Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Borderline Bush

By Erica C. Barnett

JUNE 1, 1999:  Few statistics have beenmore fiercely marketed than the 49% share of the Hispanic vote Gov. George W. Bush claims he received in last year's election. But as this legislative session winds down, a major window of opportunity for Bush to demonstrate his gratitude to this politically crucial population is creaking shut -- and some are asking whether the governor has earned Latinos' continued support.

Several issues -- of which the recently torpedoed James Byrd Hate Crimes Act, supported by 81% of Hispanics in a recent Texas Poll, is only the most prominent example -- are prominent atop Latino activists' and legislators' lists of Bush's missed opportunities. They say Bush has demonstrated a notable lack of leadership on issues ranging from colonias to children's health insurance, and time is running out for the governor to prove that the lip service he has given to a long list of Latino issues will be matched by equally ambitious initiatives.

Veteran state Rep. Paul Moreno, a lifelong Democrat from El Paso, says the biggest issue on Bush's agenda this session -- property tax cuts -- was one that barely touched residents of Texas' heavily Hispanic border region, where the average per-capita income in 1995 was only $15,570. "For those of us who live in a poor district, there's no such thing as a tax break," Moreno says. In fact, under Bush's plan, border residents' taxes could actually go up, he says, "because we don't have the property wealth in the district like those rich folks in Dallas and Houston do. The only people his so-called tax breaks are going to help are the rich folk."

On other issues, including those for which minority legislators lobbied heavily, only to see them die from lack of crucial Senate support, Bush has been more or less absent without leave; and his mantra ("I'll decide what to do when it gets to my desk") sounds less convincing with every repetition. "On an issue like CHIP (the Children's Health Insurance Program), which had across-the-board support, he did not take a stand," says Clarissa Martinez, a spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza.

Instead, Martinez says, Bush encouraged legislators to cut off health insurance for children whose families were at 150% of the poverty level, rather than the 200% cap which eventually passed the House. "If it hadn't been for the House members that came to bat to increase the eligibility level for the program, that level would never have been raised." The issue is a crucial one for Latinos, Martinez says, since 56% of the children living in poverty in Texas are Hispanic.

Bordertown Blues

Rep. Paul Moreno
photograph by John Anderson

Most of Texas' poor are clustered along the Mexican border; the most recent comptroller's report, issued in mid-1998, indicates that more than a quarter of Texas' border counties were among the poorest 1% of all U.S. counties, with annual per capita incomes of less than $10,840. The Texas border region, according to the comptroller's report, has a higher unemployment rate (8.0%), a higher poverty rate (29.5%), and a greater percentage of school children in poverty (38%) than any U.S. state. But Bush has done little or nothing to promote border initiatives in the Legislature, where a major border infrastructure bill died in the House Financial Institutions committee this session. The bill, by Brownsville Democrat Rep. Rene Oliveira, would have allowed the state to issue bonds to pay for improvements to the border's crumbling international highways, which have experienced huge traffic increases under NAFTA trade provisions. But Republicans, including Bush, opposed the bill because they considered its cost -- "an amount not to exceed $1 billion" -- a potential drain on the treasury. "We are about to build a huge structure where we will be able to ship goods to Dallas and Houston for them to make money, and our infrastructure on the border is terrible," Moreno says. "It's unfortunate, because I really thought they were serious about that. These folks ... are really not using their heads."

Another issue of concern to border legislators is the problem of colonias -- substandard, unregulated developments that have sprouted up during the past two decades in impoverished counties along the border. While the governor has long given verbal support to the concept of aiding colonias, appointing three successive secretaries of state to investigate the problem, many say his concern has never gone beyond the level of good intentions.

"He appointed Al Gonzales secretary of state and charged him with doing research and investigating colonias, but we have not seen any follow-through in terms of legislation that would make a difference in the daily lives of people who live in colonias in Third World conditions," says Domingo Garcia, a Democratic representative from Dallas. "They need money for water lines and sewers, but it's not in his legislative package. All the governor has done is appoint someone to do a study." (Gonzalez has since moved on to the Supreme Court as a Bush appointee.)

Moreover, says Paul Moreno, Bush has given his appointees few resources to actually improve conditions in colonias. Current Secretary of State Elton Bomer "claims he doesn't even have traveling money" to get to the border from Austin, Moreno says. "Bomer has as much power as the guy that parks your car ... because his job is to take care of elections. He has no legislative power. It's a gimmick to make Republicans look good on the colonia issue." (One key bill, which does not require any state appropriation, would accelerate the distribution of funds to colonias and provide closer state supervision of border developments; the legislation, sponsored by Eddie Lucio in the Senate and Henry Cuellar in the House, is supported by the governor. The Senate passed the bill this week.)

Although Bush lists fixing colonias among his "major initiatives," he does not advocate devoting any additional resources to the developments; in fact, his most ambitious initiatives on the colonias problem to date have been directing the secretary of state to keep an eye on the problem, and recommending that colonia residents try "self-help" to improve their impoverished conditions. The cure for poverty, in Bush's world, isn't money -- it's bootstraps.

Shafted by NAFTA

Legislators say Bush has also been strangely silent on crucial border questions like NAFTA, the free trade agreement that has prompted U.S. companies to move many operations to Mexico.

Norma Chavez, a Democratic state representative and longtime farmworker advocate from El Paso, says she has been "disappointed" this session with Bush's lack of visibility on the problem of workforce development on the border: "El Paso has the greatest number of certified NAFTA-displaced workers in the country -- more than 15,000," many of whom speak little English and have minimal education, Chavez says. "These workers are thrown into worker training programs at a high school level when they're not even proficient in English." But Bush has done nothing, Chavez says, to promote bilingual vocational education programs that would help displaced workers get on their feet.

Rep. Norma Chavez
photograph by John Anderson

Bush's quiescence on such measures seems especially odd in light of his former outspokenness on key issues like immigration and bilingual education -- issues which post-election polls indicated formed much of the foundation for Bush's Latino support. When Pete Wilson was spouting knee-jerk, anti-immigrant rhetoric to win Anglo votes in California, many say Bush showed genuine courage by adopting a different approach. "On the positive side, when Wilson was saying that all the problems in the world were caused by immigrants, [Bush] did not agree with that -- or with English-only on the issue of bilingual education," says Al Kauffman, regional counsel for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "He didn't come out saying, 'All minorities are devils.' ... He hasn't exactly been supportive, but he has at least been neutral."

Domingo Garcia says the explanation for Bush's appeal to Latino voters is simple: "He speaks Spanish, he's knowledgeable on issues of concern to the Latino community, and it's the first time we've seen a Republican be moderate on those issues." And, although Bush's appointments have fallen far short of reflecting the true complexion of Texas' population (the governor has appointed one-third fewer Latinos to state boards and commissions than did his predecessor, Ann Richards), he has been widely lauded for appointing Latinos to several high-profile positions, including two successive secretaries of state and one Supreme Court justice.

But since the 1998 election, Rep. Chavez says, Bush has backed away from many of his more moderate positions. "I was so proud of Bush when he took a leadership role and said we are not going to bash immigrants in Texas. But he has not done that this session," Chavez says. "When there was a history of prejudice against immigrants of Mexican heritage, he provided us with someone who wasn't anti-immigrant, and that's why I'm so disappointed to see that that leadership isn't there now."

And it could get worse. In the national arena, where Bush will have to appeal to members of a party whose center is moving ever rightward, the governor will come under increasing pressure to follow his party's anti-immigration, anti-welfare, isolationist status quo. With Hispanics expected to make up almost 12% of the U.S. population in the upcoming census cycle, it appears that the best move for Bush might be to rise above the GOP's anti-immigration fray by continuing to court Latinos in Texas. But some leaders worry that Bush may be blinded by party politics to the increasingly crucial role of Latino voters in Republican contenders' political fortunes. "As any presidential candidate would, he will face pressures from a variety of different segments of his party. Our hope is that he delivers for Latinos, and that he considers the support that the Latino community gave him ... in the decisions he will be making," says La Raza's Clarissa Martinez.

"The fact is that he has gained the respect he has and given a new name to being Republican in Texas by taking these moderate positions," Martinez says. "I think by not taking a position on some of these issues [now], he will certainly suffer in the eyes of the Latino community."

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