- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 7, 2002

The Republican Party says it has its largest-ever field of non-incumbent minorities seeking top offices this fall, with party leaders touting 20 black and 39 Hispanic candidates in federal and major state elections.

The political hopefuls include candidates for Congress and for such statewide offices as governor and secretary of state, and they come in a political season that will find blacks and Hispanics with a strong voice in deciding the winners.

"This is unprecedented, this kind of effort from Republicans," said Larry Gonzalez, director of the Washington office of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

"The Republicans seem to be building a farm team to bring some of these candidates through the ranks, which is where it all starts. They will eventually then have a large pool of candidates to choose from for congressional races."

Among the more prominent of the minority Republicans on the ballot this year are Michael Steele, who is running for lieutenant governor of Maryland, and Mario Diaz-Balart, brother of Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and a candidate in South Florida's newly created 25th Congressional District.

Democrats, though, continue to run more black candidates, with 27 non-incumbents running for statewide and federal offices. The Democratic Party has not tracked its overall number of minority candidates this fall.

Figures for both parties were provided this week. The numbers include all candidates who either have won a primary or who are running in the 25 states that have yet to hold primaries.

Included on the roster of prominent minority Democrats running are former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who is seeking the seat of retiring Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, and New York State Comptroller Carl McCall, who is challenging incumbent Gov. George E. Pataki.

Democrats and Republicans are courting the country's blacks and Hispanics, which together account for almost 25 percent of the population.

The traditional edge goes to Democrats, who have long represented themselves as the party of minorities and the downtrodden. President Bush received 8 percent of the black vote in 2000 in the face of a massive black voter drive and negative ads by such groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Despite an increase in minority candidates, Republicans are going to have a hard time getting anything more than that 8 percent, said David Bositis, executive director of the Center for Joint Political and Economic Studies.

"Having more black candidates won't help; having more black Republican voters will lead to more black Republican candidates," said Mr. Bositis, whose group studies the political and economic behavior of blacks.

"The fact of the matter is that most of the black population supports black Democratic candidates," he said.

That allegiance, long trumpeted by the Democrats, tends to upset most dents Republicans make in the minority electorate. Therefore, the Democratic Party counts on tradition in every election.

"We didn't get the dominant number of minority votes overnight," said Guillermo Meneses, director of Hispanic media for the Democratic National Committee.

In the Hispanic community, he said, the party's ties date to the recent waves of Hispanic immigration, beginning in the 1960s.

"These bonds run 10, 20, 30 years deep," Mr. Meneses said. "The Latino community understands this, and that is why they remain committed to us."

Nationally, Hispanics hold 5,205 elected offices. Among those with listed partisan affiliations, 1,474 of them are Democrats and 126 Republican, according to figures compiled by Mr. Gonzalez's group. But Republicans view the Hispanic vote as a more promising possibility than the black vote and hope to improve on the 35 percent showing Mr. Bush had in 2000.

"With this president, we have made some inroads," said Sharon Castillo, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. "But it is important that we are now recruiting viable minority candidates and develop that pool."

The increase in minority candidates for the Republicans can give a choice to minority voters in stronghold areas for either party, said Pat Ahumada, a Hispanic Republican from South Texas who is running for Congress.

"The more we run, the more we can expand our party's base," said Mr. Ahumada, who is challenging incumbent Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, a Democrat.

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