[Sidebar] June 25 - July 2, 1998


Language of Lopez

For local Republicans, secretary of state candidate Ed Lopez is a dream come true, even if they aren't ready to embrace a pro-Hispanic agenda

by Shawn Zeller

[Ed Lopez] Ed Lopez embodies every stereotype of the political neophyte. He is the classic true believer, a wide-eyed 1960s-style optimist. He is convinced, despite Watergate and Iran/Contra and Whitewater and campaign finance and Monica Lewinsky, that government can matter again. Like every other college senior who has marched off to Washington or to the state capitol for his or her first political internship, Lopez believes in the power of government to shape America for the better.

But at 23, Lopez is already moving beyond internships. He has announced his candidacy for Rhode Island secretary of state. And, in perhaps the most egregious example of his optimism, Lopez believes he can win.

This is probably a tad naive, given the popularity of incumbent Democrat James R. Langevin, who has been widely praised for taking on his own party in issuing a report last January that detailed repeated violations of the state's Open Meetings Law by local lawmakers. Even so, Lopez's lack of cynicism, despite all the reasons for cynicism in American politics today, is refreshingly quaint.

By a variety of different measures, Ed Lopez is an atypical politician. Perhaps most interesting, though, he is a Hispanic Republican in an age when that classification is virtually an oxymoron. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, son of a Guatemalan father and a Puerto Rican mother, Lopez is staunchly conservative on social issues, advocating a rollback of abortion rights and affirmative action laws while denying that legislation is needed to protect gay Americans from discrimination. Those are values, he says, that Hispanics -- many of whom are socially conservative Roman Catholics -- share.

That in mind, Lopez has an ambitious plan to transform the Republican Party in Rhode Island into the party of young people and Hispanics. "It's just a matter of making everyone feel like they're part of the process, like they have a voice in where the party is going," Lopez says.

And, in fact, transformation is something Lopez knows well. As a boy, he and his parents, who are both academics, moved repeatedly -- from San Juan to Syracuse back to San Juan to Boulder, Colorado, and finally to Cranston. After high school in Boulder, Lopez studied for a year at the University of Utah, converted from Roman Catholicism to Mormonism,

and spent two years on a proselytizing mission in the Dominican Republic. He rejoined his parents in Cranston after the mission and has just completed his junior year at the University of Rhode Island.

Lopez's life has been one of transformations, and he brings his hard-earned ability to recreate himself in situation after situation and place after place to his work as a professed political junkie. Not surprisingly, his youthful leap into the world of politics has been greeted enthusiastically by the state GOP, which is backing his candidacy.

"We think Ed Lopez is an impressive young man," says state GOP chairwoman Joan Quick. The state party, she says, strongly supports Lopez's efforts to woo Hispanic voters and young people to the Republican banner. And Lopez, if his early success is any indication, may indeed become a player in Rhode Island politics, even if his long-shot bid against Langevin falls short.

The big picture

Lopez knows Hispanics have not always seemed so solidly Democratic. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won nearly 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, and certain Hispanic groups, most notably Florida's Cuban population, have long been GOP loyalists. Lopez also knows, however, that tough Republican rhetoric on immigration, welfare, and bilingual education during the 1996 election season drove many traditionally Republican Hispanics into the Democratic column.

"I think Republicans are new to the majority position in Washington and they've needed a little time to learn the ropes," says Lopez. "Even in 1996, their message was good but it was expressed poorly. It didn't provide for a smooth transition period on a lot of issues."

In the end, Bob Dole won only 6 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1996. And last August, Republican pollster Frank Luntz argued in a now-infamous memo to Republican party leaders in Washington that the Republican majority in Congress was at stake because of "the utter collapse of the Hispanic vote."

Luntz's critique was right-on, according to Washington political analysts. "The rhetoric of Republicans in 1996 was deeply offensive to many Hispanic voters, and given the way population patterns are going, if you become the party that's insensitive to Hispanics, your prospects for the future are not good," says Norman J. Ornstein, a fellow at a conservative Washington think tank.

Indeed, while the black and white population remain stagnant, Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the nation, and in Rhode Island. The US Census Bureau predicts that in the year 2000, Rhode Island will be home to 70,000 Hispanics out of a total population of a million. That's a rise of 2.5 percent from the 1990 census. By 1990, Hispanics had already become the largest minority group in Rhode Island at 4.5 percent of the population. By 2005, Hispanics are expected to become the largest minority group in the nation.

In response, the Republican National Committee is trying desperately to boost the Republican profile with Hispanics. Committee staffers have been traveling the country, making appearances in Hispanic strongholds. Even Newt Gingrich seems to have grown sensitive to Hispanic concerns.

Last year, Gingrich helped roll back sections of the 1996 welfare reform bill that threatened to deport thousands of Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans who had fled political strife in their homelands. And just last month, Gingrich announced that the GOP would work to redress Hispanic land claims in the American Southwest, which date from the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo signed after the Mexican War in 1848. Hispanics in the Southwest have long claimed that they were cheated out of land by white settlers after the war.

The GOP mistakes of 1996, Republican Hispanics insist, were errors of rhetoric, not of substance. "Hispanic values are conservative values," says Luigi Crespo, executive director of the National Republican Hispanic Assembly, referring to Republicans' "pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps" attitude toward entitlements and "family values" issues like abortion. "The mistake in 1996 was not with the message, but with the way it was communicated. Don't tell me `English-only,' tell me `English-first.' Don't say, `Immigration is bad,' say, `Illegal immigration is bad.' These are things Hispanics believe as well."

And is the new effort working? Some prominent conservative Hispanics -- most notably Linda Chavez, who runs the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington -- don't think so. "The GOP, unfortunately, is focusing more on playing ethnic politics than they are on developing policies that truly would help Hispanics," says Chavez.

Lopez, however, sees things differently. "Look at the issues Republicans have stressed this year -- voting to let Puerto Rico decide whether to become a state, pushing for a resolution of the Guadalupe-Hidalgo issue," he says. "These are things Hispanics really care about."

No concerted effort

But despite the swarms of Republican political consultants, pollsters, and PR gurus toiling in Washington, leaders in Lopez's own local party still haven't outlined any sort of pro-active Hispanic agenda. According to several sources familiar with Rhode Island campaigning, the importance of attracting minority support has not yet clicked with state politicians accustomed to a small and inconsequential minority vote. When asked to discuss the party's outreach efforts with Hispanics this election season, party leaders often can point to only one person: Ed Lopez.

Governor Lincoln Almond, to be sure, has had more success than the state party as a whole in including minority concerns in his policy-making. His efforts to expand the state's child-care entitlement for working families and to extend healthcare coverage to every youngster in Rhode Island are both hugely important to Hispanics. Nonetheless, administration spokesmen are strangely reticent about discussing Almond's Hispanic agenda, maybe because they have been burned so many times before.

Last fall, Providence Journal-Bulletin columnist M. Charles Bakst wrote a critical piece on the nearly complete lack of minority representation in top Almond administration positions and the governor's apparent reluctance to do anything about it. When reached last month, a top Almond aide discounted the story's importance, calling Bakst a "hard-core, left-wing liberal" who shouldn't be taken seriously.

"He doesn't represent the views of most Rhode Islanders," the aide said. Still, Almond staffers and appointees remain almost universally white.

Other gaffes have gotten attention as well. Last month, the Phoenix reported that Republican leaders in Rhode Island allegedly had sought to convince William Bundy, the former director of the state Department of Transportation and an African-American, to run against Representative Patrick Kennedy for Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District seat.

Bundy, according to political sources, was told that having a black man run against Kennedy would make the congressman look bad by forcing him to beat up on a minority. But when Bundy asked for $100,000 in campaign money and a pledge of support for a second run in 2000, state party leaders allegedly balked.

Although Bundy will not confirm or deny the report, the story has caused a buzz in state Democratic circles. A source close to Kennedy called the plan to recruit Bundy -- if it truly existed -- "completely half-baked" and virtually "reverse racism."

"This kind of idea saddens me, because it's more about playing the race card than actually developing policies that appeal to minorities," the source says.

State Republican Party leaders deny the incident ever occurred. Still, the relationship between the state party and minorities, as described by chairwoman Quick, seems just as unfocused. "There's never been a concerted effort to attract minority candidates," she admits.

The state GOP has helped Lopez in his efforts to start up a Rhode Island outpost for the National Republican Hispanic Assembly. But even in that instance, Lopez approached the party himself, methodically contacted leading local Republicans, and carefully explained his plan. "The rank and file here are often suspicious of new ideas," says Quick, "but he's been careful. He hasn't confronted the party saying things like, you know, `It's about time we should focus on Hispanics.' "

Almond campaign manager John Holmes Jr. insists that Republican outreach efforts go beyond just Lopez, adding that he recently met with Hispanic Rhode Islanders interested in helping with the Almond campaign. But according to Patricia Martinez, executive director of Central Falls-based Progresso Latino, this is just standard election-year fare.

"All of a sudden at election time, the politicians start to come around to our neighborhoods," Martinez says. "They forget about us pretty quickly after the votes are counted."

In an effort to not let that happen again, area Hispanics will announce the formation of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee (PAC) next month, and will begin distributing funds and endorsements to candidates who support a pro-Hispanic agenda. "We'll be getting the candidates on the record and we'll hold them to their promises," says founding member Dr. Pablo Rodriguez.

Meanwhile, local Democrats scoff at the notion that Republicans have put forth a concerted effort on minority concerns. "Minorities haven't really occurred to their thinking," says one Democratic political consultant who closely follows Rhode Island politics.

In the 1980s, the state Republican Party was also the first to run women candidates. But it was never known for advancing much of an agenda on women's issues. In other words, the consultant says, the Rhode Island GOP seems happy to have visible minority and women party members, but "I can't think of anything consistent they've done for those groups."

What's more, Lopez says, his campaign is not relying on the state party for funding -- funding that skeptics say the party is not willing to invest in a 23-year-old college senior running for a seat he has virtually no chance of winning.

True belief

This is partly why Ed Lopez's devotion to local Republicans is so surprising. "They've given me the red-carpet treatment," he says, apparently unaware -- or accepting -- of his status as their sacrificial lamb.

In an era when politics is dominated by public-relations mumbo-jumbo, poll-driven message development, and special-interest campaign cash, Lopez stands out as someone who means what he says. He isn't trying to corral the center, to "triangulate" a la Bill Clinton, or to push the latest poll-driven fad issues.

For Anthony Britto, an 18-year-old URI student, this genuineness was what convinced him to sign on to work on Lopez's campaign. Britto remembers first meeting Lopez. "He was visiting classrooms at URI, talking up his plan for a Rhode Island branch of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly," he says. "I remember one individual kept confronting him about how a Hispanic could be a Republican. Ed was so calm and persuasive. He handled it masterfully."

Still, the classroom critic had a strong case. Many Hispanics in this country are poor and undereducated. The Republican Party -- the party of welfare reform and English-only education and nativist immigration policy -- does not readily come to mind as the logical ideological home for such voters.

But for many Hispanic conservatives -- Ed Lopez included -- the explanation is simple: religion. Hispanics are almost universally Roman Catholic, and many support the Church's teachings on issues such as abortion and homosexuality.

Lopez's Catholic upbringing lent itself well to the socially conservative beliefs of Mormonism, the faith he adopted at college in 1992. In fact, if every state were like Utah, the home state of Mormonism, Bill Clinton would have finished a distant third in the 1992 election, behind George Bush and Ross Perot. For a little further perspective -- last month a minor scandal shook Salt Lake City when Mormon church elder Marlin Jensen announced that good Mormons could actually vote Democratic.

In addition to providing a conservative philosophical grounding, Mormonism has helped Lopez develop his skills as a politician. Before coming to Rhode Island, Lopez spent two years as a Mormon missionary in the Dominican Republic. And nowadays, when he's not playing politics or studying for a political science exam, Ed Lopez knocks on doors in Rhode Island part-time.

"The experience in the Dominican Republic gave him focus," says campaign manager Jack McDonald, a fellow Mormon. "As a missionary, you're working 15 hours a day. You're living by a strict set of standards and procedures. With a campaign, you're, in effect, doing the same thing. You're getting voters to believe in your issues."

Seeking converts

Despite his lofty dreams of secretary of statehood, Lopez, in reality, is still a kid, spending the summer with his parents and little brother in Cranston, whimsically strolling through the corridors of power. And, in fact, a career in politics is not even a sure bet -- Lopez says he is also considering going to medical school after graduating from college.

In other words, Ed Lopez is not someone who can pick up the phone and meet Almond for lunch or mull over policy concerns with Lieutenant Governor Bernard Jackvony. Lopez has not paid his dues. He is young, ambitious, and optimistic. But he is not wise, respected, or experienced. He is someone the state party wants to encourage but not to involve. He is someone they want to point to as an example of inclusiveness. But he is not someone they can possibly take too seriously.

Indeed, by all accounts, it will take more than charisma and hard work to defeat Langevin in November. In a state where registered Democrats hold a decisive numerical edge, Republican candidates often lose based on their party affiliation alone.

To overcome that disadvantage, Lopez will need to get his message out and make his name recognizable to voters. With a small campaign war chest, cable TV and radio advertisements may be possible, but will definitely be limited. And anything less than a full-bore media assault will probably not be enough to click with voters before November. Even so, Lopez's opponent is taking no chances.

"We're taking the challenge seriously," says Langevin spokesman Peter Kerwin. "Of course, we believe we've earned the right to be reelected. We're taking a wait-and-see attitude. We want to find out who Ed Lopez really is."

| home page | what's new | search | about the phoenix | feedback |
Copyright © 1998 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.