GOP Outreach to Latinos: Not Off to a Good Start

Republicans say they want to win over Latinos, but three GOP senators aren’t helping. By Michael Tomasky.

Golly but I’m happy to see that the GOP Hispanic outreach is off to such a blazing start. I mean, it was literally the same day Reince Priebus stood up at the National Press Club to warn his party that they have to refrain from saying and doing addle-brained things that alienate Latinos that certain members of the party stepped forward and said and did addle-brained things that alienate Latinos. I refer to events surrounding Thomas Perez, which demonstrate amply that even if they endorse immigration reform, Republicans have many bridges to cross before they even begin to understand what they look like through black and brown people’s eyes.

It was Monday, the same day as the release of Priebus’s autopsy report, that Barack Obama officially nominated Perez to be the next Labor secretary. Immediately, Republican senators (all of them white, natch) jumped all over the guy. This in and of itself is about as dog-bites-man as it gets. Republican senators’ (successful) efforts to block and hold Obama nominees of all kinds have become so routine that Obama has in several cases not even tried to nominate people.

But what made this episode worth reflecting on was, of course, the context (of Priebus’s announcement), and what the senators said. Jeff Sessions of Alabama called Perez “the wrong man for the job” citing work Perez had done in Maryland in helping undocumented immigrants as part of a group called Casa de Maryland.

The group, known as “the illegals’ ACORN” in some right-wing quarters, gets about $5 million a year from taxpayers. The state passed its own DREAM Act early last year. Conservatives didn’t like it of course, and they mounted a petition drive to put the act to referendum on the November ballot. In-state winger groups accused Casa of intimidation and thuggery. The voters of Maryland responded to these dark allegations by voting, by nearly 60-40, to support the state DREAM Act.

Next up, Charles Grassley of Iowa thundered that he was gravely concerned about Perez’s role, or “role,” in the Supreme Court case Magner v. Gallagher, a fair-housing case out of St. Paul. The Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968—and vigorously enforced, incidentally, by a HUD secretary named George Romney. In the mid-2000s, some landlords sued St. Paul for what they alleged was unfair enforcement of the city’s housing code. To make a long and complicated story really short, the case worked its way to the Supreme Court, which was going to decide on whether “disparate impact” claims are permitted under the Fair Housing Act (“disparate impact” means “worse for minorities,” either by intention or by accident). In the 45 years since the FHA’s passage, the Court had never ruled on this question.

Naturally it became a pretty huge deal in civil rights circles. The NAACP and many other civil-rights groups filed briefs. Right before the Court was to hear the case, St. Paul withdrew its petition. There is widespread suspicion on the right that Perez, at Justice, had something to do with this, and they allege a “shady quid pro quo” of some kind. They have evinced no real proof for this charge, but that hasn’t prevented elected officials like Grassley from conjecturing. What they really don’t like, of course, is the fact that John Roberts and company were denied the chance to issue an anti-anti-discrimination ruling.

Finally, who else but the nasty David Vitter announced that he needed to know more about Perez’s role in the Obama Justice Department’s handling of the New Black Panther Party case. Two scarily clad guys intimidated a few voters at a Philadelphia polling station in 2008. The police came. One of them left. That’s about what happened. But of course the scarily clad guys were black, as was the president-elect who won Pennsylvania, so there you go. Plus it’s fun to repeat “Black Panther Party” over and over and over if you depend on right-wing viewers, listeners, and readers.

So let us now take stock. Here we have a Latino activist lawyer—a man who for whatever it’s worth has embodied the American Dream—who has spent his time doing the kinds of things you would expect a Latino activist lawyer to do, and three white men, two of them from the deep South, declare him unfit to serve for reasons that are in each instance racial and/or ethnic in some way, shape, or form.

Do they think Latino people are stupid? Does Reince Priebus think that Latino people won’t notice this? That if the party supports a path to citizenship, Latinos will simply ignore everything else, every other issue, every other tone-deaf cultural signal Republicans send? And if the GOP senators block Perez … well, Reince, what are you going to do then?

Priebus and his little committee got some good press out of Monday, or at least some positive headlines. Meanwhile, where it matters, it was business as usual on the racial and ethnic front. And that isn’t changing easily. Their urge to shout about Black Panthers and unfair DREAM Acts is utterly primal. They have political, and racial, Tourette’s—the behavior can perhaps be altered, but the outbursts will always come. This is who they are.