Hispanics In Texas: Latino Numbers Level Off In Legislature

Sept. 5, 2006, 7:56AM
Latino numbers level off in Legislature
20 percent mark was reached in 1997, and experts don't see a change in the near future

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau

AUSTIN Carlos Truan entered the Texas Legislature in 1969 as one of a dozen Latino lawmakers and sponsored a bill to allow bilingual education, influenced by a high Hispanic dropout rate and his experience as a youngster spanked for speaking Spanish at school.

“People talk about everybody getting an education, and we had an 80 percent dropout rate,” said Truan, recalling his first session as a House member from Corpus Christi. “Why is it that they weren't concerned (before), or at least not that concerned? … I don't think they identified with the needs of Mexican-Americans or Spanish-speaking children.”

Former Sen. Joe Bernal of San Antonio, a former teacher who sponsored the measure in the Senate, said, “You're talking about the psyche of a child who learns to dislike himself because the system does not allow him to speak his language and does not allow him to express his culture.”

The law's passage was eased because it didn't require state funds, Bernal said. But it allowed bilingual programs in the wake of a federal law authored by the late U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough.

By the time Truan retired after a 34-year career in 2003, bilingual education was funded by the state, and the number of Latinos in the 181-member Legislature had grown to 37.

That 20 percent mark, which Latinos achieved in 1997 and have more or less maintained, allows them influence but not control.

It's short of Latinos' approximately 35 percent of Texas' population. It's short of the number of districts with Latino-voting majorities, since seven have elected Anglos while two Hispanics came from districts without a Hispanic majority.

It's close to Latinos' 22 percent of the voting age population cited by lawyer Rolando Rios of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Anglos control redistricting
Latino numbers got a boost in decades past from voting rights laws and lawsuits and population growth reflected in redistricting, but experts don't see much change in the near future. That's partly because the Anglo majority, once Democratic, now Republican, has controlled redistricting with an eye to preserving party power. Lawmakers can't diminish but don't have to maximize minority districts, said legal aid attorney George Korbel.

“There are probably 20 districts in the Texas House in which voting makes a difference. All the rest of them are so heavily stacked as Democratic or Republican, or minority or nonminority, that whether or not you vote makes no difference,” said Korbel, who as counsel with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1971 pressed a landmark lawsuit that resulted in single-member districts in urban areas, boosting minority influence.

Rios said numbers are further depressed by low voter turnout. So a surge in Latino lawmakers is expected to come only after larger population changes that force district changes. “Gerrymandering only works to a point,” Korbel noted, predicting changes could come as early as the next time districts are drawn after the 2010 census. “By 2015, Texas is going to be as progressive as Minnesota.”

GOP seeks Hispanics
The fate of the GOP will depend on the growing population's sentiments, experts said.

“We are failing by not having Republicans elected as legislators and congressmen. We're not really giving those Hispanics that really are Republicans representation,” said GOP consultant Royal Masset. “After 2030, the state will be run by Latinos. If we don't get Hispanic leaders in the future … we're gone as far as governing.”

House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, entered the Legislature with Truan and has seen the GOP emerge from its own minority status. He noted his appointment of ethnic minorities to leadership spots.

Craddick said Hispanics are important not only politically but also economically to the state. He sees Hispanics as having a natural affinity with the GOP on key issues, though nearly all Latino lawmakers are Democratic. “We have the family issues and the conservative issues and … the Christianity issues and they're all a big factor for them, too, as they are (for) us,” he said.

Korbel said more Latino lawmakers would mean more spending on public education and human services because their constituents value and need the programs. Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, former head of the Senate Hispanic Caucus, called a common bond “unquestionable, non-negotiable support for public education and higher education.”

“I don't think that poverty is a racial thing, but the solution to poverty comes by poor people having access to political power, and it just so happens that poverty and race are almost the same in Texas,” Korbel said.

Rep. Pete Gallego, who heads the House Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which includes Latinos and Anglos, emphasized Latino interests go beyond education and health care to issues like economic development.

“Latinos would tend to moderate the tone on a lot of issues, because they tend to be more mainstream than what you see in Austin today,” said Gallego, D-Alpine.

Latinos don't act in lockstep. But they often share common ground. Every caucus member except one, an Anglo Republican, last year backed a Democratic education proposal meant to give more funding to schools. It failed by one vote, with Craddick opposing it. Craddick said all lawmakers would support more money for education, but “it was a disagreement on the amount of money being spent, and how did you fund it?”

Another point of division is immigration, an issue Masset said the GOP has “botched.”

Indigent health-care bill
An early taste of the debate came in a 1985 skirmish on an indigent health-care bill that pitted Craddick against caucus members. Craddick proposed that illegal immigrants seeking state or locally funded medical care be reported to authorities, the Houston Chronicle reported. Caucus members objected one called the proposal racist and it was defeated.

Craddick said he doesn't remember that long-ago argument, but asked if the proposal still seems solid, he said, “I tell you what, you look at your hospitals and stuff like that … hospitals are struggling, and we're seeing this on a lot of stuff in a lot of different areas. You've got to look at how are we going to pay for this.”