- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan is getting a fast start on attracting Hispanic voters for next year’s gubernatorial race, but he is not alone in pursing a small percentage of votes that might decide the election.

“Now more than ever, we are key,” said Natali Fani of CASA of Maryland Inc., a nonpartisan group that focuses on Central American immigrants. “More and more, we are becoming U.S. citizens and voters. … The community is ready to go to the polls and vote for the candidates who have demonstrated that they care for us.”

Mr. Duncan, a Democrat, already has established a committee dedicated to courting such voters, will have campaign literature in Spanish and this week announced a county-run bilingual tennis camp for Hispanic youth.

With the primary 15 months away, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, continued to seek Hispanic votes by focusing on the community’s business leaders, particularly by offering them more access to state contracts through reforming minority-business enterprise laws. He has also strengthened his Hispanic affairs office and put several Hispanics in prominent government posts — including Luis E. Borunda, who became the first Hispanic member of the Baltimore County Board of Education.

Maryland’s roughly 259,000 Hispanics equal just 4.8 percent of the state’s 5.3 million population, according to 2003 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

However, Maryland Democratic Party spokesman Derek Walker said they are a coveted voting bloc.

“You know how close a lot of elections are in this state these days,” he said. “A half of a percentage point matters.”

Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, another high-ranking state Democrat expected to run for governor, already has established connections with Hispanics within the city, but now plans forays into the Hispanic communities of Prince George’s County and Montgomery County, Mr. Duncan’s home turf.

Javier G. Bustamante, president of Amigos de O’Malley, which is supporting the mayor’s run for governor, said he talks daily with Hispanic Democratic clubs in the two counties about making inroads into the region, which is also heavily populated by Democrats.

Still, Mr. Duncan appears to have taken the most aggressive approach to winning the Hispanic vote.

He recently co-hosted a symposium with the AARP on protecting elderly Hispanics from financial scams and last week criticized Mr. Ehrlich for removing some legal immigrants from the state’s Medicaid program.

Some health officials supported the move by saying it was a necessary budget cut, and last week Mr. Ehrlich named Adela Acosta as the administration’s liaison to local governments.

However, Miss Fani and some Democratic strategists say Mr. Ehrlich has alienated a large segment of Hispanic voters, particularly with his comment last year that multiculturalism is “bunk” and by vetoing a 2003 bill to allow illegal aliens to pay in-state tuition at state colleges.

Roberto N. Allen, president of the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, thinks the governor will still win the votes through his pro-business agenda.

“One thing about the Hispanic community is that you cannot pigeonhole it to one party or another,” said Mr. Allen, whom the governor appointed to the Maryland Commission on Human Relations.

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