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Consumer Reports

Lawmakers enroll in Spanish classes to reach Hispanic voters | (KRT) Politicians of all stripes are jousting to capture the support of Hispanic voters, who are becoming ever more crucial to both parties' future.

Lawmakers are even willing to do a little extra homework if it can help them make their case.

Classes in conversational Spanish are being conducted on Capitol Hill for interested lawmakers and aides. Of course, in a town as intensively competitive as Washington, the Republicans and Democrats meet separately.

Mornings otherwise devoted to huddles with constituents, lobbyists or staffers now are spent in the classroom, where the students are starting at the beginning.

In a Republican class last week, the students learned colors, geography and the verb "to be."

The 10-week course, organized by Rep. Gerald Weller, R-Ill., has about 50 aides and 20 lawmakers. The two-hour sessions, which began this month, provide enough fluency to allow lawmakers to speak Spanish with community groups, constituents and the Spanish-language media.

It's not the first time Republicans have tried this. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, organized similar classes a few years ago, as did Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill. But the current program is by far the largest linguistic undertaking yet.

"It's our responsibility as Republicans to communicate our message better to Hispanic communities," Weller said. "In the past, we have not been as aggressive as we should have in conveying that Republican values are Hispanic values in that we both value good jobs, low taxes and good health care."

While some Hispanic leaders welcome the effort, they say it will take more than a few words of Spanish to win over Latino voters. The real test, they say, is which party can best deliver on issues important to Hispanics, who account for about 8 percent of registered U.S. voters and a far larger slice in states such as Texas and Florida.

About half a million Latinos become eligible to vote every year, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates, making the young, rapidly growing population a prized demographic for both parties.

The Democrats are a little further along in their study. They've already completed their first-level lessons in a program begun three years ago by Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, and now are watching Spanish TV programs.

"I remember going to a senior citizen center at home and having them really appreciate that I can say a few words and phrases in Spanish," said Green, whose district is 63 percent Hispanic. "It's not full fluency but it is a sign of respect."

Though Hispanics traditionally have voted Democratic, Republicans have made some inroads and believe their message will resonate with a group that is traditionally socially conservative.

"With one-third of Hispanics voting Republican, they are the jump ball in American politics," said Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio.

The test, Hispanic leaders say, is whether Republicans will deliver Latino-friendly policies.

And so far, "Their report card on the issues is just not that good," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a leading Hispanic advocacy group.

"It is one thing to take a Spanish language class, it is quite another to get out there in the community and hold a town hall meeting in Spanish or talk to the community about real issues," she said. "We are more interested in what people are saying to our communities than what language they are saying it in."

She faulted recent Bush administration policies, particularly the recent tax cut that doesn't extend to millions of low-income families, the post 9-11 crackdown on illegal immigrants and unmet health care needs.

The recently enacted tax cut is an "unmitigated disaster for Latinos," Munoz said.

Republicans, however, said that their policies are benefiting Hispanics.

"More than 3 million low-income families will not have to pay federal income taxes thanks to the tax measures passed by the Republican-controlled Congress," Weller said.

The Spanish classes "will help us to get the message out there that Republicans are fighting for the ever-growing Hispanic communities," he said.

The chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Democratic Rep. Ciro Rodriguez of San Antonio, welcomed the Republican effort.

"It is great that they are taking language classes, and it's about time," he said. "But they also need to understand our concerns and issues and how their policies affect our communities with issues like education, immigration and health care."

While Democrats say their policies best fit the Hispanic community's needs, Republicans argue the GOP platform most closely reflects traditionally conservative Latino values.

Both arguments may be correct, policy experts say.

"Hispanics are an interesting group because they straddle traditional social and economic lines," said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center. "Latinos seem more conservative on issues like abortion and homosexuality and more liberal on issues like the size and scope of the federal government."

President Bush's success with Latino voters, coupled with inroads made by New York Gov. George Pataki and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have encouraged other Republicans to challenge Democrats for the Hispanic vote, Suro said.

"Our job is to reach out to them," said Weller, the Illinois congressman. "We just have to keep doing our homework."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services