Latinos Souring on Gov. and His Party

Times Staff Writer

As he prepares to launch his reelection bid, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is facing attack from a group of fellow Republicans who condemn his record on Latino appointments and assail the state GOP as “morally wrong and politically stupid” in its treatment of Latino candidates.

In an unusual open letter drafted for release today, the activists offer a litany of political grievances and assert that “the California Republican Party and its key leaders are systematically excluding Latinos from any kind of meaningful role in the state party or state government.”

The letter noted that Schwarzenegger has no Latinos in his cabinet or in senior positions. It said that the governor and prominent state GOP leaders have endorsed non-Latino candidates over “qualified, credible and competitive” Latinos in statewide races in recent years, contrasting that approach with President Bush’s aggressive courtship of Latino voters. It also said that just one of Schwarzenegger’s first 56 judicial appointments was Latino -- a claim that could not be independently verified because there is no precise record.


“The California Republican Party’s exclusion of Latinos is morally wrong and politically stupid,” the letter states, urging “dramatic action to change course before it’s too late for our party and our state.”

Margita Thompson, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Schwarzenegger had a strong record of appointing Latinos and had enacted legislation to benefit farmworkers, small-business owners and schools in disadvantaged communities, all of which have lifted California’s Latino community.

More broadly, she said, “The state was on the verge of bankruptcy and what the governor has done in terms of improving the jobs climate and bringing California back from the brink of bankruptcy has helped all Californians.”

The open letter to California Republicans was timed to achieve maximum political effect, coming on the eve of Schwarzenegger’s formal announcement that he will seek a second term, and as party loyalists prepared to gather in Anaheim this weekend for the state GOP’s semi-annual convention. It was signed by just a handful of party activists willing to identify themselves publicly. But the angry tone reflects a sentiment that has been widespread, if largely confined to private discussions, among Latino Republicans and GOP strategists throughout the state.

“There’s always been the argument about ‘don’t wash your dirty laundry in public,’ ” said Uvaldo Martinez Jr., former state head of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, a party outreach group, and one of those who signed the letter. “However, sometimes I think a good public airing, a good discussion of what’s really transpiring, is healthy.”

Others signing the letter were Republican National Hispanic Assembly leaders and members.

The open dissent flares as Latino voters -- constituting 14% of the electorate in the last statewide election -- assert more prominence in state politics and the governor looks ahead to a special election in November and his own reelection effort next year with support among Latinos flagging.


After garnering roughly a third of the Latino vote in the 2003 recall -- a much better performance that the previous two Republican gubernatorial candidates -- Schwarzenegger won approval from just 17% of Latinos in an August survey by the Public Policy Institute of California. Although the governor’s slippage among Latinos tracks his overall decline in voter support, the drop is noteworthy given the GOP’s history with Latinos over the last decade.

Proposition 187, the 1994 anti-illegal immigration initiative, passed easily but spawned a Latino backlash against the Republican Party and its most prominent sponsor, then-Gov. Pete Wilson. Those hard feelings -- stemming from a campaign some construed as bigoted -- were compounded when Republicans in Congress unsuccessfully tried to deny government benefits to legal migrants.

In 1997, one of the party’s most revered strategists, Stuart Spencer, issued his own open letter, criticizing the Republican Party’s “sad and politically self-defeating history of alienating immigrant groups and new voters” and warning the party would consign itself to permanent minority status in California if it did not reach out more aggressively for Latino support. A series of remedial efforts followed, including high-profile Latino “summit” meetings, but the party made few meaningful gains until Schwarzenegger’s candidacy.

For many Latinos casting ballots in the recall, “Arnold stood for change and independence and an ability to get things done,” said Mark Baldassare, research director at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute.

Since his election, however, the governor has taken a number of steps that have undermined his Latino support. Relations with Mexico have been frosty. He has wrangled with Latino lawmakers over legislation allowing driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. Perhaps most damaging, Schwarzenegger endorsed the Minuteman Project, a citizen’s border patrol, that others -- including Bush -- have condemned as a vigilante group.

More fundamentally, the governor and Latino voters are “worlds apart” when it comes to fiscal issues and the size and responsibilities of state government, said Baldassare.

“Latinos, as a group, hold a position that government should be larger and provide more services, even if it means higher taxes,” said Baldassare, who oversees the institute’s polling. “Gov. Schwarzenegger has been fairly consistent that he does not stand for larger government, or more services or higher taxes.”

The complaints enumerated in the open letter are more personal, listing a number of Latino candidates who have been passed over for endorsements in recent elections by some of the state’s most prominent GOP leaders, including Schwarzenegger. Two of them are running in competitive GOP primaries in 2006 -- state Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria, a candidate for state controller, and Gary Mendoza, a Los Angeles attorney running for insurance commissioner.

On Wednesday, Schwarzenegger gave a lift to Mendoza’s rival, businessman Steve Poizner, by announcing Poizner would lead efforts to pass Proposition 77, a November initiative to change the way California draws its political boundaries. It is one of three measures on the special election ballot endorsed by Schwarzenegger.

The letter predicted that “in 2006 we may not have any Latinos, women or minorities on our statewide ballot,” and said California Republicans were “falling backwards from the limited progress we’d been making.”

Hector Barajas, deputy political director for the California GOP, rejected the criticisms. “There couldn’t be anything further from the truth,” he said, noting the state party has expanded the ranks of its Latino staff while the number of chapters of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly has more than quadrupled in California in the past two years.