GOP ousts Latino group

State party decertifies Md. Hispanic caucus, which criticized Ehrlich

Replacement organization named

Decision is a victory for Republican chairman

November 16, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland Republicans hope efforts to recruit Hispanics are on track after a vote yesterday to sever ties with a group of outspoken Latino activists and form an alliance with a replacement organization.

At a convention in Annapolis, the state GOP decided to end its relationship with the Maryland Hispanic Republican Caucus, created by the party six months ago as a demonstration of inclusiveness.

In its place, the Hispanic Republicans of Maryland becomes the party's official outreach vehicle for the state's 300,000 to 400,000 Latinos, most of whom are Democrats.

The vote marked a victory for state Republican Chairman John Kane, who worked aggressively to marginalize the first caucus after its head, Jorge Ribas, criticized Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for not hiring Hispanics for well-paying state jobs.

"A successful party must realize that the price of relevancy is discipline," Kane said.

Undaunted, Ribas sat quietly as his group lost its status, and said later that the caucus would not fold despite a lack of recognition. It would strive for the same voter registration and candidate recruitment goals as the replacement group, he said.

"It means nothing," Ribas said of the vote. "Being an auxiliary of the Maryland GOP is symbolic. ... We will continue to insist on the wisdom of appointing Hispanics to Cabinet-level positions. If there are no Hispanics sitting at the table in Governor Ehrlich's administration, Hispanics will not support the administration."

Ribas said his group has 300 members - 120 of whom paid dues - and is working to expand the GOP's Hispanic membership beyond the current estimate of 10,000 voters.

But Kane said he hoped to soon have a better accounting of Hispanic voters and registration goals. The new group, headed by Baltimore sign-maker Luis Borunda, has 200 members, said party executive director Eric M. Sutton.

"We're growing," Borunda said. Hispanics "have 4 percent of the population. ... We will become a viable economic and political force in the state."

Yesterday's vote appeared to end a dispute between Kane and Ribas, marked by inflammatory charges and countercharges, that threatened to damage a party looking to grow in status after Ehrlich's historic gubernatorial win last year.

Kane accused Ribas, a Montgomery County veterinarian and pathologist, of disobeying party guidelines by airing in the news media his dissatisfaction with a lack of Hispanic Cabinet secretaries. In preparation for the decertification vote, Sutton sent a memorandum to central committee chairmen that criticized Ribas.

"The Maryland GOP has become aware of numerous attempts by Mr. Ribas to seek counsel to sue Chairman Kane and the Maryland Republican Party for defamation of character," the memo said, "and he has continued to speak ill of the administration."

Ribas contended that Kane behaved like an autocrat, arriving uninvited to a caucus meeting in August and delivering an ultimatum that Ribas must go.

The squabble highlights the growing importance of the Hispanic vote in Maryland and nationwide.

"Hispanics today are the hottest political item on the agenda, but a lot of people don't know why," said Jose Fuentes Agostini of Annapolis, first national co-chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly. By 2050, Fuentes said, Hispanics will equal Anglos in population, and the party that does a better recruitment job will gain political power.

"The party that does not reach out to Hispanics ... will be a minority party for the better part of a century," he said.

For decades, immigrant Hispanics have reflexively registered as Democrats, a party often viewed as more responsive to union members, minorities and urban residents. But Fuentes and others say that Hispanics hold social views on abortion and religion that are a better fit with the Republican Party.

"Hispanics are by nature, by culture, conservative," Borunda said.

Maryland native Ken Mehlman, manager of the Bush-Cheney re-election effort and a featured speaker at the convention, said Republicans garnered 39 percent of the Latino vote in the 2002 mid-term elections, a proportion he hopes will rise as the national party goes after its goal of registering 3 million additional voters.

"At every single county fair, and every single naturalization ceremony, there should be a signup," Mehlman said.

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, said Hispanics should be welcomed into the party for more than their votes. Latinos, he said, are part of "that beautiful quilt of cultures and colors that makes us the most magnificent country of the face of the earth."

Maryland Hispanics can put the rift behind them, said Borunda, who also ran Hispanics for Ehrlich during the election. He said he does not share Ribas' concerns that Ehrlich has not hired high-level Hispanics. Prominent Latinos have been interviewed for jobs but have not taken them, he said.

"There are people who can't afford pay cuts," he said. "We will see Hispanics represented in the administration."

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