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A curiosity, not a reality

Hispanics claim economic parity but not political power under GOP

Daily Record Business Writer

Jorge RibasJorge Ribas owns his own consulting and construction firm, has earned three post-graduate degrees and has served time in the military. But despite his accomplishments, the Ecuadorian immigrant feels that he and other members of Maryland’s Hispanic community have a glaring shortcoming.

Jorge Ribas and a handful of other GOP loyalists recently established a state Hispanic Republican Caucus with a long-term plan and the goal of electing more Republicans — Hispanics or otherwise — in the next few years.

“We have achieved economic power but we’re not achieving political power,” Ribas said. “Both parties take us for granted. We’re still a curiosity, not a reality.”

From the apartment buildings and established communities in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties to the burgeoning neighborhoods in Baltimore County and the city, and even the immigrants who came to the Eastern Shore to grow lopes or work for Perdue, there is dissatisfaction about the way the Hispanic community is perceived and treated by state leaders.

There is action, too.

Last year state voters elected two Hispanic members to the House of Delegates, Victor R. Ramirez in Prince George’s County and Ana Sol Gutierrez in Montgomery County. Montgomery voters also elected Tom Perez to the county council. Sen. Alex X. Mooney, who’s mother is Cuban, is the state Senate’s only Latino.

In Baltimore City there is a Hispanic Democratic club and Amigos de O’Malley to support the re-election of Mayor Martin J. O’Malley, while groups such as the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice have been vocal advocates in Annapolis for immigration issues. Hispanic Chambers of Commerce have also been started in nearly every county of the state.

Ribas and a handful of other GOP loyalists recently established a state Hispanic Republican Caucus with a long-term plan and the goal of electing more Republicans — Hispanics or otherwise — in the next few years.

But despite these successes, Hispanic leaders note that their community lacks the political infrastructure developed by blacks, labor, issue advocates and others looking to elect candidates sympathetic to a particular point of view. Ribas, and others like him, hope to build those foundations and capitalize on the growth of Hispanics, who the U.S. Census Bureau declared the country’s largest minority group June 18.

"This is a watershed event I think what you're seeing right now is an awakening,” Ribas said. “This is the first well-thought-out and well-organized effort to build an organization within the community a self-sustaining organization. In the past, Ribas said, Latinos political groups were vanity efforts on the part of their leadership. But the disaffection with their political situation, Ribas said, means the leadership of the new GOP group is more interested in the big picture.

Nationwide, the Hispanic population grew to 38.8 million by July 1 last year, according to Census Bureau figures. Hispanics accounted for half of the country's growth between April 1, 2000, and July 1, 2002. About half of the growth among Hispanics was immigrants. About 228,000 of Maryland's 5.3 million residents are Hispanic, but local advocates say those estimates are low.

Such numbers have drawn interest from the two major political parties, who hope to capture as large a slice of that population as possible. The issue first drew national prominence in 2000,when both presidential candidates, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, spoke Spanish and addressed immigration, labor and other issues crucial to the Latinos.That Latinos feel as if they have been turned into a commodity does not surprise Rodney E. Hero, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame who has written books on Latino efforts to build their political base.

“To some degree there is some sense of that,” Hero said. “That’s certainly not uncommon.” Reaching out

Fueling problems, he said, are differences with Republicans over immigration policy and indifference by Democrats who feel Latinos are already committed to the party. Those differences can prove galvanizing. California has elected a Latino Speaker of the House in the state legislature as well as a Hispanic lieutenant governor in part, Hero said, because of outrage over the Proposition 187 debate that would have denied state services such as education or health care to illegal immigrants.

To best reach Latino voters, Hero said, public officials must carefully consider their views on education policy and its implementation. Economic security and crime control are two other areas of concern for Hispanics.

While Maryland may not have as strong a Latino lobby as Texas, Florida or New York, state Hispanics already have successfully argued for the availability of bi-lingual social services, and pushed this year to study loosening restrictions for illegal immigrants to acquire a driver’s license and another bill granting in-state tuition rates at state universities to the children of undocumented workers.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed the driver’s license bill — in part because millions in federal aid depended on its provisions — but vetoed the reduced tuition bill. Another bill allocating Hispanics 2 percent of all state Minority Business Enterprise contracts never made it through the Senate.

Carmen NievesCarmen L. Nieves, executive director of the Centro De La Comunidad Inc, says, ‘When they talk about the increase in the Latino vote, that may be, but I don’t personally think we’re that strong yet. … In the long term it will be a huge influence.’

The rancor — and ignorance about immigration issues — over the tuition bill provided Ribas and other Hispanic leaders more proof that it was up to them to take care of their own needs, despite lip service from both parties.

“What I think is happening in Baltimore City and the state of Maryland is the Latino community has no political power and no one is going to do anything for us,” said Angelo Solera, a Spanish immigrant, who is running for Baltimore City Council in the newly redrawn 1st District. “That’s why you’re seeing more Latinos in politics.”

Angelo SoleraIssues have traditionally broken down along black and white, Solera said, intending both figurative and literal meanings. Hispanic candidates must work for the entire community, he said, but have a better understanding of the issues affecting Latinos.

“When you hear ‘minorities’ they’re really talking about women and African Americans,” Solera said. “At some point you’ve got to say to yourself ‘you know what, enough is enough.

Hispanic neighborhoods differ

But Solera and other candidates are finding that the Hispanic community, though strong in numbers, is not as politically savvy or organized as other groups. In addition, Hispanic communities in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties differ in significant ways from those inthe Baltimore area or on the Eastern Shore.

In the D.C. suburbs, said Carmen Nieves, executive director of Centro de la Comunidad, many Hispanics live in apartment complexes in a few neighborhoods. Some of these buildings can be entirely Hispanic with many people living in a single apartment. The arrangement can lead to neglect by landlords who know those residents won’t complain, Nieves said, but such densely inhabited complexes bend the rules also.

The advantage for those seeking public office, Nieves said, is the ability to deliver a message to many people quickly.

In Baltimore, she said, Latinos are more likely to own homes and — save recently nicknamed Spanish Town, long known as Upper Fells Point — are slightly more scattered in the city.

Centro de la Comunidad helps new immigrants acclimate to Baltimore, and most of the immigrants Nieves has seen arrived in the last five years. Those Latinos will not be a factor politically because they are not yet citizens, a process that takes at least seven years, but are having plenty of children born as American citizens.

"There are some things going on. The majority [of Hispanics] have been traditionally Democratic, I think that may be changing,” Nieves said. “The people who have been here the longest are taking the lead.

“When they talk about the increase in the Latino vote, that may be, but I don’t personally think we’re that strong yet. … In the long term it will be a huge influence.”

On the Eastern Shore, many Hispanics have settled into stable jobs with employers such as Perdue who take care of transportation and other needs, said Robert Correa, president of Manufacturing Support Industries in Salisbury.

The community has adjusted, and it is not uncommon to see Spanish advertising in newspapers. Correa sees little in political organizing on the shore, despite the fact that Hispanics now dominate the main streets of rural communities such as Georgetown, Del.

But Montgomery and Prince George’s counties were the first parts of Maryland to see significant growth in the Hispanic community. Many Latinos there are settled, own homes and have businesses or careers. They also are looking to get involved.

Ana Sol GutierrezAna Sol Gutierrez, who was first elected to the Montgomery County School Board in 1990, said those voters made the difference in her successful campaign for a House of Delegates seat representing Kensington and Chevy Chase last November.

There was no way that we even had the numbers we had in 2002. No single ethnic group could have made a difference,” Gutierrez said. “We were looking at targeting certain Anglo communities, Latino votes and African-American votes. I think that the difference was made by having such a solid bloc of Latino voters.

Angelo Solera, who is running for Baltimore City Council from the 1st District, says, ‘What I think is happening in Baltimore City and the state of Maryland is the Latino community has no political power and no one is going to do anything for us. That’s why you’re seeing more Latinos in politics.’

After years of voter registration drives, Gutierrez, who is of Salvadoran descent, said there were about 6,000 Hispanic voters in her district and she encouraged them to “bullet vote,” a technique where Latino voters cast only one vote — they could vote for as many as three candidates — to ensure Gutierrez won.

The technique worked, with Gutierrez edging incumbent Leon G. Billings for the third Delegate seat by just 217 votes.

“They responded because no one has reached out,” Gutierrez said. “It is a community that has never been reached out to.”

No dollars

There is a new political awareness among Latinos, she agreed, but a nascent constituency led to some misunderstandings that Gutierrez experienced first-hand during the campaign. One of the biggest problems was that many Hispanics are less inclined to make campaign contributions.

“It’s still not a giving community, it’s not something that we’re politically savvy enough to understand,” Gutierrez said. “All my checks were small. Latino businesses were invisible. Clearly we’re working with a very new political community.”

Politics always has been about getting out, shaking hands and meeting people, but Gutierrez said it became more important in meeting Latinos because often several generations live within one home. Studies have shown, Gutierrez said, that recommendations from friends and family are the most important factor in building a relationship with Spanish-language-dominant Hispanics.

Gutierrez also used a traditional political tool that, she believes, is especially critical to reaching constituents.

“The media was wonderful, it’s always been very supportive,” Gutierrez said. “I think on their part it was an awakening. It was the first time I saw them stepping up to provide that communication. I’m convinced the only way you’re going to reach the community is through full use of the media. The Latino listens to the radio. You have to do it in their language; you have to do it in Spanish.”

But in Baltimore, Centro’s Nieves said, it is more difficult to organize Hispanic voters because much of the media is imported from the Washington suburbs. There are no local television shows, she said, and the local newspapers and newsletters are not “pure journalism.” The few locally produced radio programs air at inconvenient hours.

“When you talk about local issues, local news, it’s not ours,” Nieves said.

And while religion and church are powerful influences among Hispanics, she said, church leaders are not as interested in motivating voters as many black ministers and churches are. Though she has tried to organize a conference of religious leaders, Nieves said most were more interested in pursuing only God’s work.

The attitude among church leaders is similar to that of the rest of the community, and Gutierrez said that the lack of a strong political tradition among Hispanics means there is not a “strong bench of Latinos leaders sitting around.”

The Democratic and Republican parties are interested in bringing those voters into their fold. Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Southern Maryland, the recently elected House Minority Whip, said that Montgomery County was a “target rich” jurisdiction for the Republican Party. They have been reaching out to Hispanic voters, but O’Donnell said it was “a work in progress.”

That relationship was almost scuttled this year because of ideological fights about immigration and naturalization.

Political battles

CASA de Maryland, and its lobbying group the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice, pushed hard for the in-state tuition bill but were rebuked by Ehrlich and conservative members of the General Assembly.

Gutierrez was stunned by the reaction of many of the GOP caucus to the in-state tuition bill and saw that it was a sign that more educating about immigration issues needed to be done. She was also surprised that black leaders, most notably Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., D-Baltimore County, spoke against the bill, worried that illegal immigrants could displace black students at state universities.

The battle over the tuition bill left CASA de Maryland director Gustavo Torres with a healthy skepticism of the state's political parties.

Ana Sol Gutierrez, representing Montgomery County in the House of Delegates, says the Latino community still is not very giving with its political contributions.

Now I think that people from both parties are starting to think about it more, which is good,” Torres said of their interest in his community. But, “their agenda is not our agenda.

“I was very, very disappointed to see the majority of Republican delegates speaking against the legislation and at the same time saying they want to reach out to the Latino community.”

Solera, the Baltimore City Council candidate, shares that skepticism noting that both parties are misleading because they promise that “If you come with us you have a better chance at getting something.”

“They don’t do anything for us and that is the bottom line,” he said. “None of the two parties. The Democratic Party is not doing anything for me.”

Such disaffection with Democrats and Republicans is good news for Lorenzo Gaztanaga, a Cuban American who was the Libertarian Party candidate for Lieutenant Governor last fall. Often marginalized by the media, Gaztanaga hopes that meeting voters might convince them to choose an alternative.

“I have chosen to travel a different political path,” he said. “Immigrants do take more time to look into political alternatives. I would like to see at some point Latinos do realize that there is something more.”

Libertarians, like Latinos, believe that the family is the foundation for government, Gaztanaga said. Despite misconceptions, he said, Hispanics are as interested in becoming Americans as anyone else, and cites Baltimore as Exhibit A of the historical success of immigration. Being politically involved is part of the process.

Gaztanaga recently attended the funeral of long-time Baltimore Hispanic activist Beltran Navarro, at which someone suggested they sing the “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“I was very moved by that. Most people knew the words,” Gaztanaga said. “Sometimes when I hear people talking about immigrants I just say to them ‘I’m an American, and I’m an American by choice.’ I think some do share that. … Being an American is a state of mind.”

Job application unanswered

Latinos wonder if Ehrlich’s staff letting him down


Daily Record Business Writer

Maryland Latinos are putting pressure on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to rectify what they perceive as a lack of Hispanics appointed to top state jobs.

Among those pushing the hardest are Republican Hispanics — some of whom worked tirelessly to elect Maryland’s first GOP governor in more than 30 years — who have written Ehrlich a letter requesting he appoint a Latino to serve as secretary of the Maryland Higher Education Commission and to create a Special Assistant to the Governor on Hispanic Affairs.

“The few Hispanic appointments made by your administration until now have been staff or advisory,” the letter reads, “and all the appointees have been from the Baltimore Metropolitan area — specifically, a woman to the State Board of Education (unpaid position); a businessman to a minority contracting task force (unpaid position); and an executive director for the Governor’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs (paid position), the latter a feckless advisory body created by Governor Marvin Mandel back in 1971. Our input for any of these positions was never sought despite numerous calls to your staff.”

The letter, written by the Maryland Hispanic Republican Caucus, alleges that no Latinos have been appointed to any of the top 125 state positions and that Ehrlich is failing to fulfill a campaign pledge to make his government representative of the entire state.

The group has scheduled a meeting with Ehrlich later this month to discuss the issue.

“I think they can do more to include Hispanics,” said Jose A. Fuentes, a lawyer with the Washington firm of Reed Smith and a member of Ehrlich’s fundraising team. “There are a lot of qualified Hispanics willing to join the state government and they need to start addressing that matter.”

Ehrlich has blacks in the top position in two of 18 state departments, while women head four others. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele is black, and minorities have leadership roles in a number of other state organizations. Ehrlich also has moved aggressively to make sure the state deals fairly with minority businesses.

The successes achieved by black appointees, the letter said, should encourage the governor to seek more diversity for the state government.

A number of Hispanics are serving in top positions, said Ehrlich spokesman Henry P. Fawell, including MHEC member Maria Torres-Queral; Carmen Pratt, who oversees divisions within the Department of Health and Human Services; and Hector Torres and Miguel Boluda, who direct Hispanic outreach.

Fawell had no way to identify what the top 125 state positions were, but said there are still many positions yet to be filled and that Ehrlich is committed to a “talented and diverse” government.

The governor recognizes that there is a problem, Fuentes said, and that it is not easy to change state government because his party has been out of power for so long.

“It will come with time,” he said. “I know Ehrlich is aware of the problem.”

Others are tired of waiting and question a governor who would fight tooth and nail for failed Department of the Environment nominee Lynn Y. Buhl but seemed less willing to work as hard to find qualified Latinos. Ehrlich also has been criticized for top-heavy appointments to Baltimore County allies, Republican legislators and their spouses.

“There is no welcome sign for Hispanics — period,” said Jorge Ribas, a Montgomery County businessman and chairman of the Maryland Hispanic Republican Caucus. “They do nationwide searches for everyone else but not for Hispanics?”

Ribas was told that Hispanics are not applying for jobs, but when he sent in an application to test the system he got no response from the governor’s office.

A governor is only as good as his staff, Ribas said, and they may be letting Ehrlich down. He said loyalty should not be the only litmus test for employment.

“I don’t think Mr. Ehrlich has had that opportunity,” Ribas said of the governor’s ability to vet Latino candidates. “We respect the governor, we’ll continue to support the governor — up to a point — but my job as chairman is to represent the group and a majority of my membership is unhappy with Mr. Ehrlich.”

Republicans have worked hard to court Hispanic voters both nationally and in Maryland. Hispanics share some of the same social views as Republicans, now own homes and businesses and are a fast-growing minority whose votes could break the Democrats stranglehold on the state legislature and U.S. Senate seats. Ribas estimates that about 15,000 to 20,000 Latinos become Maryland citizens every year.

Roger Campos, a member of the Ehrlich transition team who works for the U.S.-Mexico Chamber of Commerce in Washington, predicted politics could provide some impetus to appoint more Latinos.

It's got to change and I know it will, Campos said. "The elections are right around the corner and we've got to be on the same page.

Hispanics push for leadership positions
They seek a bigger role in Ehrlich administration
By David Nitkin
Sun Staff
Originally published July 15, 2003

Prominent Maryland Hispanics say Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. must hire more Latinos to well-paying administration positions or risk losing support from an increasingly influential interest group when he seeks re-election.

The Maryland Hispanic Republican Caucus has scheduled a meeting with Ehrlich next week to discuss what its members see as a lack of diversity in appointments. The group is demanding that the governor conduct a national search for a Hispanic higher-education secretary and that he appoint a top adviser to handle Hispanic affairs.

Jorge Ribas, chairman of the recently formed caucus, said that no Hispanics have been appointed to what he calls the "top 125 government positions" in Maryland, which include Cabinet secretaries and their deputies, as well as the governor's staff.

"It is a new ball game in town. You better listen to us, because people are extremely dissatisfied. And you are not going to find loyalty with dissatisfied people," said Ribas, a pathologist and consultant from Montgomery County, in an interview yesterday. "People want to be players. People want to sit at the table. And if that doesn't happen, they'll be looking for another candidate."

Administration officials say that while they do not keep such a breakdown of high-level hires, they do not dispute Ribas' claim. However, they point to five Latino appointments, including the first Hispanic member of the unpaid State Board of Education. The other positions are midlevel jobs.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said that the governor remains committed to diversity and has filled only a small portion of the positions under his direct control.

"There are a number of bright, talented individuals from the Hispanic community presently under active consideration for prominent positions in the Ehrlich-Steele administration," Fawell said.

The caucus' aggressive stance comes as Hispanics in Maryland and elsewhere are learning to wield a strength that comes with numbers. The U.S. Census recently reported that Hispanics have surpassed blacks nationally as the largest minority group in the United States.

In Maryland, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Central and South Americans are a small but growing political subset that has never commanded much political attention. The 2000 census counted 227,916 Marylanders of Hispanic extraction, or 4.3 percent of the state's population. But Ribas said the figure does not include those fearful of reporting their status. He believes that the true population, including growth over the past three years, is closer to 400,000.

Maryland Hispanics are not yet sufficiently organized to make statewide politicians such as Ehrlich tremble, said Del. Luiz Simmons, a Silver Spring Democrat who returned to the State House this year after an absence of two decades, during which he switched parties.

"There is a percolating Hispanic vote, but I'm not sure it has come to a boil yet," Simmons said. "There's got to be more effort, frankly, on the part of people like me to go out and participate in a sustained voter registration drive."

While Ehrlich may be well-positioned to capitalize on Hispanic interests, he has yet to turn campaign rhetoric into tangible results, Simmons said. In May, Ehrlich vetoed a bill that would have allowed certain undocumented immigrants who graduated from Maryland high schools to pay in-state tuition rates at public universities.

"I really don't see Governor Ehrlich resonating with Hispanics the way that President Bush does, or [Florida] Governor [Jeb] Bush does," Simmons said. "Just giving a speech in which you say 'Hola' does not necessarily generate a program or personal empathy that people are going to buy into."

Although exact figures are not available, some observers say that Hispanics voted for Ehrlich in large numbers and that Ehrlich has recognized in speeches the importance of their efforts.

"The Ehrlich campaign did reach out to Hispanics, and they did spend money on the Hispanic community," said Jose A. Fuentes, a Republican and former Puerto Rico attorney general who lives in Annapolis.

The outreach illustrates a growing political trend: Republicans believe they can parlay their more conservative positions on social and family-related issues into Hispanic votes, winning over a constituency more typically thought to be aligned with Democrats.

Fuentes said that Maryland governors have turned their backs on Hispanics for decades, and the hope is that Ehrlich will be different.

"It has to change, because the number of Hispanics in Maryland has really increased," Fuentes said. "If the Republican Party in Maryland wants to participate in the migration of Hispanics that has taken place from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, they have to show their support and they have to show their commitment."

Frustration with Ehrlich is not universal. Sen. Alex X. Mooney of Frederick, the Assembly's lone Hispanic Republican (he is of Cuban descent) said administration officials contact him regularly. "I feel I've been looked to and included in my input and help," he said.
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