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Bush Is Reaching Out to Latinos Beyond the Beltway

April 22, 2001|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times

Like the proverbial first robin is a sign of spring, one of the first signs that a Republican is back in the White House is the nomination of a Latina to be U.S. treasurer. No kidding.

Last week it was announced that President George W. Bush will name former Huntington Park Mayor Rosario Marin to the largely ceremonial treasurer's post, making him the fourth recent GOP president to put a Spanish-surnamed woman in that job. The first was Los Angeles businesswoman Romana Acosta Banuelos, appointed by Richard Nixon in 1971. Ronald Reagan's treasurer was Katherine Davalos Ortega, and the elder George Bush named Catalina Vasquez Villalpando to the post.

Don't get me wrong. I find this quirky GOP tradition altogether honorable, even if the treasurer's job is largely symbolic. The most visible responsibility that goes with the job is being the public official whose signature appears on the dollar bill, alongside the secretary of the Treasury's. But a good politician can use the job quite effectively to promote the cause. Ortega, for instance, used to hand out crisp new dollar bills after autographing them with a flourish.

I have no doubt Marin can be a similar asset for a GOP president. She immigrated to Southern California from Mexico at the age of 14, is a longtime Republican loyalist and is familiar to Latinos as a spokeswoman for the GOP on Spanish-language radio and television. And lest anyone doubt she is genuinely popular in the Democrat-dominated Latino politics of greater Los Angeles, Marin was first elected to the Huntington Park City Council in 1994 and has been reelected ever since.

Marin epitomizes the kind of grass-roots Latino leaders Bush must bring into his administration if his much-touted effort to win Latino support nationally, as he did while governor of Texas, is ever to pan out. The same is true of a couple of other Californians who Bush has named to key posts in recent weeks. Hector V. Barreto Jr., former chairman of the Los Angeles-based Latin Business Assn., was nominated to run the Small Business Administration. And former San Mateo County Supervisor Ruben Barrales has been named to a White House job as Bush's deputy assistant for intergovernmental affairs. These pragmatic, outside-the-Beltway appointees are a refreshing contrast to Linda Chavez, the right-wing Washington insider Bush almost made his secretary of Labor until it was revealed that she had not been completely forthcoming about once having allowed an illegal immigrant to live in her home.

Bush supporters now acknowledge the Chavez fiasco tempered whatever enthusiasm the new administration may once have had for naming other "Beltway Bandidos" (professional Latinos who make their living in the heady atmosphere of the nation's capital) to top-level jobs.

"You have to realize the White House staff had to make its way down a long list of people like Chavez before getting to some fresh faces," says Los Angeles businessman Fernando Oaxaca, who held Interior Department posts under Nixon and former President Gerald Ford. He is now an elder statesman in the California GOP as well as the party's unofficial Latino conscience. "Bush's people are barely getting around to Latinos they knew in Austin, much less the ones they met [during the presidential campaign] in Fresno."

Indeed, on a recent visit to Washington, D.C., one White House political operative told me the Bush team has compiled a data base of "about 5,000" Latino Bush supporters who will be considered for important government jobs.

"For a start, we want a bilingual Latino appointee in every government agency," he said. "Someone who can go on [the Spanish-language TV networks] Univision or Telemundo" and tell the Bush administration's story on any significant news event.

It's a smart strategy, akin to what Bush did while governor of Texas under the tutelage of his guru for Spanish-language media, San Antonio advertising executive Lionel Sosa. Like Oaxaca in California, Sosa is also trying to help the Bush White House identify fresh Latino faces to push to the fore.

Although Bush got only 23% of the Latino vote in California, where memories of former Gov. Pete Wilson's ardent support of Proposition 187 are still fresh in the minds of new Latino voters, he got 38% Latino support nationally. That is roughly the same level of Latino support victorious GOP candidates like Nixon, Reagan and Bush's father got. So he recaptured that 30% to 40% of Latinos who feel an affinity for the GOP on social, cultural or economic grounds.

Now Bush needs to build on that base. Which is where Marin, Barreto and Barrales--and those 5,000 other Spanish surnames in the White House data base--could be a lot more helpful than Linda Chavez and her ilk.

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