Inside the numbers: the Latino vote

Posted: Jan 13, 2004 12:00 AM

While much of the political world's attention is focused on the battle in Iowa among Democratic presidential contenders, a commonly ignored but important story is unfolding in Republican circles. The GOP is moving quietly but forcefully to build and consolidate a viable political relationship with Hispanic Americans.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Hispanic Center, 54 percent of Hispanic-American adults rated President George W. Bush's job performance as "good" or "excellent." That's big news because Hispanic Americans are now the largest minority group in America.

This emerging political marriage is no accident, and its implications for the 2004 elections are substantial. The Bush organization in particular has labored long and hard to foster a strong bond with Hispanic voters. Call it "geographical comfort," if you will. Both the president, when he was governor of Texas, and his brother Jeb Bush, now governor of Florida, learned firsthand the vital need to have good, working political relationships with the considerable Hispanic voting blocs in those states. Both Bushes pierced through old stereotypes about minorities always supporting Democrats. The governors realized that, as a whole, Hispanic leaders are open to the message of promoting small business and cutting taxes.

Now all that forward-looking strategy is starting to pay off. Hispanics more and more are casting ballots for Republicans. Further, Hispanic candidates are starting to make waves in big political races. Perhaps the most prominent among them is Mel Martinez, who recently resigned his Bush Cabinet post as secretary of Housing and Urban Development to return to his home state of Florida. There he is running as a Republican for the U.S. Senate seat now held by retiring Democrat Bob Graham.

Both Gov. Jeb Bush and the White House likely will stay "officially" neutral in this race. But insiders know full well that Martinez is the choice of the Bush leadership in the Sunshine State. As a result, don't expect to see Katherine Harris -- the somewhat controversial former Florida secretary of state and current Florida congresswoman -- entering the field of Republican candidates for the seat.

Martinez's story is nothing shy of inspirational. At the age of 15, he and his brother were evacuated from Castro's Cuba during an operation organized by the Catholic Church and supported by the U.S. government. Martinez first lived in military camps before being provided temporary homes by a succession of families. Several years later, he and his brother finally were reunited with their parents here in the United States.

With his accomplishments as an attorney and civic leader in the Orlando area, plus his stint as a Bush Cabinet member, Martinez seems the embodiment of a new generation of Republican Hispanics in America.

Why is the emergence of the Hispanic voting bloc and candidates such as Martinez so important to the GOP? For one, decades of attempts by the party to reach out to minorities, especially African Americans, have borne little fruit. Both the party and blacks and other minorities have consistently refused to acknowledge any merit in each other's point of view. Many African-American leaders still view Republican leadership with a jaundiced eye. And even though Republicans now seem all too willing to create what are in effect massive expansions of government -- the new Medicare benefits package, for example -- they are still in public denial that they too can support entitlements and other social programs.

Partly because of the longstanding conservative and anti-Castro philosophy of the Cuban-American community, the Republican Party has long had a toe-hold on the broader Hispanic community in this country. But America's Hispanic community goes way beyond Cuban Americans. For example, many residents of the commonwealth of Puerto Rico have chosen to live stateside. Politically, they are split between those who favor statehood for Puerto Rico and who tend to vote Republican, and those who oppose statehood and tend to vote Democratic. Remember, it was a Republican House of Representatives, led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, that produced the only legislation ever passed that would have allowed Puerto Ricans to vote yes or no on statehood.

Now the president has a new proposal to relax laws on illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States. All of this collectively is starting to take a toll on the Democratic Party. While polling surveys consistently show that a huge majority of African Americans still vote for Democrats in major elections, the Hispanic-American community's growing clout at the ballot box in many states may soon prove to be enough to offset blacks' reluctance to vote Republican.

When national observers start to examine the 2004 presidential race in Florida, they might be wise to consider the effect Mel Martinez's candidacy could have on the presidential outcome. If George Bush's re-election in the state comes down to the wire, Martinez could be the reason for four more years of a Republican in the White House.