The Hispanic Leadership Network (HLN) regional conference held September 23-24 at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico was a commendable effort to attract Latino voters in a blue swing state with a Republican Hispanic governor. I was keenly interested to know what a center-right conservative group could propose to attract more Latinos to the GOP. What I learned was quite revealing.
I originally called for a boycott of the conference by local Hispanic leaders due to a platform by national GOP leaders which ignores or even worsens the plight of many poorer Hispanics. But that is no way to establish an effective dialog and find common ground. So, with a more enlightened attitude (and the promise of great food) I paid my $35 fee and sat in on the conference.
Moderator Rosario Martinez, former U.S. Treasurer during the Reagan administration, introduced a succession of Republican leaders including: conference founder and former Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman of the American Action Network; Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal; New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez; Texas Congressman Pete Sessions; Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador; Texas Congressman Quico Canseco; Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry; and others, including a video appearance by Florida Governor Jeb Bush. The major conference sponsors were: BNSF Railway, Pfizer, and UnitedHealth Group.
But first some facts:
The fastest growing segment of the U.S. population is Hispanics, currently at 48 million or 16.3%.
New Mexico has the highest percentage of Hispanic voters at 46%, with 49% registered as Democrats, 32% Republican, and 19% are “other” (including Independents). Nationally, 11.6% of Hispanics are currently out of work, but in New Mexico the unemployment rate is below the national average.
After the Pledge of Allegiance and the now traditional, almost religious, invocation of Ronald Reagan — Senator Coleman articulated the core GOP values of limited government, personal empowerment, job security, pro family, low taxes, and a quality education for all children.
One of the first speakers was Republican superstar Governor Bobby Jindal. He captivated the audience with personal and often humorous stories growing up in the United States to Indian parents. His upbringing, categorized by hard work in school and discipline, echoed the background of many attendees who identified with Jindal’s well-delivered anecdotes.
Governor Jindal kicked off the educational panel portion of the conference by reviewing his policies in Louisiana. These include a “value added assessment” program to measure student’s performance at the beginning and end of the year (and reward teachers appropriately); guidelines to reduce red tape; provisions to empower teachers (not just the Board of Education) to make decisions; a pro charter school policy, and letter grades to schools. Many of these policies were resisted or even litigated by teacher unions in his state.
The business panel was moderated by HLN co-founder Doug Holtz-Eakin, also of the American Action Forum. I believe it was New Mexico Secretary of Economic Development Jon Barela who underscored the GOP’s anti-regulation theme by saying that it takes two plus years to build a hamburger stand in California versus six months in Texas.
The vast majority of the HLN speakers, as expected, were firmly against the Affordable Health Care Act (“Obama-care”). Most attendees I spoke with said the main reason was because their premiums, as small business owners, would double. Note to Republicans: health care premiums are increasing anyway.
Others expressed concern about a 3.8% “health care tax” on the sale of real estate beginning in 2012. (Turns out this is more of an urban legend since this tax only applies to real estate profits over $500,000 for married couples filing jointly.) Sadly, none that I spoke with expressed any issue with the problem of pre-existing conditions solved by Obama-care, or concern for those currently too poor to afford health care, except to deride those who are overuse the emergency room (which is exactly what the act is trying to fix). Similar negative views were expressed, in private, for those on unemployment insurance.
One mild revelation was the comment by Rosario Martinez that Hispanics are definitely not a monolithic group. According to New Mexico Secretary of State Dianna Duran,
Ethnicity and race are a very low factor in voting.
She went on to say, “Hispanics are as diverse in thought and action as any other group in America.” One questioner said she has to remind others of this fact quite often. Lesson for Democratic candidates: do not take Latinos for granted on any issues.
But what about immigration? This may be the GOP’s Achilles heel with Hispanics. But how many actually vote on this single issue in response to anti-illegal immigration rhetoric from Republican leaders which range from outright racist (in the case of Colorado’s Tom Tancredo) to pragmatic as Texas Governor Rick Perry?
I asked the immigration panel whether the GOP’s oft stated “pro-education/pro-family” values are at odds with Republican’s resistance to the DREAM Act, which allows the innocent children of illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship if they attend college or join the military — and how they expect this perception of a double standard to be received by Hispanic voters in 2012.
A Republican pollster admitted “this is a huge problem,” while Congressman Raul Labrador admitted that “Hispanics currently do not feel welcome in the party.” Perhaps this is due to Republican’s being perceived as “heartless” on immigration (per Governor Rick Perry’s recent quote).
Labrador, an immigration attorney, favors a guest worker program and more troops at the border – a common Republican response to the illegal immigration problem. I did not hear the usual GOP mantra of “fix the border first,” perhaps implying that he understands that government can walk and chew gum at the same time.
I left the conference feeling genuinely delighted with conservative promises to improve education since I heard nothing about firing teachers to help balance state budgets with this more moderate group. Yet, I was also worried that Hispanics are being pandered to for their votes, while at the national level they are being thrown under the bus by far right politicians who currently control the GOP.