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A delicate Latino dance in GOP bastions

Republicans are courting Hispanics, but Aurora, Ill., will be an early test of how far they'll go.

If America's Latinos represent the belle at the political ball, Republicans are emerging as their uneasy suitors: Suitors, because everyone recognizes Hispanics' growing political power. Uneasy, because the Latino move into the suburbs threatens traditional GOP bastions.

Redrawing legislative boundaries - a once-a-decade exercise by state legislatures - will provide an early test of how far Republicans will go to woo Latinos. Ultimately, Republicans hope to convert Democratic-leaning Hispanics into conservative suburban voters. But the move may force the GOP to soften stands on such issues as immigration and English-only legislation.

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So far, Hispanic groups say, GOP leaders are making the right noises.

"In the suburbs, there's been quite a good reception by the Republican party, understanding that this really is the future of these communities," says Larry Gonzalez, Washington director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. In a recent analysis, the group found Latinos represented a significant share of the population in more than a quarter of the nation's 435 congressional districts. Many were suburban districts in California and Texas.

A similar transformation is taking place here in suburban Chicago. In Aurora, Ill., a doubling of the Hispanic population has turned this once decaying manufacturing center into a burgeoning multiethnic city. At a single intersection, Transmissions Ramirez competes for attention with the American Pool Hall. The window of A One Stop convenience store boldly announces: "Vendemos Musica Latina" ("We Sell Latin Music").

This influx has made Aurora the state's third-largest city (up from No. 5 in 1990) and one of its fastest-growing. Local Latino leaders, eager to turn population growth into political clout, want to redraw district lines to group Hispanics together.

But there's a hitch. Aurora sits in the middle of Kane County, one of the historically Republican "collar counties" surrounding Chicago. Here, Republicans can't merely call for more Hispanic districts in the inner city and let Latinos battle it out with Democratic incumbents. They have to find a balance between Hispanic interests and worries that they'll create a Democratic-leaning district in their own backyard. "In Chicago, I don't think we ran into one single problem ... with Republicans," says Eduardo Garza, Midwest field director for the US Hispanic Leadership Institute, a Chicago-based civic-education group. But "the minute you start talking about collar counties, now you're talking business."

For their part, Hispanic leaders here in Aurora have joined forces with local blacks to try to get district lines redrawn. "This is not just about Latinos," says Sal Valadez, a member of a multiethnic coalition for redistricting. "It's about a coalition of like-minded people who are interested in empowering people to be participants in a political process."

The last time district lines got drawn, state lawmakers divvied up Aurora among five state congressional districts. By doing so, they diluted the city's concentration of Democrats and handed all five districts to Republicans. With only a third of the population (and a smaller percentage actually registered to vote), Latinos don't have the numbers to create a minority-dominated district. But they're pushing to have the city recognized as a "community of interest" - an entity that deserves to be kept together because of similar socio-economic and political interests. "Redistricting is not an African-American issue," says Roy Brown, pastor of the Progressive Baptist Church and a coalition leader. "This is an Aurora issue."

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State Republican leaders, who face an October deadline for coming up with a map, haven't made a decision on what to do. At a state House redistricting hearing last month, local GOP officials reacted coolly to a map proposed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Aurora's Republican mayor argued the city enjoyed more representation with five state legislators than with one or two.

But state Rep. William O'Connor, another Republican, wants to see more Hispanic districts. "The Republican message of opportunity resonates completely with that community," says the Spanish-speaking legislator, whose district includes nearby Cicero, a onetime stronghold of blue-collar, white Republicans that is now heavily Hispanic. "The worst thing we could do would be to enter into some kind of combative or defensive mode with the Hispanics."

For all their population growth, Hispanic political clout remains more future promise than present reality. Many residents are illegal. Even legal residents hesitate to register, and far fewer vote. That's one reason blacks nationally hold 39 seats in the US House of Representatives while Hispanics control only 21.

This gives Republicans time to craft a message that might tear away the two-thirds or more Hispanics who tend to vote for Democrats. But to do that, they may well have to alter their own agenda.

For example: In the face of a potentially tough fight for reelection next year, US Sen. Gordon Smith (R) of Oregon is pushing to enact a new guest-worker program (which could help millions of undocumented Hispanics gain residency) and a measure to keep teens from dropping out of high school. Here in Illinois, Mr. O'Connor supported family-care legislation that his Hispanic constituents wanted. Political dialogue, he says, can transform both Hispanics and the GOP.

"I don't think Democrats should be taking the Hispanic vote for granted," adds Gregg Durham, press secretary for state House Minority Leader Lee Daniels, a Republican. "Five years from now, people are going to be surprised at what the geopolitical lay of the land will look like."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor