Battle for the barrio

It's February 2000, the primary season is in full tilt, and busy worker bees from both parties are delivering their yard signs, marking their turf, extending their reach. A lone Jeep Wrangler rolls into the parking lot at Martin Weiss Park and Recreation Center, looking as if it were about to set up shop outside the Republican National Convention. Four "Bush For President" placards are posted on the jeep's windows. Stickers that would normally be limited to bumpers -- Pete Sessions for Congress, Rick Perry for Lieutenant Governor, Karen Johnson for Judge -- are posted on the windshield for maximum visibility.

That this is Oak Cliff, a bastion of Hispanic Democratic politics, is of no moment to the driver. That he is Leo Landin, the president of the Dallas Hispanic Republicans, is of great moment to the truckload of sign-toting Tejano Democrats who have just pulled up next to him.

"Hey Leo," taunts one of them, wearing a plaid shirt and a thick mustache. "You hate Democrats? You think you're better than us?"

Landin has heard these accusations before and chooses to ignore them. Instead, he enters the rec center and speaks with its coordinator, attending to details about the Republican presence at this polling site during the March 14 primary. When he returns to his car, he immediately notices what's happened: His tires are flat. Slashed for the third time this year.

"It's just a little annoyance to make me feel unwelcome," says the 30-year-old Landin. "But I'm not the kind that gets easily intimidated."

Landin has been fighting for the hearts and votes of Hispanics since 1997, when he helped found the Dallas Hispanic Republicans. But only during this election cycle does he have the assistance of the Republican National Committee (RNC) as it targets Hispanics across the country with a multimillion-dollar advertising blitz. Only this year is the Hispanic vote seen as a prize that must be captured by George W. Bush if he is to win the presidency. Only this year are Hispanics being asked like never before to rethink their traditional Democratic identity and vote Republican. But as increasing numbers of Hispanics become Republicans, must they suppress their cultural identity, even slightly, to assimilate into a party that has been portrayed as exclusive? Or is the Republican message so appealing that even the barrio can align itself with it?

Leo Landin will tell you straight out: He would rather be known as a good Republican than a good Hispanic Republican. "My family didn't believe in alienating ourselves by wearing an Hispanic flag across our face," he says. "We were just willing to participate as equals rather than be given special consideration."

His heroes aren't those whom most Hispanics associate with the Democratic Party. He doesn't mention Chicano activists such as Cesar Chavez, or the civil rights leaders who founded the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Landin identifies more with an older generation of Dallas Hispanics, Republicans who worked themselves into the local business establishment and stayed there. Attorney Jaime Ramon and investment banker Robert Estrada (backers of both George Bushes), and businessmen Joe Pena (who worked in the Reagan administration) -- the "big guys," as Landin calls them, those who didn't make "grandiose productions in the name of civil rights, but contributed to the party and never looked for the spotlight," he says. "Theirs was more of a quiet dignity."

But quiet dignity seems to have little place in the barrio, where grassrooters fight for every vote in door-to-door combat. So in 1997, when Landin and his friends thought about harnessing their political energy, they steered away from old Republican organizations such as the National Assembly of Hispanic Republicans, the Latino auxiliary to the RNC. "We wanted to be something fresh and new," Landin says. "We wanted to have our own identity."

Just what that identity would be was the source of much controversy within their group. To call themselves "Hispanic Republicans" made them sound too much like an "affirmative action group," Landin says. "That would be leaning toward the liberal view that you have to identify yourself as a special interest group." Yet practicality prevailed. "From a public-relations standpoint [Landin runs his own PR firm], independents and Democrats needed to see the two words Hispanic and Republican side-by-side to prove that the Republican Party is inclusive."

When the Dallas Hispanic Republicans held its first press conference on July 4, 1998, the organization attracted a lot of attention. Not surprisingly, much of it came from Hispanic Democrats. "When you're an Hispanic Republican, you're not Mexican-American anymore," claims one Latino Democrat. "You're American-Mexican." Hispanic Republicans are just more Anglicized, he says, particularly after "they get some money in their pockets."

"Every time you hear about Hispanic Republicans, they are the upper strata," says local attorney and Democratic Party activist Adelfa Callejo. "They believe in economic opportunity, yes...But they aren't advocates for the poor. Few of them grew up in impoverished immigrant families."

But the joke among Hispanic Republicans is that most Hispanics are already Republicans -- they just don't know it yet. And it's taken George W. Bush to help them figure it out. In his 1998 re-run for governor, Bush's conservative-with-a-heart message played well in both English and Spanish. The state's Hispanic community gave him nearly 40 percent of its vote -- the highest percentage ever for a non-Latino GOP candidate in Texas.

"If Bush can do the same or better in Florida and California [he received only 18 percent of the Hispanic vote in the California primary]," says Dallas County Republican chairman Bob Driegert, "he can carry those states and win the presidency."

Bush's ability to penetrate the barrio should be enhanced by the RNC's $7million-$10 million ad campaign targeting the nation's 30 million Hispanics. A Spanish-language TV commercial, a test ad for the presidential campaign, is now running in California. It features a Latino woman describing the struggles of her immigrant parents as they worked hard, learned the language, raised a family, and dreamed American. The woman says that she will consider voting Republican to continue that dream.

Commercials like this only reinforce the message that Hispanic Republican activists like Leo Landin and his 40-member organization have taken to the streets. "Hispanic Catholics are conservative by nature," Landin says. "Once we start discussing the Republican platform [pro family values, pro business, anti-abortion], 80 percent of the people agree with us."

Counters Adelfa Callejo, "The day the Republican Party puts civil rights and affirmative action and English Plus [learning English as well as another language] into their platform is the day they make some inroads into the Hispanic community."

A Republican presence, however, is already being felt in local working-class Hispanic neighborhoods. "Some of my closest friends are turning Republican," says Arcadia Park Democratic activist Rachael Alonzo. "This past election was the first where you saw [Dallas Hispanic] Republicans standing in front of grocery stores, passing out literature or going door-to-door. It's really unfortunate."

And local Republicans have plans to build more GOP infrastructure within the Hispanic community. "There are only 13 Hispanic Republican precinct chairmen in Dallas County," says Joe Pena, who heads the Dallas chapter of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Texas. "Yet there are over 400 empty chairs in mostly minority neighborhoods. I'm setting a goal to fill every empty chair with an Hispanic and then to train each one myself."

The battle for the barrio is far from over. Demographics have forced George W. Bush to jump into the fray, and his sturdy coattails have assisted Hispanics such as Texas Supreme Court Justice Alberto R. Gonzales in winning the recent Republican primary, and Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza in winning statewide election in 1998. But Republican gains could be wiped out if a country-club exclusivity operates to deny a broader base of Hispanics access to positions of power. Or if those Hispanics who embrace the party decide that conformity is more essential than diversity.

"After we started our organization," recalls Leo Landin, "I felt lonely and isolated. Suddenly I was known as an Hispanic Republican. I felt like I was less-than because I wasn't just 'a good Republican.' If it was up to me, I'd just want to be a good Republican."

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald

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