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O.C. Latinos Are Key to Bush Carrying California in November

Their cultural conservatism and an absence of firm political ties open the door to significant GOP gains.

May 07, 2000|MATTHEW CUNNINGHAM | Matthew Cunningham has been active in Orange County Republican politics for a decade and recently served as California press secretary for Steve Forbes' presidential campaign

Conventional political wisdom cedes California to Vice President Al Gore in the November general election. Fortunately, the conventional wisdom is usually wrong. Texas Gov. George W. Bush has an excellent chance to carry California, and Orange County is ground zero.

Orange County is the locomotive pulling the California Republican train. A Bush victory statewide depends on a substantial majority here. Not so long ago, it was a foregone conclusion the GOP nominee would do just that.

But not so long ago, Orange County was a different place than it is today. Take the demographic changes that put Latinos on track to becoming the county's single largest ethnic group. How to make the Republican Party more palatable to Latino voters?

Proposition 187's passage spurred a massive wave of Latino immigrants applying for citizenship. Democratic politicians shamelessly demagogued Proposition 187 as "proof" of Republican hostility toward Latinos, and the GOP was unable to articulate a compelling counter-message. The great majority of Latino voters went Democratic in 1996 and '98. Even so, Latino voter loyalties clearly still are in flux, especially in Orange County.

Orange County Latinos are not monolithic. According to the 1999 UC Irvine Annual Orange County Survey, 41% of Latinos consider themselves conservative compared with 39% for Orange Countians as a whole. Indeed, whites are more likely than Latinos to call themselves moderates.

Second, although their voter participation is rising, only 39% of Latinos are registered to vote compared to 91% of whites. Furthermore, only 18% of Latinos say they always vote in elections compared to 59% of whites.

The Democrats' present advantage among Latino voters will become increasingly less tenable. As more Latinos climb the economic ladder--becoming homeowners and paying higher taxes--their political outlook will become more conservative. Mix in Latino cultural conservatism and an absence of firm political allegiances, and the road is clearly open for significant Republican inroads.

How to make them?

* Increased cultivation and recruiting of Latino candidates. Republicans nominated former Anaheim City Councilman Lou Lopez to oppose Assemblyman Lou Correa and former Tustin school board member Gloria Matta Tuchman to oppose U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez. However, the pickings are still pretty thin, and a deeper bench is needed.

* Appeal to Latino voters' cultural conservatism. Take stands on social issues that clearly differentiate Republicans from Democrats. Such talk drives the Performing Arts Center wing of the GOP into hysterics, but who cares? Democrats know their party's values put them at a disadvantage among Latino voters. Hence Correa's anguished defection from the Assembly Democrat caucus line to oppose a gay rights bill. Thus Sanchez's cynical exploitation of the Bob Jones controversy by positioning herself as a Latino Catholic spokeswoman by condemning Bush's visit. She has no problem voting against Roman Catholic teaching on partial birth abortion.

* Attack Democrat hypocrisy. Last year, Tom Daly, Anaheim's Democrat mayor, led the effort that evicted scores of poor Latino families from their apartments in the Jeffrey-Lynne neighborhood, as part of his gentrification of the Disneyland resort area. Republican elected officials should have denounced this Democratic attack on the Latino working families loudly and put the heat on Sanchez to stand up for her constituents against Daly, her political mentor.

* Establish an institutional presence in Latino communities. The Democrats benefit from an infrastructure of de facto auxiliaries like labor unions and advocacy groups. GOP donors worried about wooing Latino voters could generate good will by setting up free community centers providing services such as citizenship classes, English instruction and job assistance.

* Bush. He has demonstrated his ability to garner lots of Latino votes. His opposition to Proposition 187 prevents Democrats from tarring him with that brush. Latinos are less cynical about government and therefore more disposed to supporting a sitting governor with a concrete track record of accomplishments.

Furthermore, Bush talks about issues that matter with Latino working families--improving schools, home ownership, widening access to higher education. While Gore natters about suburban sprawl, greenhouse gases and campaign finance reform, Bush talks about his education reforms that improved test scores for minority children, and how his administration will make it easier for less affluent Americans to achieve the dream of home ownership.

A Bush victory here would be a firm platform from which to build bridges to Latinos, but local Republicans will have to do the bridge building ourselves.


Editor's Note: Wayne Lewis is the current chairman of the Community Redevelopment and Housing Commission in Santa Ana. He recently succeeded Eleazar Elizondo, author of an Orange County Voices article last Sunday.

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