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Latino Republicans Band Together to Increase Numbers

Politics: The local moderates shun Democratic Party. Many believe self-reliance, not government aid, is the answer.


Enrique Cornejo doesn't think that his ethnicity should determine his political allegiances.

"I was probably a Republican at birth," he said.

But he is a rarity in Ventura County, where the Latino population tops 30%, with the majority of those solid Democrats.

Feeling lonely but suspecting that he wasn't alone, the 57-year-old Chilean immigrant started the Hispanic Republican Congress of Ventura County.

Soon, he said, a few kindred spirits "came out of the closet."

"Some said, 'I was so lonely, I felt I was the only Hispanic Republican,' " the Oxnard businessman recalled.

With 25 members, the group held its first fund-raiser last month, backing Rep. Tom Campbell in his bid to oust Democratic U. S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

It was a modest party at the Anacapa Yacht Club in Oxnard, but a big deal for the young organization, which put together music, food, press and local dignitaries to showcase Campbell. Before making his campaign pitch, the San Jose Republican spoke a bit of Spanish to a small sea of smiles.

The group's next move is planning voter registration drives and distributing information on the Republican Party. Cornejo believes that Latinos don't really know what the GOP is all about.

Most members of the Hispanic congress are professionals and many come from Democratic backgrounds. They say they are moderates, frowning on religious extremism, and include both pro-choice and anti-abortion views in their group.

They include people like 33-year-old Virginia Gonzalez of Camarillo, who grew up in a family of Democrats.

Gonzalez's mother worked three jobs so her children could attend a private school.

"The white kids would insult us. I always wanted to prove myself," Gonzalez said. "I wasn't a loser, I wasn't going to have tons of kids, the government wouldn't take care of me."

But Gonzalez, who works for a pharmaceutical company in Simi Valley, quickly learned that being a Latina Republican had its hazards. While employed as a field representative for former Republican Assemblyman Nao Takasugi, she was often the target of insults.

"I would get booed or called a sellout," she said. Other Latinos accused her of being "uppity" for attending a private school.

Another member, Lisa Tiscareno McKinley, said that when she reveals her Republican Party affiliation, "some people roll their eyes."

"Just because of my color doesn't mean I have to be a Democrat," said the Oxnard woman, 33, who is an account clerk for the county's sanitation district. "You have to defend yourself a lot and explain your beliefs."


Like Gonzalez, McKinley's motivating belief is that self-reliance, not government aid, is the key to success.

"My grandfather came here from Mexico and worked very hard for everything he got, and he never took anything from the government," she said. "I never liked entitlement programs."

Jackie Rodgers, chairwoman of the county's Republican Party, applauds the congress.

"They are doing exactly what the Republican Party stands for," she said. "They are reaching out to their community."

Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush is working hard for the Latino vote this year, and he began a recent whistle-stop tour of California in heavily Latino Oxnard.

Hank Lacayo, head of the county's Democratic Party, could not be reached for comment. But the vice chairwoman, Sharon Hillbrant, said Latinos should review the Republican record before joining up.

"Don't just listen to what people say. See how often the Republicans voted against issues that helped Hispanics," she said. Democrats, she said, stand for working people, for a living wage and for programs that help those in need. And over time, as more and more Latinos join the middle class, Hillbrant said, she hopes that they will not switch parties.

"The Democratic Party has worked hand-in-hand with Hispanics," she said. "I would hope they wouldn't join the Republicans; I would hope they would see the Democrats as the party that helped them get where they are today."

Yet for Cornejo, Republicans and Latinos are a natural fit.

Latinos work hard, many fled corrupt regimes and they tend to have conservative family values, he says. So why aren't they Republicans?

"Are they looking for something for free? I don't think so. They know the government is not their friend. Why do they become Democrats then?" he asked.

Cornejo says Latino Democrats tell him that Democrats will protect their rights.

"What rights?" he asked. "If it's true this is the best country in the world, then let me work and be the best I can be without interference."

Cornejo was born into a middle-class Chilean family.

He studied mechanical engineering in college, but when he immigrated to Los Angeles in 1968, he painted houses in Pacific Palisades and Westwood.


Later, he worked for a vacuum cleaner company, a Mexican airline and 10 years ago opened Santa Paula Travel Services.

Coming from Chile, a country that spent 1973 to 1990 under a military dictatorship, Cornejo harbors a deep mistrust of government institutions.

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