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Why Politicians Want to Woo Latinos

As 1996 elections approach, Republicans are eyeing the fast-growing pool of Latino voters in the US; but Latino ties to the Democratic Party remain strong

NINE of his brothers voted Democrat in 1992, but not David Medrano. The Austin upholsterer discarded 80 years of family tradition and backed President George Bush.

Republicans claim that such defections are a trend among Hispanic Americans. But before counting Mr. Medrano among the GOP faithful, they should know that he expects to vote for President Clinton next time.

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Traditionally 65 percent to 75 percent of Latinos have backed Democratic candidates, but there's evidence that the increasing prosperity of some Hispanics is leading them to the Republican camp. Latinos are not a monolithic voting bloc. ''Would you think of white voters as a bloc? No,'' snorts Luis Plascencia, assistant director of the Tomas Rivera Center which researches Hispanic issues at the University of Texas.

But politicians are determined to figure out how to appeal as widely as possible to Hispanics, a segment of the United States population that is growing seven times faster than any other. Hispanics are also expected to vote in increasing numbers. The Southwest Voter Survey says 1.5 million Latinos in California will vote in the 1996 election, a 50 percent increase over their turnout in 1992. Already they tip races. Hispanics gave Dianne Feinstein (D) of California the necessary margin of muscle to cling to her US Senate seat last fall.

''Those votes are key. You need them,'' says Jason Poblete, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee who previously filled the now-vacant post as director of Hispanic affairs. Reaching those voters is complicated by a diversity acknowledged by all sides.

Cuban-Americans in Florida have long regarded Republicans as more reliably anticommunist. Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans have been stably married to the Democrats. But differences of geographic region, economic circumstance, age, and foreign vs. US nativity twist the kaleidoscope.

Last year, Leonel Castillo surveyed Hispanic voting patterns in Harris County, which encompasses Houston. ''We found an almost exact relation between income and party affiliation,'' says Mr. Castillo, who served as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Carter.

Once their earnings reach $20,000, Latinos vote GOP. That finding led some in the party to joke that ''poverty will keep us Democrats,'' says Castillo.

It's no joke to Antonio Garza, the top Hispanic aide to Republican Gov. George W. Bush. ''More and more Hispanics are reaching that threshold,'' he says. And once they cross it, they are more likely to vote, too.

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Medrano, the upholsterer, certainly follows pocketbook issues. He credits Mr. Clinton for the current prosperity of the shop he operates next to his home. For the first time in 12 years he is able to keep up with his bills. One of his five sons finally bought a house, after trying since 1988.

At the latest weekly meeting on family finances, however, two of Medrano's four daughters brought bad news. A cafeteria just demoted them from cashiers to table-waiting positions that pay $2 an hour less. The daughters say illegal immigrants from Mexico will get their old jobs, but at a lower wage.

That raises the topic of Hispanic attitudes on immigration, which has varied interpretations: Should any, all, or only illegal immigrants be excluded or denied benefits?

In 1992, the most authoritative survey ever of Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, and Cuban-Americans found a majority of each group agreeing that there are ''too many immigrants.'' But Bob Brichetto, who is writing ''The Almanac of Latino Politics,'' says the survey was flawed by ''loaded questions.'' Hispanic voters overwhelmingly rejected California's Proposition 187. That measure, backed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, will deny most services to illegal immigrants if the courts uphold it.

Texas Republicans recoiled from contemplating anything similar. Yet Latinos in border towns resent the burden of services for illegals as much as the Anglo Californians who passed Prop.187, says Henry Bonilla, the first Republican Hispanic to represent south Texas. ''They're for cracking down on illegal immigration.''

Tough Republican talk on immigration is seen as a windfall for Democrats by Alphonso Gimenez, a Democratic spokesman.

''We worried before the '94 election about losing Mexican-American voters [because of rising income], but not since the [Republicans'] Contract with America,'' he says. Now those voters worry that a brother outside the US might not be allowed to immigrate, or that a parent who was never naturalized might be denied benefits.

When it comes to encouraging Latinos to naturalize, a requisite for benefits and voting rights, ''I didn't have much success till Pete Wilson came along [pushing Proposition 187],'' laughs Castillo. ''He has incredibly boosted naturalization around the country.''

Castillo says Democrats have also done their share of alienating Hispanics. The Democratic-led Federation for American Immigration Reform, Castillo says, believes ''immigrants should practice more birth control and stay home.''

Mr. Garza, the aide to Governor Bush, says the implicit message of Democrats to Hispanics has been ''we will give you security. [Hispanics] realize that is a bankrupt message, literally and philosophically.''

But sometimes party loyalty dies hard. Texas state Rep. Pete Nieto was elected as a Democrat but felt snubbed by Democratic Gov. Ann Richards on his constituents' burning issues. So he switched to the GOP. At the next election last fall, his heavily Hispanic district chose to replace him - with an Anglo Democrat.

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