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State GOP Faces Uphill Battle to Win Over Latino Voters

ASSOCIATED PRESS

California Republicans were warned four years ago to expect an angry backlash from Latinos over the way Gov. Pete Wilson rode an anti-illegal immigration ballot measure to reelection.

“Political memories are long-lasting in ethnic communities,” political scientist and pollster Harry Pachon wrote in a newspaper essay. “For the GOP, the hope is that Latinos don’t follow the old Irish American saying: ‘Don’t get mad, get even.”’

Latinos got mad and deserted Wilson on election day, but they weren’t powerful enough to deny him a second term--or to defeat the measure. Now they may have the clout to decide the closely contested race to pick Wilson’s successor. And a new poll suggests they are prepared to get even.

Just 12% of Latinos support Republican candidate Dan Lungren, while 70% favor Democrat Gray Davis, according to the survey released this week by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the Claremont Graduate School near Los Angeles. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

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That’s a sharp contrast to another state with a large Latino population, Texas, where Republican Gov. George W. Bush, who speaks Spanish, has stressed that immigrants are welcome. In an Oct. 22 Texas poll, Bush led his Democratic opponent for governor by 58% to 25% among Latino voters.

Latinos are becoming an increasingly influential voting bloc in states with large concentrations of Latinos such as California, Texas and Florida. And both national parties are making a concerted effort to woo their votes and field Latino candidates.

Pollster Pachon attributes Lungren’s poor showing among Latinos in California to lingering anger over Wilson’s and the GOP’s support for Proposition 187, the 1994 measure that sought to cut state services to undocumented immigrants. The measure was approved by 59% of voters but has been tied up in the courts. Latino voters opposed it 73% to 27%, according to exit polls.

“From the data I’ve seen, that residual anger is still alive and kicking,” Pachon said. “What surprises me is that the memories haven’t died.”

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Olivia Hierro, 35, is among those who haven’t forgotten Proposition 187. “We can’t let that pass,” Hierro said in an interview recently in a Latino neighborhood of San Francisco. “The ones that have the power to vote, we can’t forget that.”

Latinos constitute nearly 30% of California’s population, but make up just 12% of the state’s 14.9 million voters. The numbers are expected to increase as more Latinos become citizens.

More than 600,000 Latinos have registered to vote since 1994 and, according to Pachon, some were motivated to do so by anger over Proposition 187.

An overwhelming majority are registered as Democrats--66% to 19%. But the predominantly Roman Catholic group has voted in large numbers for those Republicans who tapped into their generally conservative views on cultural and social issues.

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Republican Gov. George Deukmejian drew 46% of the Latino vote in his 1986 reelection bid against Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Wilson got half that in 1994, after he made the anti-immigration rhetoric of Proposition 187 the centerpiece of his campaign.

Republicans alienated Latinos even more when, two years later, they supported a ballot measure to eliminate affirmative action. That same year, congressional Republicans revamped welfare and cut off funds for services to most legal immigrants.

Democrats continue to see their party as the natural home for Latinos and are working hard to make sure Latinos don’t forget Wilson’s embrace of Proposition 187. Davis is airing a Spanish-language television ad showing Lungren and Wilson together.

“We’re running against Pete Wilson,” said Miguel Contreras, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. “We have to take advantage of what was given to us. We have to turn all the immigrant-bashing into something beneficial to immigrants.”

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Early in the campaign, the Lungren campaign set a target of capturing more than 35% of the Latino vote, and he still believes he can draw that.

Yet Republicans acknowledge there is much work to do if they are to rehabilitate the party’s image among Latinos.

“Obviously, some reparations need to be done to erase the perception that we are somehow attacking this community,” said Mike Madrid, the state GOP’s political director.

This year, the state Republican Party has spent $1 million trying to woo Latinos, including holding nine outreach meetings throughout the state. Lungren has his own Spanish-language ads, featuring retired East Los Angeles teacher Jaime Escalante, the inspiration for the 1987 film “Stand and Deliver.”

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Republicans believe their most fertile recruiting area is the emerging Latino middle class, or so-called “Volvo Latinos.”

“We’re going in and talking about Republican bread-and-butter messages with a decidedly Latino flavor,” Madrid said.

Whether Latinos sway the election this year depends a lot on turnout, which is often low among voters who are new to the process and in many cases poor.

No measures on the ballot this fall deal with issues that single out Latinos. GOP leaders persuaded backers of an anti-bilingual education measure to put it on the June ballot, said Mike Schroeder, chairman of the state GOP.

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The lack of a hot-button issue could dampen turnout. Still, Latinos could be motivated to go to the polls because four Latinos are running for statewide office, including Democratic Assemblyman Cruz Bustamante. If he wins, he would be the highest-ranking Latino in statewide office in more than a century.


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