The Magazine

Republicans and Their Amigos

GOP no longer stands for the gringos-only party.

Nov 25, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 11 • By TAMAR JACOBY
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NEW YORK
DOMINICAN BUSINESSMAN Fernando Mateo spent Election Day driving around New York City, getting out the vote for George Pataki. The Dominican community is among the poorest in New York, and it has traditionally been one of the nation's most reliably left-leaning. Still, Mateo is convinced that it is up for grabs politically. He is building his political future among the smallest of small-time entrepreneurs: the Dominicans who own and drive most of the city's non-medallion taxis. And in the week before the election, he visited 150 storefront dispatchers, using their two-way radios to urge both drivers and passengers to go to the polls. All kinetic energy and optimism, he drove along one of the broad boulevards of the South Bronx and pointed to a row of neighborhood businesses--bodegas, money-wiring services, travel agencies, and the like. "Look," he gestured, "these entrepreneurs are natural Republicans. They may not know it yet. But all we have to do is explain it to them."

Mateo is far from the only Republican with this dream. The party has been talking about appealing to Latinos for 20 years now, and some consultants, including Bush pollster Matthew Dowd, have argued that unless the GOP can significantly increase its share of this vote, to a reliable 40 percent, the party will be doomed to oblivion. So the stakes could hardly have been higher this month--and the Republicans passed with flying colors. But that doesn't mean the game is over--or even that everyone in the party understands what has to be done to consolidate a win.

The biggest coups were in Florida and New York, where incumbent Republican governors Jeb Bush and Pataki seem to have met or exceeded Dowd's 40 percent goal. (Bush may have polled as high as 60 percent among Florida Hispanics, according to the Republican National Committee.) Even in Texas, where the Democratic gubernatorial candidate was himself a Latino, more than a third of Hispanics crossed ethnic lines to vote for incumbent Republican Rick Perry. Latino voters are not entirely unmoored--many still approach politics with traditionally Democratic assumptions--and their turnout remains anemic. But this election showed that unlike blacks, they are not automatic Democrats. "If there was any question, the Florida and Texas and New York results put it to rest," says California-based consultant Mike Madrid, who specializes in Hispanic outreach.

Pataki's success was perhaps the most remarkable, given New York Puerto Ricans' reputation as a conventional "minority" (read ultra-liberal) bloc. Encouraged by growing Latino support for Republican mayoral candidates Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, Pataki has been courting this constituency for several years now, on the campaign trail and also as governor. No favor was too large or too small, starting with a $1.8 billion raise for the mostly black and Hispanic health and hospital workers union, SIEU/1199. The governor visited the Puerto Rican island of Vieques in April 2001 and persuaded the White House to phase out Navy bombing exercises there. He made it easier for the children of illegal immigrants to attend state universities; he even instituted stiffer penalties for those who mug or murder livery cab drivers. Latino voters felt the difference acutely: Pataki was one of the first Republicans ever to visit their neighborhoods, much less spend heavily on Spanish-language ads or encourage grass-roots get-out-the-vote groups like Amigos de Pataki.

The effort paid off on Election Day. The failure of the Voter News Service means there are fewer reliable numbers than usual. But at the very least, according to an estimate embraced by the New York Times, the governor garnered 38 percent of the New York City Hispanic vote, up from 15 percent in 1998--and according to other analysts, his statewide total may have been considerably higher. Based on tracking surveys and results in a few key election districts, the campaign believes he pulled in more like 43 to 46 percent. Angel Santana, a mom-and-pop store owner and former policeman who ran the Amigos chapter in the heavily Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, says Latino voters are more pragmatic than partisan. They "don't really care if someone is a Democrat or a Republican," he says. "What matters is the candidate and what he has delivered for the community."