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GOP Initiatives Hamper Efforts To Reach Out To Minority Groups

By Carroll J. Doherty, CQ Staff Writer

Rep. Henry Bonilla knew he would be fighting history in trying to sell Hispanics, African-Americans and other minorities on the Republican Party. He might not have figured that he would also be fighting some of his own Republican colleagues.

Bonilla, whose south Texas district runs along the Mexican border, chairs a minority outreach task force for the National Republican Congressional Committee. His would be a difficult job under any circumstances, since the overwhelming share of the Hispanic and black vote traditionally goes to the Democratic Party.

But Bonilla's mission has been complicated by several legislative proposals currently being advanced by Republicans, initiatives Bonilla believes will reinforce the notion that the party is hostile to Hispanics and other minorities.

Earlier this month, the House debated a Republican-backed plan to establish English as the official language of the United States. In addition, several Republicans are gearing up for a renewed assault on affirmative action programs. "This definitely makes it harder for us," Bonilla said. "These wedge issues have created the false impression in some Hispanic communities that they should stick with the Democrats."

The so-called English-only initiative, proposed as an amendment to a bill granting political self-determination to Puerto Rico (HR856), was significantly scaled back. Bills to eliminate affirmative action, such as the legislation being drafted by Florida Republican Rep. Charles T. Canady, seem unlikely to become law.

But what concerns Bonilla is that all these measures have GOP champions. There is a danger in trying to "ram these bills through," he said. "It says, 'the rest of the country be damned.' That's a very destructive way to think."

Bonilla is keenly aware of how difficult it will be to break the Democrats' stranglehold on the Hispanic vote. In 1992, he became the first Hispanic Republican in Texas ever to win a seat in Congress.

Prominent Roles

Being a minority in the Republican Party can be a mixed blessing. The lone black Republican in Congress, Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, and the three Republican Hispanics -- Bonilla and Floridians Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen -- have all assumed high-profile roles for the GOP.

Watts delivered the Republican response to President Clinton's State of the Union address last year. Diaz-Balart is a key member of the Rules Committee, and Ros-Lehtinen chairs a subcommittee of the International Relations Committee.

But tensions inevitably arise when the subject turns to race. When minority Republicans such as Bonilla and Watts urge the Party to take a "go slow" approach toward ending or scaling back affirmative action, some GOP colleagues question their commitment to conservatism.

At the same time, black and Hispanic Democrats regard their GOP counterparts with considerable skepticism, if not hostility. "We get it from both sides," said Pam Pryor, Watts' press secretary.

Watts has often had strained relations with black Democrats. He never joined the Congressional Black Caucus, becoming the first black member of Congress not to join that group in its history. And he raised the hackles of many prominent African-Americans when, in a newspaper interview last year, he complained about "race-hustling poverty pimps" -- black leaders whose policies would keep blacks dependent on the government.

High Stakes

National Republican leaders have long believed that the party's future fortunes depend on its ability to attract more minority politicians like Bonilla and Watts. Last year, the Republican National Committee created the New Majority Council to broaden the party's appeal to African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans.

But the goal of wooing Hispanics may be paramount. Not only are their numbers growing rapidly, but African-Americans appear unlikely to abandon their traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party. GOP leaders have been encouraged, however, by the fact that black Republicans are mounting challenges to liberal Democratic Reps. Cynthia A. McKinney in Georgia, Corinne Brown in Florida, and other black Democrats in the South.

In a recent memo to GOP leaders, conservative activist Ralph Reed wrote that Hispanics could overtake African-Americans as the largest minority voting bloc by 2005. "The ability of the GOP to sustain a [congressional] majority into the next century hinges on its appeal to Hispanics," said Reed, who is president of Century Strategies, a Duluth, Ga.-based political consulting firm.

But a poll of Hispanic political attitudes recently conducted by the Tarrance Group, a GOP polling firm, concluded: "A majority of Hispanics have come to believe that Republicans would rather have an America that did not include them."

Recent attempts by GOP leaders to reach out to Hispanics have achieved mixed results. For instance, when House Republican leaders promoted legislation providing for a referendum on statehood in Puerto Rico, even some GOP lawmakers accused them of acting from purely political motives. Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B.H. Solomon, R-N.Y., reportedly called the bill "a pointless attempt to pander to the Hispanic vote."

The bill was approved by a one-vote margin, 209-208. But if the effort was intended to demonstrate that Republicans supported statehood for Puerto Rico -- a goal GOP pollsters said is shared by most Hispanics -- it failed. Only 43 of 220 Republicans voted for the legislation.

Bonilla said the formula for appealing to Hispanics and other minorities is simple: Move past divisive disputes over affirmative action and bilingual education and focus on issues that unite Republicans. "Let's talk about sunsetting the tax code, which appeals to whites, blacks, Hispanics, everyone," he said.

The problem is that many of his colleagues believe just as strongly that the GOP should not simply abandon proposals because they might not play well with minorities.

Canady said he resents suggestions that the GOP should move cautiously with his anti-affirmative action bill. "I'm not sure what logic is there -- is the idea we expand our base and then do this?" he asked. "This is an issue of right and wrong."

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
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GOP Initiatives Hamper Efforts To Reach Out To Minority Groups

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