The face of the Republican Party may be white and the hair graying, but the number of young, dynamic Hispanic leaders on display at the GOP convention is telling. Are they "window dressing," as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa claims?
He was part of a Democratic group that descended on Tampa during the Republican National Convention to make their case for President Obama. "You can't just trot out a brown face or a Spanish surname and think people will embrace them," he said. "This is a party with a platform calling for the self-deportation of 11 million people. Those 11 million have 5 million U.S. citizen-children and 1.5 million 'Dreamers,'" referring to young adults who were brought to the U.S. as children by their undocumented parents.
All true, but here's the thing, the numbers don't lie. Hispanic Republicans outnumber Democrats at governor's mansions 3-zip: Nevada's Brian Sandoval, New Mexico's Susana Martinez and Puerto Rico's Luis Fortuno. In the U.S. Senate, Texas GOP candidate Ted Cruz may be joining Florida's Marco Rubio.
For Democrats, Cuban-American Bob Menendez of New Jersey is the only statewide elected official, but Mexican-Americans constitute the national base of Latinos in the Democratic Party. What gives?
President Obama, who polls show has a 2-1 advantage over Republican Mitt Romney with Hispanic voters, shouldn't take that ratio for granted. Florida and Nevada are battlegrounds that have elected Hispanics statewide. New Mexico, a blue-leaning state, has the gun-packing Mexican-American Martinez, the first woman elected as governor two years ago with the help of the GOP's ultra-conservative tea party.
Republicans are hoping the sour economy and Obama's progressive social agenda that supports gay marriage and abortion rights will help the GOP capture back some of the Latino vote it once had by aggressively courting Catholics, social conservatives and small business owners.
Mel Martinez, Florida's first Hispanic elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, told me Thursday that if the GOP can peel off 5 percentage points from Obama's Hispanic vote in key states like Florida, Romney wins. George W. Bush captured over 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004 with a message of "compassionate conservatism."
As for the GOP's "secure the borders and ship the illegals out" platform, Martinez shrugged: "Obviously it shows a current of discontent in the party, but party platforms have never controlled presidents."
If platforms define presidencies, Martinez noted, then Obama would have already closed the Guantanamo base and pushed immigration reform -- two issues that Obama campaigned on but failed to deliver.
Obama had a Democratic majority in Congress his first two years in office, but immigration reform wasn't on the radar. Why? Easy, the economy. I doubt John McCain, had he been elected president, would have pushed immigration reform, not at the height of the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Truth is, both parties talk a good game on immigration reform, but as Martinez knows, they have their own domestic audiences to please. Martinez, who pushed a path toward U.S. citizenship during Bush's second term, had to contend not only with obstructionists in the GOP but also Democrats carrying water for unions fearing cheap immigrant labor.
One of those Democrats was Obama, who offered what Martinez called a "poison pill" amendment to the immigration reform bill that would have removed temporary workers -- a big issue for big business, particularly agriculture -- from the equation. Nor can Obama deny that there have been more deportations under his watch than under any other president.
As former Gov. Jeb Bush pointed out at a Hispanic Leadership Network event here, "The future of our party is to reach out consistently, to have a tone that is open and hospitable to people who share values The conservative cause would be the governing philosophy as far as the eye could see and that's doable if we just stop acting stupid."
In the tense tripwire between far-sighted vision and knee-jerk action there's former California Gov. Pete Wilson. He stood this week to deliver his state's votes for Romney. Wilson compared the former Massachusetts governor to the GOP's standard bearer, Ronald Reagan.
Except Reagan made a strong case for amnesty for illegal immigrants, as both an economic plus and a compassionate stand. Wilson was booted by Latino voters for pushing through the worst anti-immigrant laws in modern times -- a lesson worth remembering.
Myriam Marquez, editorial page editor for the Miami Herald; email@example.com.