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Latino Political Clout Has Candidates Brushing Up on Their Spanish

Community's emerging power lures Democratic presidential hopefuls to a gathering of leaders.

June 29, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — In a sign of growing Latino political clout, more than half of the Democratic presidential contestants traveled to the sweltering desert Saturday to pitch themselves to a gathering of elected Latino leaders from across the country.

Sprinkling in phrases in Spanish, the candidates repeatedly circled back to criticism of President Bush's economic plan, urging repeal of some or all of the administration's $1.7 trillion in tax cuts. They vowed to expand access to health care, boost small business and entrepreneurs, and make homeownership more accessible for people who aren't well-to-do.

Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts offered one of the few new proposals, a plan aimed at reducing the cost of cashing checks for Latino immigrants and of sending money to friends and family in other countries.

The first-of-its-kind forum highlighted the 20th annual conference of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, and attracted roughly 1,000 Latino officeholders to this sprawling Southwestern capital. A day earlier, two other Democratic hopefuls -- Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bob Graham of Florida -- addressed the gathering via satellite from Washington, D.C.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 03, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Latino officials -- An article in Section A on Sunday about the Phoenix meeting of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials incorrectly stated that 95% of the nation's Latino officeholders are Democrats. According to the group, two-thirds of Latino elected officials serve in nonpartisan offices. Of those elected to offices in which party affiliation is declared, 92% are Democrats and 8% are Republicans.

Lieberman condemned "allies of George Bush" for pursuing a "so-called racial privacy initiative" in California that would prevent government agencies from collecting and analyzing racial data pertaining to education, health care, law enforcement and other government programs.

"That is plain wrong," Lieberman said.

"It's time we stand up to the president and his allies and say, 'No mas. No mas,' " he added, though the president has taken no stand on the measure, which has yet to make the ballot.

Graham accused Bush of turning his back on Mexico and Latin America and, like other candidates, promised better relations with the country's hemispheric neighbors, as well as a more humane immigration policy. For starters, Graham said, he would fire Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, a promise that drew one of the biggest ovations at the conference -- Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina echoed Graham's vow at Saturday's session.

The forum, attended by six of the nine presidential hopefuls, underscored the growing political influence of Latinos, now being ardently courted by both major parties. The White House dispatched several representatives to speak Friday at lunch, and the Republican National Committee stationed a spokeswoman at the palm-studded conference hotel to offer comments in English and Spanish.

Bush actively pursued the Latino vote in 2000 and was rewarded with 38% support, according to a Los Angeles Times exit poll, nearly double the backing received four years earlier by GOP nominee Bob Dole. White House strategists would like to better that performance in 2004, mindful that Latino voters could spell the difference.

But even before November 2004, the Latino vote could be crucial in deciding the Democratic nomination, said Adam J. Segal, a Johns Hopkins University expert who released a study Friday highlighting what he called "Hispanic Tuesday."

On that day -- Feb. 3 -- two states with substantial Latino populations, New Mexico and Arizona, will participate in the third round of presidential voting, following the Iowa caucuses Jan. 19 and New Hampshire primary Jan. 27. That means Latinos could have a "greater ability to influence the outcome of primaries than at any previous time," Segal wrote.

As if to accent that point, the Democratic Party announced that two of six party-sanctioned debates will be held this year in Albuquerque and Phoenix.

Still, for all the attention paid the Latino community, the vast majority of Saturday's two-hour forum dwelt on issues little different from those discussed at assorted other candidate gatherings, or during question-and-answer sessions with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

One wrinkle was the attempt by several candidates to deliver at least some of their remarks in Spanish. They showed varying degrees of facility.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean gave virtually his entire two-minute opening statement in fluent Spanish. Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich tried the same, with considerably less aplomb. The Rev. Al Sharpton joked that he was going to try, too, but the people who needed to hear his words were not those who spoke Spanish but those who speak English and "are hurting the people who speak Spanish."

"I remind you, George Bush can speak Spanish, but he's wrong in English and Spanish,'' Sharpton said, drawing whoops from the crowd.

The only Democratic presidential hopeful to skip the conference was former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.

Ninety-five percent of the nation's Latino officeholders are Democrats, according to Ernesto Saldana, a NALEO spokesman, so the Phoenix gathering was hardly hospitable for emissaries from the White House.

Just a handful of people applauded at Friday's luncheon when U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, a possible candidate against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, trumpeted the administration's tax cut. Alberto R. Gonzales, the White House counsel, was greeted with silence -- nothing but the sound of air conditioners blasting against the 112-degree heat -- while he extolled the administration's performance and recounted the president's decision to go to war with Iraq.

Still, Sharon Castillo, a Republican Party spokeswoman, said it was important for the president's proxies to come to Phoenix. "In the past when we haven't shown up at events like these we've allowed Democrats to define Republicans," she said. "We have a great leader with a positive agenda and we're communicating it effectively." And doing it in two languages, she said.

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