San Antonio Express-News

Monday, June 29, 1998

Gingrich Courts Hispanics, Rips English-Only Drive
By JOHN GUTIERREZ-MIER, Express-News Staff Writer

Previewing themes he'll use in his keynote speech to national LULAC leaders next week, House Speaker Newt Gingrich praised the "tremendous work ethic and strong family values" of the nation's Hispanics, acknowledged their growing political clout and said he's opposed to English-only legislation.

Republicans "want to give every American of every background a truly equal opportunity to happiness," Gingrich said in a phone interview last week.

"We also believe that by focusing on lower taxes and better education, by working to create greater opportunities for small businesses and for people who are working to have more take-home pay, that we can really increase the income level of every American," he said.

Gingrich is slated to speak at the League of United Latin American Citizens conference Wednesday in Dallas. Hispanic leaders and political observers say the speech is aimed at shoring up the party's battered image among Hispanic voters.

But Gingrich said Hispanics have supported Republican candidates, and their vote is becoming increasingly important.

"In New Jersey, Gov. Christie Whitman would not have been re- elected had she not carried the Hispanic vote. In Los Angeles, the mayor (Richard Riordan) received about 70-75 percent of the Latino vote. I think that it is very likely (Texas Gov.) George W. Bush is going to do remarkably well (among Hispanics)."

Gingrich, who two years ago pushed through stricter English proficiency requirements for immigrants who cite their job skills to gain entry to the United States, said he opposes English-only legislation and believes all students should be fluent in two languages.

"I do think every American should be able to read and write in English. It's important for their economic opportunities and their chance to pursue jobs and pursue happiness. But I don't think it should be exclusive or against other cultural backgrounds.

"We've got to find an inclusive way to honor (other groups') heritage, and try to build the maximum out of their second language," he said.

Gingrich praised Tony Trujillo, superintendent of the Ysleta School District in El Paso, for his approach to bilingual education.

"He has taken a position that every student should graduate totally bilingual in English and some foreign language. The result has been a commitment to a sort of English- plus."

Gingrich noted Republicans will bring forward the issue of Puerto Rican statehood, "something the Democrats could have done for many years but never did. I think it's pretty hard to argue that we are being exclusive."

Belen Robles, national LULAC president, said Gingrich was a logical choice to deliver the keynote address.

'We're are fast approaching the new millenium, and as Latinos, we still have issues surrounding education, immigration and inclusiveness," Robles said.

Lydia Camarillo, executive director of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project in San Antonio, said it's not surprising Republicans are seeking Hispanic voters who traditionally have voted Democrat in past presidential elections.

"It's important to note that California Republican Gov. Pete Wilson lost much of the Hispanic vote when he supported anti-immigrant legislation and the dismantling of bilingual education," Camarillo said. "In the last presidential election, 82 percent of the Latino vote in Texas went to Bill Clinton. Texas has been traditionally Republican. I understand that this year, the GOP is trying to increase Hispanic voting percentages by 30 percent in Texas and California."

Jorge Ramirez, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said he was shocked but not surprised after hearing of Gingrich's invitation to speak at the LULAC conference.

"It's no secret that the Republican Party has not done well with Hispanic voters in Texas, California and other states," he said. "If they expect to win any races in key states, then they're going to have to start wooing Hispanic voters."

Ramirez said Democrats aren't taking Hispanic voters for granted.

"I think anytime anyone tries to make inroads with our voters, that's a threat and we're not taking anything for granted," Ramirez said.

Robert Black, spokesman for the Republican Party of Texas, said Republicans are courting Hispanic voters for several reasons.

"The parity in Texas among candidates is growing," he said. "You're seeing Republican Hispanic candidates in the Rio Grande Valley and in El Paso, and that's something you wouldn't see before.

"In 1996, that was the first year we had Republican Party candidates in all 254 counties of Texas. That's an accomplishment."