Latino and black voters reassessing ties to GOP
Clergy and other leaders say promises haven't been kept.
By Peter Wallsten
Times Staff Writer
WASHINGTON — A major effort to draw Latinos and blacks into the Republican Party, a central element of the GOP plan to build a long-lasting majority, is in danger of collapse amid anger over the immigration debate and claims that Republican leaders have not delivered on promises to direct more money to church-based social services.
President Bush, strategist Karl Rove and other top Republicans have wooed Latino and black leaders, many of them evangelical clergy who lead large congregations, in hopes of peeling away the traditional Democratic base. But now some of the leaders who helped Bush win in 2004 are revisiting their loyalty to the Republican Party and, in some cases, abandoning it.
"There is a fissure, and I doubt it will be closed in this election," said the Rev. Luis Cortes Jr., a Republican who founded the annual National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast that has featured Bush every year since 2002. His Philadelphia-based Esperanza USA boasts a national affiliate network of more than 10,000 churches.
The Latino backlash has grown so intense that one prominent, typically pro-Republican organization, the Latino Coalition, has endorsed Democrats in competitive races this year in Tennessee, Nebraska and New Jersey. The coalition is chaired by Hector Barreto, the former administrator of the Small Business Administration under Bush; its president is a former strategist for the Republican National Committee.
The disaffection comes as Republicans face a challenge in building enthusiasm for the upcoming election among white evangelicals and other conservatives, who have been the core of the GOP's political base.
Taken together, the unhappiness among these groups could threaten GOP hopes of minimizing losses in the Nov. 7 congressional election and may undercut the party's goal of keeping the presidency in 2008. The Latino Coalition, for example, has endorsed the presumed Democratic presidential front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), in her reelection bid this year.
Complaints among black pastors who had been courted by the White House — while less pronounced than those of Latino leaders — have been fueled by a tell-all book by former White House aide David Kuo. The new book says that Bush, referring to pastors from one major African American denomination, once griped: "Money. All these guys care about is money. They want money."
A White House spokeswoman said Friday that nobody there recalled hearing such a comment from the president.
The Rev. Eugene Rivers, a Boston Pentecostal minister and one of about two dozen black clergy invited to a series of White House meetings with Bush, said Friday that black leaders had been wooed with assurances that their social service groups would receive money from the president's faith-based initiative. But, Rivers said, the bulk of the money had gone to white organizations, leaving black churches on the sidelines.
Rivers plans to send a letter early this week to the White House demanding to know how much social services money has been directed to black churches under the faith-based initiative, and requesting a "new conversation" with Bush.
"There's a growing frustration and anger in the black religious community nationally as the Kuo book makes the rounds," Rivers said. "Meetings at the White House show you the door, but they don't necessarily open the door."
Bush won an estimated 44% of the Latino vote in 2004. While polling numbers vary, many analysts said that represented about a 9-percentage-point improvement from 2000, suggesting that Latinos might become a substantial pillar upholding a durable Republican majority.
But in recent months, Democratic activists watched with amazement as Republicans pushed into law a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border and tried to make it a felony to migrate illegally or to help undocumented immigrants. The latter provision did not become law, but it especially angered some church leaders, who said it would have criminalized their religious duty to help the least privileged in society.
Despite Bush's lobbying for an immigrant guest-worker program, favored by many Latinos, conservative lawmakers in the House refused to bend, forcing Bush to endorse the fence legislation and dimming his popularity among Latinos.
A survey released this month by the Latino Coalition found Latino registered voters supporting Democrats over Republicans 56% to 19% in congressional elections. "If Republicans nationally get 25% of the Hispanic vote, it would be a miracle," said Robert de Posada, the coalition president.
That disaffection is felt among some of the Latino clergy who were courted by the White House.
The Rev. Danny de Leon of Templo Calvario in Santa Ana, considered the biggest Latino bilingual church in the U.S., said that he was so frustrated with his party's response to immigration that he was likely to stay home rather than vote for Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — and that he might also sit out the 2008 election.
"A lot of people are saying, 'Forget being a Republican. I want to go to the Democratic Party,' " said De Leon. "It's a shame that one issue has divided many of us that have been in the Republican Party for a long time and has brought us to ask the question: Do I or do I not want to belong to this party?"
Pastor Luciano Padilla Jr. of the Bay Ridge Christian Center in Brooklyn said he had backed Republicans because of their views on such issues as gay marriage and abortion. But in the midst of the immigration debate, he said, "We will have to look at where we put our allegiance in the future."
Cortes, of Esperanza USA, says he continues to respect Bush but now has doubts about the GOP. "That group in the Republican Party said, 'We want your parents, your grandparents, we want anyone here without documentation, regardless of why — we want them out,' " he said. "If voting is about personal interest, how are Hispanics to vote? They will vote against those guys."
The White House now faces a symbolic choice on the border-fence legislation: Does Bush rally the GOP base with a large, pre-election signing ceremony, or does he reject such fanfare in hopes of avoiding long-term damage among Latinos?
Republican officials said their internal polls showed the party winning about 32% of the Latino voting bloc this year — similar to the 2002 results.
They said the party would continue its aggressive outreach, focusing on issues such as home ownership, jobs and family values.
"We cannot maintain majority status in America without a growing share of the Latino vote," said Adrian Gray, director of strategy at the Republican National Committee. He said that "when 44% of Latinos supported President Bush in that last election, it opens the door for many of them to vote Republican in the future."
Causing new wrinkles in the White House relationship with evangelicals is the Kuo book, "Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction," in which he describes top White House aides embracing religious conservatives in public while calling them "nuts" behind their backs.
One leading black evangelical who has been a White House guest, Bishop Harry Jackson Jr. of the Hope Christian Church in Maryland, wrote of a similar incident this month.
Jackson railed against senior administration officials who, he said, had insulted clergy at a meeting this year by dismissing their contribution to Bush's reelection in 2004. He also complained about "the GOP's failure" to react speedily to the House page scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley.
Jackson still supports some Republicans, including Michael Steele, an African American candidate for Senate in Maryland. But in an essay on the website townhall.com, Jackson offered a caution for the party: "Evangelicals must ask themselves if we can work in harmony with a group that takes us for granted and compromises on major moral principles."