ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Republicans created the Hispanic Leadership Network last year in an attempt to re-capture the Latino vote they lost in the 2008 presidential election. George Bush claimed an impressive 44 percent of that support in his 2004 presidential run. It shriveled to 31 percent when John McCain ran against Barack Obama in 2008.
So how can the GOP's new "Network", co-chaired by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and ex-U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, an appointee of Jeb's brother George, get back on the good side of this major voting bloc in 2012 after years of Republican assaults on the Latino community?
The second Hispanic Leadership Network conference was held late last month in Albuquerque. Neither Bush nor Gutierrez attended, but sent video welcome messages. As its keynote speaker, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez suggested having real "conversations" with the community: "They think the same as you do -- they have the same values -- but you have to bother to have a conversation with them about those values. If you don't, all they hear is the rhetoric."
There were plenty of mea culpas aimed at current Republican policies that are openly hostile to many Latino concerns. Presenters openly criticized those positions and acknowledged they face challenges to lure the country's fastest-growing voting bloc into the GOP camp. But they also pointed to opportunities.
Dan Judy, of the Republican polling firm Ayres, McHenry and Associates, reported that surveys taken in Florida, New Mexico and Colorado showed "Latinos in these swing states cited three areas of vulnerability for Democrats.
One, President Barack Obama is underperforming in his support in contrast to the last presidential election. Two, Latinos view Obama as not delivering on his promises, and finally, he is being seen as a weaker leader than they first envisioned.
"On the other hand," he added, "GOP positions on immigration are problematic."
Judy made no mention that Susana Martinez, who was elected In the presidential midterm year 2010 as the nation's first Latina governor, has herself been highly critical of somewhat more moderate GOP immigrant positions such that of presidential candidate Rick Perry of Texas, a fellow governor.
Martinez, whose own Mexican grandparents apparently immigrated to the United States without papers, campaigned against New Mexico's law that permits certain undocumented residents under certain circumstances to apply for driver's licenses. She tried to get the law overturned in her first legislative session, but failed. Then she used unspent campaign money to rail against the law, and in a special session on redistricting, submitted a bill to repeal it. The session took no action, but she has promised not to give up on this hot-button issue.
Protestors at the HLN conference included high school and college students who tossed their driver's licenses and diplomas to show their opposition to Martinez's policy stance.
In a national press conference, Democrat Ben Rey Lujan, one of New Mexico's three members of the U.S. House of Representatives, stated "Republicans have been on the wrong side of every Hispanic priority --jobs, Social Security, education and health care."
The Hispanic Leadership Network has not responded to questions on what major positions resulted from the conference.
Zachary Kluckman, a member of Poets For Change, also took on Martinez: "Ours is a non-partisan group, but I got involved because of Susana's lack of respect and assault on her own community." She even "killed the budget for celebrating New Mexico's Centennial anniversary," he cited.
Republican State Rep. Alonzo Baldonado stressed that his party's aim is "to make Latinos aware that Republicans and Latinos have the same conservative values. I ran in a mostly Democratic district and won because of my conservative message."
The conference was sparsely attended, with about half of the participants being white non-Hispanics. Democratic State Rep. Moe Maestas reacted to the media, "The HLN works to benefit the rich corporations and the wealthy at the expense of our Latino-majority state."
The fact that Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison industry, was a sponsor certainly tainted a Latino-friendly event. George Lujan of the Southwest Organizing Project in Albuquerque called it "a disaster of a conference."
(Jose Armas of Albuquerque is a longtime columnist and writer on Latino concerns and contributor to Hispanic Link News Service. Reach him at armas(at)swcp.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com)
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