runoff by 5,000 votes. But his appeal to Latinos caught Democratic operatives by surprise.

By bringing a little-known council member within striking distance of an incumbent mayor with solid downtown support, the election underscored the profound impact Latinos could have, Carreņo said.

Bush knew that as he stumped this fall, pitching a message that resonated with Latinos: education, family, religion, moral values.

Since the election, Bush nominated White House counsel Gonzales to serve as attorney general and Kellogg CEO Carlos Gutierrez to serve as secretary of commerce.

Both jobs include duties of particular interest to Hispanics and other ethnic minorities. Gonzales, who rose from modest beginnings to join one of Houston's top law firms, would direct the Justice Department's voting-rights division, which plays a key role in electoral issues.

Gutierrez, a Cuban immigrant who began his career driving a truck, would oversee the U.S. Census Bureau. The bureau's decennial headcount is used to reapportion Congress and dole out billions of federal dollars. Minorities historically are undercounted.

"These guys rising to the top ranks of the GOP are what used to be the Democratic story and now is becoming the Republican story," said consultant Neftali Partida, who has worked for both parties.

"All of them come from humble communities, they got an education, and they made it. That is the message that the Republicans have managed to capture and sell to Latino voters."

A July report by the Pew Hispanic Center said Latinos are the fastest-growing sector of the electorate.

"Whoever makes inroads in the Hispanic community is going to be in power and, right now, the community is clearly on the Republican Party radar," Campos said.

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