Courting the Latino Vote: How Far Are Local Republicans Willing to Go?

A few months ago, Seattle’s prominent immigrant advocacy organization OneAmerica asked itself a question, executive director Rich Stolz recalls: “How do we begin to engage more Republicans?”

Had it been just a year ago, nothing much might have come of the question. As it has pushed for comprehensive immigration reform, OneAmerica’s usual allies are on the left, whether they be Democratic politicians, labor groups or gay marriage advocates. (OneAmerica endorsed the campaign to legalize gay marriage last fall, and gay marriage supporters in turn promised to support immigrant causes.) Republicans, by and large, have been extremely wary of reform that offers anything approaching amnesty for the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in this country.

Then came the November 2012 election, in which the Latino vote contributed mightily to Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney. Hispanics’ overwhelming rejection of Romney, with his call for “self-deportation,” led the GOP to launch a national bout of soul-searching.

The Republican National Committee is calling for state parties to begin outreach efforts among Latinos and other minorities. Washington’s GOP state chair Kirby Wilbur says he is expecting to hear this month how much money and staff the national organization will provide for such outreach in this state.

Locally, Republicans were shaken up not just by Romney’s loss but by that of onetime GOP golden boy and gubernatorial hopeful Rob McKenna. “A year ago this time, everyone thought that Rob McKenna would win,” says political consultant and former state Republican party chair Chris Vance. “Wow,” Vance says state Republicans thought after the election results came in, “if we couldn’t win with Rob McKenna as a candidate, what will it take?”

Amid conversations throughout the state, Vance says, “the one specific issue people focus on is immigration reform.” Changing the party’s stance on that might be “the one thing we can do to change the image of the party—or at least to give us the chance to compete for Hispanic votes.”

And so, OneAmerica’s question was well-timed. The organization began reaching out to conservatives, including Vance. A little to Stolz’s surprise, he says Vance wrote back: “I’d love to work with you on this.”

In March, OneAmerica launched an initiative called the Washington Compact, which constitutes a set of broad principles in line with immigration reform. Vance has not only agreed to support the compact, he is serving as a spokesperson. Others willing to lend their name to the cause include Dale Foreman and Luke Esser, both also former state GOP chairs, as well as Joseph Castleberry, a conservative evangelical who heads Kirkland’s Northwest University.

The state’s newest immigration reform advocates are not necessarily politically motivated. During a Seattle Weekly interview , Castleberry casts the issues as a matter of “morality” given that Hispanic immigrants come here to feed their families. What’s more, he contends: “We need these people. Yet we pretend that the fault is all on their side. That’s bearing false witness.”

Vance says he has also long believed in immigration reform. “You’ve got 11 million people already here. What are you going to do, round them up and deport them?” And besides, he says, “immigration is key to economic growth.”

In Olympia this session, immigration advocates got a surprising amount of support from House Republicans when the state version of the “Dream Act,” which would allow undocumented immigrants to receive college financial aid, passed with an astonishing 22 Republican votes.

“I would never have guessed that,” says Ricard Sanchez, director of the Latino Educational Achievement Project, a group that lobbied for the bill. He says that at the beginning of the session he had thought that the bill could get support from maybe three or four Republicans.

But while the House GOP support was surprising, what happened in the Senate may show how far Republicans still have to go to win over the Latino vote.

When the bill hit the Senate, Higher Education Chair Barbara Bailey refused to allow her committee to vote on the bill. The Oak Harbor Republican spun her opposition as simply a financial matter; the state does not have enough money for financial aid as it is, never mind should a whole new set of students become eligible, she said.

But there’s likely another reason too. The Senate is under the command of a new so-called “ majority coalition,” comprised of Republicans and two dissident Democrats, all of whom agreed to narrowly focus on a few topics, the main one being the budget. The political range within the coalition is considerable. There are the Democrats and some moderate Republicans. There are also Republicans that minority leader Ed Murray calls “the most conservative I’ve worked with in 18 years.”

As Vance observes, “All session, people have been wondering what issue will cause that fragile coalition to fall apart.” He suspects the coalition veered away from immigration lest it become that issue. Michael Baumgartner, a Republican member of the higher education committee, suggests as much when he says in response to a question about the Dream Act: “We’re trying to concentrate on the things that unite the caucus.”

But that rationale may have little currency with the scores of voters Republicans acknowledge are vital to remaining a viable party. The fate of the Dream Act, which might still be revived in special session, is being closely watched in the Latino community. “For the most part, it’s Republicans who decided to block this,” says Pedro Gomez, director of the Washington Latino Voters Alliance, a group that tries to get young Hispanic involved in politics.

“There will be repercussions,” says Jorge Quiroga, a spokesperson for El Comité, the group that organized Seattle’s immigration rally and march on May Day. Milling about the rally in Judkins Park last week, he muses that Latinos, generally, are more “in tune” with Republicans than Democrats. They share certain values, he says, like “being Christians” and revering the “family unit.”

But he says the immigration issue still looms largest of all. “If they are attacking our brothers and sisters without papers, we will not vote for them, period.”

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