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GOP makes new bid for minority support. Roy Barrera's Texas race hints at shifts in Hispanic vote

In a speech before the Texas Republican convention in Dallas this summer, Vice-President George Bush called special attention to the party's candidate for state attorney general. ``What a magnificent message will go out across this state, and across this country,'' Mr. Bush said, ``when we Republicans elect this outstanding young Texan this fall.'' Bush asked the country to take special note of the GOP candidate for Texas attorney general because Roy Barrera is the first Hispanic to run for statewide office in the Lone Star state on the Republican ticket. As such, the 34-year-old district judge from San Antonio joins other minority candidates across the country as a symbol of the Republican Party's bid to draw minorities into its fold and field them as serious candidates.

Other Hispanic candidates on Republican ballots this year include Bob Martinez, the Republican choice in the Florida governor's race, and Linda Chavez, the party's candidate for the US Senate from Maryland. And William Lucas, a black, won the Republican nomination for governor of Michigan.

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Mr. Barrera, whose family has long ties to the Democratic Party, represents a slow but steady shift of Hispanics and other minorities away from their tradition of single-party loyalty.

``What you're starting to lose is the strong party identifier,'' says Rodolfo de la Garza, director of the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Texas in Austin. ``There may be some of the young, better educated, and upwardly mobile Mexican-Americans who are now more likely to be Republican,'' he says, ``but a more basic shift seems to be from Democrat to independent.''

Any strong shift by Hispanic voters could spell trouble for the Democratic Party in a state like Texas, where there are more than a million registered Hispanic voters, nearly 15 percent of all Texans voting. Mr. Barrera's Democratic opponent, incumbent Attorney General Jim Mattox, has stated flatly, ``Without the continued overwhelming support of the Hispanic community in this state, the Democratic Party can't win.''

Four years ago Mark White garnered 86 percent of the Hispanic vote in his successful bid for the Texas governor's chair, and many political observers say they believe he cannot win reelection in November without an equally high percentage.

But appeals for support along ethnic lines could backfire among increasingly independent voters.

``There are some Democrats who appear to think that with ethnically oriented rhetoric they can prevent the changes,'' says Oscar Moran, the first Republican in recent memory to be elected president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the nation's largest Hispanic organization. ``But with an emerging segment of the Hispanic electorate looking more and more at a candidate's qualifications and position on issues, the ethnic appeal is going to carry less weight.''

Still, there is evidence that name identification influences Hispanic voters. In Florida's Republican primary, for instance, Mr. Martinez, a former mayor of Tampa in central Florida, garnered overwhelming support from south Florida's conservative Cuban population, even though he is the grandson of immigrants from Spain, Cuba's former colonial ruler, and was not the most conservative candidate.

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Citing such idiosyncracies within a very diverse Hispanic population, Mr. de la Garza says it would be ``inappropriate'' to attribute common threads to the Martinez, Chavez, and Barrera candidacies. But Mr. Moran disagrees, saying he considers those candidacies, as well as a growing willingness among Hispanics to vote Republican, ``a response to aggressive recruitment by the Republican Party from the late '70s into this decade.''

Texas Republicans have not been shy about their desire to attract more Hispanic candidates and, through them, a larger chunk of the Hispanic vote. One immediate hope is that Barrera will draw enough of the Hispanic vote to the Republican ticket to topple Governor White.

Some Democrats have labeled this GOP appeal to Hispanics ``exploitation.'' Other political observers, however, see it more as normal political opportunism.

``It's not [a matter of] the Republican Party changing its policies to attract more Hispanics,'' says a Mexican-American business consultant in Austin, who said he had been heavily -- but unsuccessfully -- courted by Republicans in 1978. ``It's really a question of change -- of higher income and higher education levels -- in the Hispanic community, not in the party's philosophy.''

That could explain why Barrera, despite his name, may not receive as strong a vote among Mexican-Americans in south Texas as he would like. The region remains among the poorest in the country, with much of the Hispanic community organized around activist organizations with strong ties to the Roman Catholic Church and the Democratic Party.

``They're into the delivery of services, not ethnic appeal,'' says de la Garza, speaking of such influential groups as COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service) in San Antonio, and Valley Interfaith in the Rio Grande Valley.

Barrera agrees that these organizations have fostered a certain loyalty to the Democratic Party, but he insists that a growing number of Hispanics are seeking independence from their influence.

He says Hispanics who have ``bridged the gap to the professional world couldn't care less about fulfilling the dictates of COPS and Valley Interfaith, because they simply are not in need of their services.''

What such upwardly mobile Hispanics do care about, Barrera says, is that despite decades of Hispanic loyalty to the Democratic Party, it is only now that Texas Democrats are fielding a Hispanic in a statewide race. (State Supreme Court Justice Raul Gonzalez, who was appointed by Governor White in 1984 to fill an unexpired term, is seeking election against a Republican opponent.)

According to Barrera, the Democratic Party for too long ``trotted out'' the names of Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy when it campaigned for Hispanic support. He says that Democratic tradition has meaning for many Hispanics, including such leaders as San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, or Barrera's own sister, a Democratic activist.

But he says that legacy ``has become fuzzy'' for his generation. ``What we have not forgotten,'' he says, ``is that [the Texas Democratic Party] has not facilitated black and Hispanic representation at the state level.''

The result of ``being taken for granted,'' Barrera says, as well as growing diversity within the Hispanic community, will be a ``cutting of the umbilical cord'' to the Democratic Party.

Adds Moran, ``The bottom line is that both parties will now know that you can't take the Hispanic vote for granted.''

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