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Will "Sanctuary Cities" Debate Galvanize Latino Voters?

The contentious sanctuary cities legislation debate left a bitter aftertaste for some Texas Latinos, but will it translate into change at the ballot box next year?

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The contentious sanctuary cities legislation debate left a bitter aftertaste for some Latinos, but whether it translates into change at the ballot box next year may depend on how much they remember about one of the state’s most controversial bills.

The legislation, which many critics saw as a watered-down version of Arizona’s more draconian anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, failed to make it to Gov. Rick Perry’s desk despite his designation that it was an emergency item. Latinos’ reactions to the fact that it was even considered, however, was expected. Many Latino opponents of the measure vowed, “We will be back. We will vote. And you will be gone during marathon committee hearings."

But political analysts question whether and the debate will move the Latino community past marches and protests and toward the ballot box instead.

“I think first, folks become offended. And then they start educating themselves,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, the executive director of Voto Latino, a nonpartisan outfit dedicated to increasing Latino voter turnout. “It’s a catalyst. What I’ve seen on the ground is that fourth and fifth generation of Latino Americans may have not realized that they are Latino until someone started questioning their American-ness. And that instigates them.”

Some Latinos and Democrats argue the bill could spark what they dubbed Texas’ Proposition 187 movement. In 1994, Proposition 187 was introduced in California as a ballot initiative to eliminate illegal immigrants' access to health care, education and other services. Many consider it the precursor to Arizona’s controversial bill, which in turn led to similar proposals in other states, including Texas. The bill, though approved by voters, created a backlash that many say led to waning support for the GOP in that state. It is credited with the party’s failure to win a statewide seat for several election cycles after it was introduced. (The legislation subsequently faced several challenges in court and was never implemented.)

“Before that, California was very much a purple state, and it was solidly more on the red side than it was on the blue side,” Kumar said. “[Former Calif. Gov. Pete Wilson] politicized the Latino community in a way that we had never seen. California now is a solidly blue state close to 20 years later, and that is not insignificant.”

Texas is a different matter altogether, however. On paper, at least, the Latino electorate looks like a considerable political force. A study by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials revealed that the country will have an estimated 12.2 million Latino voters in 2012, an increase of about 26 percent from 2008. Texas is home to about 2 million of them. But Texas voters in general are more apathetic than most during an election year. The state ranks 43rd in the percentage of the voting-age population that votes and 45th in voter turnout, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, something Kumar says can’t be overlooked.

“Latino Texans, they are 8 percentage points below the national average in participation," she said. "That’s significant, especially when you see historic highs."

Democratic strategist Harold Cook says it is too soon to tell what the failed immigration legislation will mean next year and whether it will increase voter turnout among Latinos. But there’s a chance, he said, if politicians and candidates are be able to craft the right message.

“What I think is going to be the thing that sticks in people's craws the most, is that when you had civil rights groups of all kinds, you had religious groups of all kinds showing up in the Capitol and saying, ‘Please do not do this to us,’ they were completely ignored,” he said. “It was only after a couple of rich white guys, who aren’t even necessarily Democrats, showed up to oppose it, that suddenly the legislation was dead.”

It was Houston-based homebuilder and major Republican donor Bob Perry and grocery store magnate Charles Butt who intervened late in the special session to help thwart the bill’s final passage.

Cook said that signaled to opinion leaders in Hispanic communities how little Republicans respected their voices.  

“Does this count for some big sea change in Texas politics immediately? I kind of doubt it,” Cook said. “But it sure doesn’t help Republicans with the most important emerging demography in future politics in Texas.”

That message is not lost on Latino Republicans, at least not in Texas. Lauro Garza, the Texas director of Somos Republicans, acknowledged the debate damaged Republicans. As similar efforts across the country have also done, he said Texas’ proposed immigration legislation has eroded the gains made by President George W. Bush to recruit more Latino Republicans.

“The Republican Party had commanded a stronger Latino presence than ever before," he said. "But damaging rhetoric from interlopers has deteriorated both the image of the Republican Party and especially of Latinos who are Republican."

A quick glance at the Somos Republican website reveals that Latino Republicans are not a monolithic voting bloc. The group opposes mass deportations, supports the DREAM Act and openly criticizes Republicans who advocate draconian immigration measures. Proving that there is room for dialogue and compromise, he said, is the fact that the same Texas Republicans that supported the measure during the regular session ended up rejecting it in the final days of the special session.

“I am glad that some Republicans had the cojones to stand up against the current Republican anti-immigration fervor. It’s coming in and some day it will go out,” he said. “But it’s wrong. Somos Republicans is standing up against it.”

Add to the mix the growing movement known as the Tequila Party, founded by Somos Republican president DeeDee Garcia Blase. A former lifelong Republican, Blase said she’s now an independent, a reaction to the extremist stance she says some Hispanic Republicans have taken.

The party, she said, is composed of “frustrated Latinos tired of being treated as a political football.”

“The GOP branding across the U.S. is just bad. Those kinds of [extreme] Republicans are very damaging,” she said of enforcement-only immigration policies. But she also took a swipe at Democrats for playing politics and damaging immigration reform under Bush.

“The Democrats don’t want Republicans passing that kind of reform because it would create a generation of Latino Republicans,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Tea Party is quietly ratcheting up its base in hopes that it will create a wave of change next year that includes the ousting of some Republicans.

The conservative party was as furious at the demise of the sanctuary cities bill as the Democrats were elated. “We are 100 percent focused on the primary. We are going to put out our own scorecard and we are going to hit the road and travel all across the state telling the story about what happened,” said Katrina Pearson, the executive director of and a member of the Texas Tea Party caucus advisory board. Part of that story, she said, is that Republican state Reps. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, and Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, the author of the House “sanctuary cities” bill and the chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, respectively, failed to move the legislation forward.

Editor’s note. This story has been corrected to reflect that Somos Republicans does not support raising the debt ceiling. The group does not plan to take a position on that issue.

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