Cover Story

True colors

Is the Republican Party a whites-only political club? In some cases, party leaders' efforts to recruit minority candidates are hampered by anti-immigrant rhetoric that plays well with some constituencies. But if presenting a more racially, ethnically diverse slate becomes the overriding value, will the issues that matter most be watered down?

Issue: "America votes 1998," Oct. 31, 1998

in Los Angeles and Miami - Even before the crowd arrives, it's obvious that this won't be your typical political fundraiser. The buffet provides the first clue. There's no cordon bleu, no roast beef in sight. Instead, the silver buffet trays hold unidentifiable balls, little wrapped-up things, and strands of who-knows-what. It would all be enough to make your average politician wish for the good old days of the rubber-chicken circuit. But Matt Fong is not your average politician. He's the balding, mild-mannered state treasurer who believes he can upset Barbara Boxer to become the first Chinese-American to represent California in the U.S. Senate. The GOP has a lot riding on this race, and not just because Ms. Boxer is widely regarded as the most liberal member of the Senate Democratic clique. Rather, Mr. Fong has become the unlikely poster boy for the Republican Party of the next millennium-a party that's trying desperately to shed its image as the enclave of rich, white males. With Caucasians in California slipping quickly into minority status, Republicans are scrambling to win the loyalties of the ascending plurality. That's why this section of Los Angeles known as Koreatown is getting so much attention from political hopefuls of all stripes. Earlier today, GOP gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren campaigned in an upscale shopping mall just blocks from the present fundraiser. Shoppers there, by all accounts, were less than awed by the VIP white guy in their midst. Tonight is different. Mr. Fong is a favorite son, the Asian-American kid who made good. Strolling among the bespoke-suited businessmen and their designer-clad wives, the candidate is something of a celebrity. Everyone inquires after his mother, March Fong Eu, who served for 20 years as the California's Democratic secretary of state. They congratulate him on his come-from-behind victory over millionaire businessman Darrell Issa. They hang on his every word and laugh a little too loudly at his jokes. (The consensus opinion among many journalists is that Mr. Fong is not a particularly natural or humorous speaker.) After the Clinton fundraising mess-in which people with names like Chung and Trie were accused of trying to buy access to the all-too-willing Democrats-the crowd here wants desperately to see the Asian-American kid make good again. "I think it's important for all children of color, whether they're Asian or black or Hispanic, to see one of their own making good in the political system," says Erin Pak, whose husband is hosting the event. There's not another Asian American "in the pipeline for another 20 years," she adds. Asians here are traditionally considered a Democratic voting bloc, but not this time. "I'm more of a Democrat," says a young corporate attorney. "But I like what he stands for. This is actually the second fundraiser for me." Even Ms. Pak says she considers herself "a true Democrat." She and her husband "have not always supported the same candidates in the past, but this time we're in harmony," she says. "We believe in eliminating the capital gains tax, we believe in vouchers for schools.... I believe from the bottom of my heart that he is the right person to represent California and take us to the next level. I'm ready for improvement. I'm ready for changes." And though she says Mr. Fong's issues matter more than his ethnicity, she admits that her siblings-all of them registered Democrats-also are working to elect an Asian-American Republican to the Senate. In a close race, which everyone acknowledges this one will be, such defectors can make the difference. Asian-Americans make up about 5 percent of the electorate in California-enough to swing a tight contest if they vote as a bloc. Small wonder that the state party hierarchy was elated at Mr. Fong's unexpected primary win: By virtue of his ethnicity, he automatically shaves several percentage points off the Democrats' traditional electoral base. If Mr. Fong wins, Republicans can be expected to redouble their efforts to recruit more minority candidates in future elections. Such efforts don't always sit well with local voters, however. In Georgia, national Republicans thought they had the perfect candidate in Dylan Glenn, a photogenic young black man with formidable fundraising prowess and endorsements from such national luminaries as Newt Gingrich and Colin Powell. But the candidate who looked so good on paper turned out to be a paper tiger. Georgia voters resented having the handpicked favorite of the national party shoved down their throats. They accused the 29-year-old Mr. Glenn of leaving his Washington consulting job and moving to Georgia specifically to find himself a congressional seat. In the end, voters ignored Mr. Glenn's 4-1 fundraising advantage and his political connections, nominating instead 35-year-old businessman Joe McCormick. Voters may have taught the national GOP not to meddle in local affairs, but they probably also assured that the seat remains in the Democrats' hands. Without a black nominee, many analysts say, Republicans have little hope of an upset in this district where nearly 40 percent of the voters are black. Another congressional race in nearby Jacksonville, Fla., provides a perfect contrast. There, Republicans recruited Bill Randall, a former NAACP official, to run against incumbent Rep. Corrine Brown, who like Mr. Randall is black. Though Ms. Brown crushed opponents in both 1996 and 1994-taking 61 and 58 percent of the vote, respectively-she faces a much tougher challenge this year. A mid-September poll found her in a statistical dead heat, despite the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 in the district. Like Georgia's second district, Jacksonville's black population is about 40 percent, but Republicans hope that by nominating a black candidate, they can deny the Democrats a solid ethnic voting bloc. Such voting blocs have been problematic for the GOP since at least the 1960s. Blacks in the South and the big cities have been consistent Democratic voters, as have Asian-Americans in California and Hispanic-Americans across the Southwest. Indeed, the only reliably Republican, non-white ethnic group has been south Florida's Cuban-American community. Exiled from their homeland by an oppressive communist regime, Cuban-Americans in Miami vote in huge numbers for whichever party is more fervently anti-Castro-and that, of course, means the GOP. On a mid-October morning, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) has left Washington's budgetary battleground for one day to return home and rally the troops. At the Radio Mambi studios on Miami's southwest side, decorations on the walls suggest that Mr. Diaz-Balart will be on friendly ground: pictures of the pope, posters promoting anti-Castro rallies, even the occasional tabloid story of President Clinton's sexual shenanigans. When he enters the studio, he receives a hero's welcome. Mr. Diaz-Balart is near-royalty in the exile community. His aunt was Fidel Castro's first wife, a marriage that ended bitterly in 1954. His father was a boyhood friend of Castro but later became a member of the Batista regime, which Mr. Castro overthrew in 1959. When Havana finally fell to the Communists, the Diaz-Balart family escaped the island on the same plane carrying the deposed dictator. The future congressman was just four years old. In the studio, even a gringo who cannot follow excited, rapid-fire Spanish can figure out what political issues motivate Miami's Cuban-American population to vote Republican. During a half-hour broadcast, some words that sound similar in Spanish and English come up again and again: democracy, communism, liberation, embargo. For the soft-on-communism Democratic Party, such a discussion can't be good news in a congressional district with a large Cuban majority. Indeed, Mr. Diaz-Balart faces the merest token opposition in his fourth election, while his Republican colleague in a neighboring district, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, is running unopposed for a sixth term. Yet outside of Miami's Cuban-American community, the GOP faces grim prospects among Hispanic ethnic groups. A series of political missteps has convinced many Hispanics that they are unwelcome in the Republican Party. Many were angered by a 14-month House investigation of Loretta Sanchez, who upset long-time incumbent Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.) in 1996. Calling himself "the congressman in exile," Mr. Dornan insisted the election had been stolen from him through hundreds of improper ballots cast by non-citizens, mostly Latino. That charge angered Hispanics, who viewed the Sanchez victory as a proud accomplishment for southern California's large Mexican-American community. Last month, Mr. Dornan again caused an uproar by suggesting that "election observers" ought to be stationed at polling places in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods to prevent voter fraud this time around. To Democrats, that idea smacked of the 1988 poll guard scandal, when the GOP hired uniformed security guards to patrol Hispanic districts with signs in English and Spanish reading, "Non-citizens can't vote." Civil-rights groups filed suit, charging voter intimidation; the party eventually settled for $400,000. With Hispanics increasing rapidly in both population and political activism, Mr. Dornan-and Republicans in general-are realizing that Latino voters cannot be ignored. Indeed, the former congressman has taken to calling himself "the only true Latino" in the race, suggesting that his Catholic background and his orthodox positions on abortion and family values make him more representative of the socially conservative Mexican-American community. Mr. Diaz-Balart agrees that Latino social mores are more in line with Republican policies than with the Democrats'. But he says the pro-life, pro-family message tends to get lost when the GOP appeals to nativist fears. "The GOP should be doing well" among all Hispanic groups, he thinks. "But they have created so much static with the welfare law, including cutting off legal residents from welfare payments and being perceived as extremists on immigration. So the natural issues with which there would be affinity haven't been able to get through the static." Still, he believes Republicans are slowly learning their lesson. Dan Lungren's uphill battle in the California governor's race is showing party leaders that the Hispanic vote cannot be ignored, he says. If Latino voters turn out in large numbers to defeat Mr. Lungren, much of the blame will be laid at the feet of outgoing Gov. Pete Wilson, who won reelection in 1994 by pushing a bill that cut off even legal immigrants from welfare and medical benefits. "Pete Wilson's victory in 1994 is looking like a Pyrrhic victory that will really cost us in the long run," Mr. Diaz-Balart predicts. A loss in this year's governor's race will translate to renewed emphasis on the GOP's "core message of lower taxes, support for small business, pro-family, and pro-life," he says. "As long as we don't create static for ourselves, that message will get through. I'm hoping we can remain on those issues." For many in the GOP's conservative wing, the problem is that those very issues may get watered down in an attempt to attract more minority voters. Though Matt Fong, for instance, is infinitely more conservative than Barbara Boxer, he tried hard to avoid the social issues that his white primary opponent, Darrell Issa, wanted to emphasize. When asked about abortion, Mr. Fong will take the relatively safe position that he wants to outlaw the partial-birth procedure. Pushed beyond that narrow issue, however, he retreats to an ambiguously pro-life stance, saying only that as an adopted child himself, he is glad his birth mother chose life. Likewise, in Georgia's conservative second district, Dylan Glenn lost his primary in part because Republican voters considered him too moderate. Conservative Republicans, therefore, face a catch-22: In states with ethnically diverse populations, minority candidates may represent the only hope for winning elections. But such candidates are often politically moderate-or, at best, untried. With few minority members to choose from, the GOP's nominees tend to be political novices or minor office holders with no history. As state treasurer, for instance, Mr. Fong has no voting record at all on social issues. He may prove to be a reliable pro-life vote, but no one can be sure-and he's not saying anything to clear up the issue. Candidates like Mr. Fong and Mr. Diaz-Balart may well represent the ethnically mixed future of the Republican Party. The question is, will the GOP gain minority support by putting forward more candidates of all colors who enunciate a pro-life, pro-family vision, or will it desperately promote those who merely hold to a different shade of liberalism?

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