President Obama designated the home of Latino labor leader Cesar Chavez as a national monument Monday, a move Republicans denounced as a desperate attempt to shore up Latino support as the race tightens in its final weeks.
Opening his remarks with Chavez's famous slogan — "Si, se puede," or "Yes, we can," Mr. Obama said the California monument would serve as a tribute to "a great man and a great movement" devoted to helping improve the plight of farm workers and making this country "a little more just and a little more free."
"Our world is a better place because Cesar Chavez decided to change it," Mr. Obama said during the ceremony in Keene, Calif., near Bakersfield.
With polls showing the presidential contest narrowing to less than the margin of error — a Washington Times/Zogby poll released Monday has Republican Mitt Romney slightly ahead of Mr. Obama, 45 percent to 44.5 percent — Republicans criticized the president's decision to spend taxpayer dollars designating the Chavez monument, calling it a desperate political ploy to reach out to Latino voters.
Republicans quickly condemned the way the Obama administration acquired the Chavez property, accusing the president of circumventing Congress and acting unilaterally at a time when there are millions of dollars in backlogged maintenance for existing parks.
"Additions to the National Park system should result from careful public review and a vote by Congress, not secret election-year deals cut behind closed doors at the White House," said Rep. Doc Hastings, a Republican from Washington state who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. "This national monument designation is an unnecessary use of presidential power and appears to be based more on politics than sound policy."
Mr. Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, to designate Chavez's home as a national monument. The act gives presidents the ability to restrict the use of public land owned by the government and was originally intended to protect mostly prehistoric Indian ruins on federal lands in the West from excavation by collectors.
The act provides presidents a much swifter way of designating a monument than going through the congressional process of creating a National Park. Even Roosevelt used the act for broader purposes, creating the Devils Tower National Monument and the Grand Canyon National Monument under the authority.
But in tough budget times, Republicans say Mr. Obama should have sought congressional approval. Mr. Hastings says the costs and any liability associated with running and maintaining the site are unknown and inappropriate at a time when Congress and the White House are struggling to find $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over 10 years to avoid across-the-board cuts to domestic and defense spending.
The 187-acre site, known as La Paz, was the planning and coordination center of the United Farm Workers of America, which began in 1971. It was where Chavez and Dolores Huerta, who was on hand for Mr. Obama's remarks, formed the farm workers union and where the organizers lived, trained and strategized.
Mr. Obama said Americans could learn from the example of Chavez, who helped farm workers fight for higher wages, safe drinking water, workman's compensation and pensions.
Despite the monument's obvious appeal to Latinos, a growing bloc of voters who could determine the outcome of the election, Mr. Obama only alluded to the tightening presidential contest between himself and Republican Mitt Romney.
At a Hollywood fundraising event the night before, Mr. Obama poked fun at his disappointing debate performance last week.
Addressing an elite group of supporters at the Nokia Theater after a concert where Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, Jennifer Hudson, Jon Bon Jovi and Katy Perry performed, Mr. Obama thanked the entertainers for their flawless presentations, before adding, "I can't always say the same."
Before the concert at Nokia Theater, former President Bill Clinton joined Mr. Obama at an exclusive event at the home of Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, where the pair mingled with a group of wealthy donors.
Later that evening, Mr. Obama attended a $25,000-per-person party for 150 supporters at Wolfgang Puck's WP24 in the Ritz Carlton. The president had three more fundraisers scheduled Tuesday night in San Francisco.
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