The George W. minority outreach tour

Bush reaches out to Latino and black voters in his latest campaign swing.

By Jake Tapper

Published June 27, 2000 11:00AM (EDT)

Texas Gov. George W. Bush kicked off an unofficial "minority outreach week" Monday with more than just more photo ops. Monday, at the very least, brought a surreal hodgepodge of tangible proposals that legitimately break from the Republican Party's less-than-inclusive past, and presented some odd moments that illustrate how tough it is for a conservative Republican to negotiate racial terrain.

Bush kicked off the day with a speech to the League of Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, which has publicly slammed Bush on several occasions. Last year LULAC president Enrique "Rick" Dovalina was quoted in the Austin American-Statesman saying that members of his organization were "very disappointed with the way [Bush was] parading around with taco politics. He doesn't have the Hispanic vote sewn up just because he's speaking Spanish."

The conservative politics of the second group Bush spoke to on Monday, the Congress on Racial Equality, or CORE, has led critics to question how representative it is of the African-American community. From its beginnings in the 1940s leading the charge on integration, CORE has morphed into something else entirely under the leadership of national chairman Roy Innis.

Innis is a member of the National Rifle Association, testified in favor of the Supreme Court confirmation of Judge Robert Bork and has spoken out in favor of "subway vigilante" Bernhard Goetz. In 1988 he got into two physical tussles on TV -- one with the Rev. Al Sharpton on Morton Downey Jr.'s television show, and another with a young skinhead on "Geraldo." Innis and his son, Fox News Channel talking head/CORE spokesman Niger Innis, have endorsed Alan Keyes for president.

One year ago, Bush was criticized for skipping conventions of not only LULAC, but the National Council of La Raza -- which met in Houston -- and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. La Raza conference attendees wore lapel stickers reading "Where's George?"

This year, Bush chose the LULAC convention to announce his plan to split the Immigration and Naturalization Service, an agency as hated among many Latinos as the Internal Revenue Service. They won't have to accessorize with "Where's George?" stickers this year; the La Raza convention in California next week is the third stop on Bush's unofficial minority-themed swing.

In Bush's quest to put an inclusive face on the Republican Party, he has made moves both courageous and craven. As governor he supported some limited moves to make up for healthcare and food-stamp dollars that the federal government cut off from the children of illegal immigrants.

On a more symbolic basis, during the South Carolina primary -- even as his surrogates and allies played ugly racial politics -- Bush would wax inclusive, exhorting to lily-white conservative audiences that "family values don't end at the Rio Grande River." Quite boldly, and counter-intuitively, he would make a point of telling these crowds that many illegal immigrants cross the border so that they can feed their families.

Evil Dubya, on the other hand, seemed to have a high tolerance for various racial Cro-Magnons. Though he said that he opposed the ban on interracial dating at fundamentalist Bob Jones University, his first stop in his South Carolina primary campaign, he didn't condemn it until after a reporter asked him about it, and only after he had spoken there. For a spell he refused to condemn a South Carolina state senator who -- in the heat of the state controversy about the Confederate flag - called the NAACP "the national association of retarded people."

And yet, long before that, Bush was boldly going where few Republicans had gone before, stepping into several inner-city neighborhoods and even appearing at a charter school in Harlem alongside the Rev. Floyd Flake.

Flake, a leader in the school-choice movement who was raised in Houston, went so far last fall as to call Bush his "homeboy." But as the Washington Post's Terry Neal pointed out in a story earlier this month, after that visit, Flake "never heard from Bush or his campaign again ... Today, Flake's supporters in New York accuse Bush of, essentially, using him as a political prop." Flake eventually endorsed Vice President Al Gore.

Thus it's tough to gauge how much of it is substance and how much is just a naked appeal for votes -- not necessarily for minority voters, but for white swing voters who like the idea of Bush caring about blacks and Latinos.

Black and Latino voters are two of the very few groups that support Gore overwhelmingly. President George Bush only scored 10 percent of the black vote in 1992, and four years later GOP nominee Bob Dole upped that slightly with 12 percent. A recent Washington Post poll has Bush increasing that number slightly, to 16 percent if the election were held today.

Latino voters, too, have voted for Clinton and Gore overwhelmingly, 72 percent to 21 percent in 1996 and 61 percent to 25 percent in 1992.

But in his 1998 gubernatorial reelection effort, exit polls showed that Bush received between 39 percent and 49 percent of the Hispanic vote. A Knight-Ridder poll to be released Tuesday has Gore leading Bush with Hispanic voters, 47 percent to 31 percent. Though these numbers indicate Gore is widening the margin -- he had a 12 point lead over Bush in May, according to a 2000 poll -- Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes compares her boss's 31 percent to Dole's 21 percent from '96. "Clearly we think we're making inroads," she says.

In a tight race, Latinos could indeed make the difference. Thus, this year pandering for both parties has become a bilingual affair.

"Luchar para proteger el Seguro Social y el Medicare," Gore says on a new TV ad. "I'll fight to protect Social Security and Medicare."

Bush's TV ad trots out his salsa-sexy nephew, George P. Bush, son of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and his Mexican-born wife Columba, one of "the little brown ones" of his grandkids that President George Bush once referred to.

At the LULAC conference, the presumptive GOP nominee noted that there were "mucho Tejanos aqui," many Texans here; he said that his feeling that "Texas is a better place for the Hispanic influence," would be "the same attitude I will have in the casa blanca;" he pledged to bring educational opportunity to "todos los ninos," or every child.

Then he announced his plan to separate the Immigration and Naturalization Services into two groups, one focused on law enforcement and borders, and the other on helping expedite immigration procedures. As part of his reform of the INS, Bush said that immediate family members of a legal permanent resident should be allowed to visit the U.S. while waiting for their visas to go through.

"Juntos podemos," Bush concluded, meaning: "together, we can." After Bush's speech, Dovalina was much more soft-spoken, forgoing his "taco politics" comment of a year ago and telling reporters that he was happy that Bush had met with him for 20 minutes before his speech to discuss issues of importance to his organization.

"These candidates never address national Hispanic leaders," Dovalina said. "They go around to [Mexican] restaurants" to seem like they care about Latinos, he said. "What he did today changed that ... Listening is a big part of all that."

While Bush isn't where Dovalino wants him to be on some key issues, including amnesty for illegal immigrants, he did praise Bush for his opposition to English only language programs, as well as California's controversial Proposition 187, which denied social benefits to illegal immigrants and their children.

Bush also likes to tout his education record in Texas to Latino audiences. Spokeswoman Hughes says eighth grade Hispanic students have shown a 34 percent improvement in their Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS, scores from '94 to '98. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, scores have Texas fourth graders with the best reading scores in the nation compared to other states with similar demographics. NAEP scores also have Texas eighth graders garnering the second best score in writing in the nation overall.

Bush's record on healthcare issues and the Hispanic community is far less glowing. According to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, Hispanics account for almost 50 percent of the state's 4.8 million uninsured. Fifty-six percent of his state's uninsured children are Hispanic.

Indeed, the Bush relationship with the Latino community has not been without its tempestuous moments. Even before he was elected governor, Bush, then-general partner of the Texas Rangers, was criticized in 1993 for turning a blind eye to bringing minority contractors into the new stadium in Arlington. As a gubernatorial candidate in 1994, Bush's campaign ran a radio ad that played on Tejano radio stations slamming a popular, if controversial, Latina politician.

The ad criticized then-governor Ann Richards for "the quality of [her] Richards' appointmentscomo [like] Lena Guerrero," the first Latina member of the Texas Railroad Commission, who resigned in 1992 after a report that she'd fudged her educational credentials.

"Lena was a person that was doing great on the job," Rosa Rosales, state director of LULAC told the Dallas Morning News. "He needs to apologize. That is a slap to the Latino community."

There have been moments of love, on the other hand. After radio host Howard Stern mocked the slaying of Tejano superstar Selena in April 1995, Bush said that "Everybody in Texas knows that Tejano music is a part of our culture and a welcome part of our culture. I'm not surprised some New Yorker would misunderstand what it's all about."

Perhaps more importantly, early on in his gubernatorial career, Bush took a different view on the education of the children of illegal immigrants than GOP California Gov. Pete Wilson, who proposed Prop. 187.

"He said 'In Texas we will educate children,'" recalls Hughes. While refusing to decry Wilson - even going so far as to say that Wilson was "a good guy" that he "hope(d) he gets elected," and that Wilson "made decisions as he saw fit in the state of California" - Bush, says Hughes, "made it clear that he wouldn't support such an initiative in Texas."

Another Bush stance popular with Latinos was his support for a program called "English-Plus," conceived during a period that the English only movement was being pushed by conservatives, which would have ended bilingual education.

"'English-Plus' means that we live in a country where the common language is English and we should recognize that, and we need to teach our children to read and write and comprehend in English," says Hughes, "plus we need to respect other cultures, and he also said that he wanted his own children to learn other languages."

Conservatives have decried the Bush program. "This is certainly bilingual in that it consists entirely of doubletalk," John O'Sullivan wrote in the National Review. "Everyone would support bilingual programs that worked, but as the Bush campaign must know, those we actually have are manifest failures."

But of course, when one stakes out the middle ground, that just increases your vulnerability to shots from all sides. This year, Hispanic groups have called for the resignation of Bush's state health commissioner, Dr. Reyn Archer, for what they deem to be stereotyping and ignorance. Archer told the New York Times that teenage Latinos are culturally resistant to the idea that "getting pregnant is a bad thing."

Additionally, Bush has drawn fire from LULAC for opposing census "sampling" methods that, attempt to compensate for the historic undercounting of minorities, by assessing rather than precisely counting these populations.

"Bush should know better because he traditionally has a large following of Hispanics in Texas and you would think he would want more of these people counted," said Dovalina to the Associated Press. "But I guess he just doesn't have faith in the Latino population."

Bush's record on the issues LULAC highlights is spotty in general, but excellente for a Republicano, many Latinos say. One way or the other, his symbols and small gestures, his personal charm and fine-tuned spin machine are competing heavily with traditional Latino Democratic outreach.

Scratch a little deeper, critics say of Bush, and you'll see that the reality doesn't always match the advertisements. One year ago, the San Jose Mercury News noted that at Bush's first Latino-themed event -- at the Plaza de Mexico at the Del Mar Fair in California -- four of the 10 or so Hispanics in attendance were employees of a ranch owned by Bush's California campaign chairman.

But isn't symbolism important in and of itself? Isn't it something that Bush would even try to make inroads with black leaders who want to meet with him, regardless of the marginality of their organization? Twelve years ago, Bush senior was only addressing the black community by trying to get white America to fear it, in the form of the infamous "Willie Horton" ad. Isn't it significant that his son would stand in front of a room of New York City African-Americans, conservative or not, and talk about single mothers?

At CORE's 7th annual "Harmony Awards" dinner Monday night, where people are honored for doing "the right thing -- not the race thing," Bush was greeted very warmly, the crowd rising to its feet to greet him.

But CORE is not LULAC, and the guest list belied the conservative bent of the room. Up on the podium with Bush were Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Dr. Herb London of the Hudson Institute and Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson. On the dais were big spenders like divorce attorney Raoul Felder and mob lawyer Barry Slotnick, entertainment oddities like NRA executive director Wayne LaPierre, offensive talk-show host Bob Grant and Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa.

"Never have we been so close to the corridors of power," Niger Innis said to the crowd, thanking his father "for kicking butt for 30 years" until finally CORE had the ear of "the next president of the United States."

"The black community is not a monolith," Innis said. "Real diversity doesn't just mean recognizing groups, it means recognizing there are divisions within groups." For too long, both Democrats and Republicans took it for granted that the black vote belonged to the Democrats. But that's changing, Innis said. After a few brief remarks, Innis introduced Bush as having the fortitude of Abraham Lincoln, the charm of FDR and the preparedness and training of President Bush.

Sitting on the podium, beginning two seats over from Bush were Shay Banks-Young, Julia Jefferson and Robert Golden, three of the DNA-proven descendants of President Thomas Jefferson and slave Sally Hemmings. To their left sat Lucian Truscott, a descendant of Jefferson and his white wife Martha Wayles.

Taking the stage and diving into his "purpose of prosperity" speech ("make sure the American dream touches every willing heart," "soft bigotry of low expectations," etc.), Bush took a moment to relay a brief conversation he had with Banks-Young and Jefferson.

"These people spend time on college campuses talking about harmony," Bush said. So that evening the two women had asked him, "How long do you think it will be before we have perfect harmony? How long do you think it will be in America before we cast aside what we look like and judge people by who they are?"

Bush said it would take people of "good heart and good conscience and good will ... It will take acts of leadership." Giuliani then presented Bush with a plaque heralding how in Texas Bush "brought people together." Somehow he forgot to mention the campaign Bush ran in South Carolina.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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