BEHIND A BRASSY mariachi band playing in the Los Angeles Mexican Independence Day parade this summer, Democrat ic Mayor Tom Bradley waved from a big, white convertible to the thousands of Latino families watching from both curbs along Mednik Avenue. A group of Aztec dancers in shiny silver and gold robes followed, along with another Democrat in an open car, City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. High school bands, marching military units, colorful plastic floats and caballeros on horseback flowed by. And in the summer heat of election season, a stream of Democrats waved from convertibles to a community that has long been friendly to their politics. This was Democratic territory.
But NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, at the parade for an evening news story about the politics of the rapidly growing Latino community in California, questioned the Democrats' apparent grip on Latino voters. And to underscore his point, he interviewed a man recommended by the Bush presidential campaign--Gaddi H. Vasquez.
Vasquez, just 33, is a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. He is the highest-ranking elected Republican Latino in California. And because he could be an important aberration on the nation's political landscape, he's been probed and challenged by reporters trying to figure out whether he's some kind of a quirk or really part of a phenomenon. They've asked the same questions so many times that Vasquez's compilation of the interviews is almost comic.
Brokaw, his tie loosened during the interview behind the parade reviewing stand, was no exception. He, too, asked Vasquez about the traditional notion that the Democrats can count on strong support in the Latino community.
"I think people have a tendency to underestimate the depth of the Hispanic voter," Vasquez responded. "The Hispanic voter requires just as much in terms of issues, ideals and the criteria for leadership as any other community."
The interview done, Vasquez moved to the curb to watch the rest of the parade. Near the end, a lone Republican candidate passed on foot, zigzagging from curb to curb, shaking hands and declaring, "Viva los Estados Unidos." It was Sen. Pete Wilson.
One of the senator's advance men, carrying a walkie-talkie in one hand while scanning the scene for photo possibilities, hurriedly worked a few blocks ahead. He spotted Vasquez and stopped to enlist his help in showing Latino spectators that it's OK to be a Republican. Vasquez stepped to the side of the reviewing stand, hoping to join Wilson as he passed. But the parade pressed on, isolating the two very different Republicans in a sea of Democrats.
THE LATINO FACTOR
GADDI VASQUEZ is perfect for the Republican Party.
Party leaders know that the Latino community--the fastest-growing segment in America-- will be crucial to winning elections in the future. It is already being courted by politicians as never before. And in California during the next 30 years, it will double in size.
GOP image makers are aware of their reputation for being unsympathetic to minorities and the poor. But they see hints that Latino voters might be converted to the GOP: Brokaw's story, for instance, estimated that 37% of California's Latino voters are planning to support Bush, even though about 80% of the community is registered Democratic.
In walks Gaddi Vasquez. Bright, loyal and articulate, he is a bedrock conservative, not a politician who has adopted a transparent agenda to expedite his career. His beliefs, he says, are rooted in his own experience: He spent the first years of his life in a farm labor camp, then in the barrios of Orange County. And his political convictions go back to those days, when his family refused welfare because they were still able to work.
He believes that the poor in the barrios should be able to work their way out and that the role of government is not to provide welfare that leaves them dependent. Government, he says, should ensure that for those who do work, there are opportunities.
Vasquez is part of a small minority of conservative Republican Latinos. Publicly, Vasquez and his odd message are still just a curiosity. But at the highest levels of government, he is seen as a harbinger. Powerful people including Gov. George Deukmejian are working to see him succeed, possibly as a California governor or U.S. senator.
Last year, Deukmejian appointed him supervisor, and in June, Vasquez easily won his first election. Vasquez's victory in largely white, wealthy and conservative Orange County was closely watched by top political planners in Sacramento and Washington. It proved to doubters in the party that he could sell to mainstream Republicans: While some party officials and strategists had predicted openly that Vasquez would lose his first race, his win was so lopsided--with only one minor challenger--that it went almost unnoticed.