Cover Story

Polyglot Politcs

The GOP's Latino outreach: With three-quarters of a million Hispanic Americans reaching voting age every year for the next decade, Republicans not only are beginning to understand the political math but also are learning to speak the political language. Saying "pro-life" in Spanish might be a good idea

Issue: "The GOP's Latino outreach," Sept. 28, 2002

Zozobra is dead. Growling and groaning, he was hoisted high on a pole two nights ago and set on fire. No one was sorry to see him go, of course. The 44-foot-tall puppet is nicknamed "Old Man Gloom" because he represents the mistakes and disappointments of the year. Thousands of New Mexicans party around his funeral pyre each year, kicking off the three-day celebration known as Fiesta.

Forty-eight hours after the blaze, the residents of Santa Fe are still partying. Marching bands and mounted regiments are gathered in the parking lot of the DeVargas Mall, waiting for the 2 p.m. kickoff of the annual Fiesta parade. It's a weird cross-section of Santa Fe, past and present: Church groups, New Age healers, and gay activists line up side-by-side with costumed Spanish conquistadors and Pueblo Indians.

And then, of course, there are the politicians. Office-seekers at every level have turned out on this cloudless September afternoon to shake a few hands and change a few minds. At one end of the mall parking lot, in front of the Wells Fargo bank building, John Sanchez has set up an impromptu barbecue for his supporters. The 39-year-old gubernatorial hopeful works his admiring crowd, offering thanks, hugs, and "Dream Big" T-shirts.

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Democratic leaders in New Mexico dismiss the Sanchez effort as little more than a pipe dream. His opponent, after all, is Bill Richardson, who served eight terms in Congress and was formerly a UN ambassador and secretary of energy. Mr. Richardson seems to be everything Mr. Sanchez is not: well-established, well-connected, and well ahead in the polls.

But the two men do share one characteristic: They're both Hispanic, a fact that has earned intense national scrutiny for their race. Two Hispanic candidates going mano a mano is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics, and Republicans, especially, have a lot riding on the outcome. With Hispanics poised to surpass blacks as the largest ethnic minority in America, the GOP wants desperately to increase its appeal among an up-and-coming voting bloc. In John Sanchez, the party has found an attractive, articulate spokesman who just might have what it takes not only to defeat Bill Richardson but also to serve as a model for future GOP candidates.

As Mr. Sanchez wades into the raucous Fiesta crowds searching for hands to shake, he bears both the hopes of his party and the burden of history. The Fiesta, after all, commemorates the Spanish resettlement of Santa Fe following an Indian uprising that had briefly chased the conquistadors back to Mexico. Now, the heirs of the conquistadors are poised to take power from the state's white political elites. Republicans can only hope that this new revolution is not only ethnic but ideological as well.

In some ways, John Sanchez is an unlikely standard-bearer in this important political battle. He was reared in poverty by a single mother, the youngest of eight children who shared a two-bedroom house with no indoor plumbing. "I literally went from the outhouse to the statehouse," is how he likes to synopsize his life story.

By all rights, he should have been a Democrat. Impoverished families like his, dependent on the largesse of the state government, have long been the backbone of the New Mexico Democratic Party. But the Sanchez family was different: John's great-great-grandfather was a Republican territorial legislator, and his grandfather was the last GOP lawmaker of Hispanic descent to be elected from a northern New Mexico county.

Although the family fortunes had declined precipitously, its political philosophy somehow remained intact. "Nobody owes you anything in this world," Mrs. Sanchez used to tell her children. "Stay in school. Work hard. Dream big."

Forty years later, that's the core message of Mr. Sanchez's gubernatorial campaign. It flies in the face of the New Deal mentality that continues to dominate in many Hispanic neighborhoods throughout the state, but Mr. Sanchez thinks the time is right for realignment. "One definition of insanity," he says, "is doing the same thing over and over again with the same unsuccessful result." After decades near the bottom of the national rankings for education and poverty, he hopes New Mexicans are ready to admit that high taxes, minute regulation, and extensive welfare are nothing short of insane.

When he first burst onto the state's political scene two years ago, critics thought he was the one who was insane. In his first bid for public office, he challenged the speaker of New Mexico's House of Representatives, a 30-year incumbent in a county where Democrats outnumbered Republicans roughly 2 to 1. In one of the biggest upsets in the state's political history, Mr. Sanchez won that race despite-or perhaps because of-his unflinchingly conservative views. "We didn't change our message at all" in winning over longtime Democratic voters, he insists. "Perhaps I was just the right messenger at the time."


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