- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2000

Republican fortunes have fallen so far in California that the party has been reduced to begging Hispanics not to vote automatically for Democrats.
"This year I plan to keep an open mind and vote for the best person, and that includes Republicans," a young Mexican-American woman tells voters in an experimental ad run by the Republican National Committee this spring in the Fresno area. "Because now, it's our time to dream."
The RNC spent about $100,000 to air the ad in the 20th Congressional District, sprawling southward from Fresno to Bakersfield through some of the richest agricultural land in the country.
"We learned there is a lot of work to be done in California, but the community has an open mind, is interested in hearing the Republican messages … they are excited Republicans are spreading such a positive message," said Leslie Sanchez, deputy press secretary for the RNC, citing internal polls and focus groups following the three-week ad campaign.
Where Republicans once dominated statewide politics in California, the party is now in disarray. In the wake of crushing defeats in the 1998 elections and a recent scandal that forced the Republican state insurance commissioner from office, the party is left with only one statewide official Secretary of State Bill Jones and seemingly little chance of regaining its balance in the fall presidential and congressional elections.
A major part of the collapse has been among the growing Hispanic population. Where Ronald Reagan routinely carried almost 40 percent of the Latino vote in California, Republicans today can count on less than 20 percent.
Relations between Republicans and Hispanics were largely poisoned by a series of Republican-backed ballot initiatives in the 1990s, under Gov. Pete Wilson, which many Hispanics interpreted as attacks on them. Particularly contentious was Proposition 187 in 1994, which cut off public benefits including schooling for illegal immigrants. Other later measures ended the state's affirmative action programs and banned bilingual education in the schools.
"Just at the moment of this huge growth [in the Hispanic population] the Republicans made a huge blunder a huge blunder" by backing these initiatives, said California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat and the highest-ranking elected Hispanic in the nation. "Democrats are in position to take full advantage of it."
Yet Republicans still hope to repair the damage with Hispanics. Although Latinos tend to vote Democratic, polls show they are generally sympathetic to Republican social issues such as abortion, crime and welfare.
"I have long been of the opinion that Republicans have tremendous opportunity to take a significant percentage of the Hispanic vote, but through poor leadership, especially here in California, they have missed that chance," said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, which studies Hispanic culture and politics, in Claremont, Calif.
The choice of the 20th District for the Republican test ads was no accident.
Republicans are pinning high hopes on former TV anchorman Richard Rodriguez to unseat five-term incumbent Rep. Cal Dooley in this fall's race. Mr. Rodriguez is himself Hispanic and grew up in a poor farming town near Fresno, a background that could help in this overwhelmingly Hispanic district.
Mr. Rodriguez, whose grandparents emigrated from Mexico, says he opposed the contentious Republican ballot initiatives of the 1990s. Although he grew up in the United States and speaks little Spanish, he said he understands the needs and struggles of more recent immigrants.
"I only know English, but my parents had a terrible time," he said. "I always think about my parents and my grandparents" when considering how to approach sensitive questions such as bilingual education.
The district is demographically unusual, a preview of where many districts in the Southwest are heading. Even in the 1990 Census, the district was 55 percent Hispanic, what residents call the "minority majority."
A third of all registered voters are Hispanic.
"The Latino vote here in the Central Valley is a growing vote, an important vote," said Pete Parra, a member of the Kern County Board of Supervisors and president of San Joaquin Latino Vote, a six-county organization of Hispanic officials. "More importantly, it's a knowledgeable and sophisticated vote."
That means Hispanics are unlikely to respond to a person simply because he is Hispanic, he said. But it also means Democrats cannot afford to count on the Hispanic vote despite its recent record of leaning Democratic.
Still, Mr. Parra and most elected Hispanics in the congressional district have endorsed Mr. Dooley, saying he has been responsive on issues such as immigration, education and agriculture. Mr. Dooley also has the firm support of the popular Mr. Bustamante, an old friend and political ally.
"In some cases, there may be elements of the Latino population that see the Spanish surname and have leanings to support someone of the same ethnic group," Mr. Parra said of Mr. Rodriguez. "But I think once his positions are compared with those of Cal Dooley, the majority of the Latino population will vote for Cal Dooley."
Mr. Dooley agrees.
"I think it's a little insulting to Latino voters in my district to assume that they are going to be making decisions based on a surname rather than on a record or the relative positions of the candidates," he said.
Mr. Dooley has made a conscious effort to reach out to Hispanics. Shortly after he came to Washington, he began bringing aspiring Hispanic leaders to Washington to show them the process of government, a program that has made him a mentor to many elected officials and community activists in the district.
Mr. Dooley also opposed the controversial ballot initiatives that so offended many Hispanics.
"Rich Rodriguez is running on a very traditional Republican platform," he said. "It's going to take more than a surname and a 30-second sound bite on TV to erase the history of policies that clearly have not been in the interests of the Latino families in my district."
But Mr. Rodriguez may get some boost from his connections in the Latino community, said Trinidad Pimentel, a Hispanic activist and an official at a local educational nonprofit organization in the town of Parlier. Although he hasn't gone as far as to endorse the challenger, the lifelong Democrat is helping Mr. Rodriguez meet leaders and community groups among Hispanics in his area.
"It used to be Democrats, it was automatic if they had a D behind their name, you voted for them," Mr. Pimentel said. "Latino voters are getting a little more sophisticated, looking at the end result of the politician."
Some local Hispanics seem to feel that Mr. Dooley has taken the Hispanic vote for granted, Mr. Pimentel said, meaning Mr. Rodriguez may have an opening with Hispanic voters despite the solid support for Mr. Dooley among Hispanic elected officials.
"Their feeling is, they've given Cal 10 years to take care of some of their needs," Mr. Rodriguez said. "They're not satisfied."
But the memory of the bruising political battles over Proposition 187 and the other measures have worked in favor of Mr. Dooley and other California Democrats.

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