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GOP Shifts, Pursues Immigrant Votes

by Jill Stewart

October 21, 2004 | 8:00 pm

More Cover Stories:
Examining the Jewish Vote
Israeli Expats Solidly Back Bush
Russian Jews Favor Bush

Sam Kermanian is one of many Jewish Republicans in Los Angeles reaching out to immigrants on behalf of President Bush, yet perhaps the biggest news of all is that such committed immigrant activists in the Republican Party are no longer red hot news.

Kermanian, an Iranian Jewish immigrant, is still rawly aware of how people's lives in his native Iran are under the strict control of Islamist radicals.

"We understand what the president is doing, and we support him strongly," said Kermanian, who stepped down as chairman of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles to join the Bush '04 campaign team. "Immigrants look at how the world really is, so they no longer support just the Democrats."

It was no surprise, then, when Bush spoke several words of Spanish during his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in New York City. The gesture went virtually unremarked by the media and caused nary a ripple of discernible backlash in his party.

Ten years ago, veering outside the English language to appeal to a special group of mostly Democratic voters would have been front-page news across the land, but today the imagery of the Republican leadership reaching out to heavily Democratic immigrants is not only commonplace, it's indicative of a major shift in views and strategy.

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told his up-by-his-bootstraps tale at the RNC, it was not merely a personal story from the Republican Party's most famous moderate. It was also a direct appeal to immigrants, using the GOP's message of personal responsibility and eventual triumph.

These two RNC moments are indicative of an almost imperceptible change inside the Republican Party to not only reach out to immigrants but to target the message and explain the GOP philosophy as never before. There may be only minor dividends to show for it this November, but Republicans are energized about their chance to make inroads with traditionally Democratic immigrant voters.

Going after the potentially huge vote among Latino immigrants, a heterogeneous group with many contradictory and nuanced views on both policy and values, has become a key focus of the GOP in California. But even among Jewish immigrants, who form only a tiny percentage of voters in California, the GOP has become energized.

Hector Barajas, director of grass-roots development at the California Republican Party's Burbank headquarters, has been building an outreach program to Latinos, who were largely ignored by Republicans for decades. Barajas noted that today, he oversees a massive computerized list of experts and speakers who spread the party's message far beyond Latinos, to niche immigrants of every persuasion.

"We're not saying you've got to become a Republican today, but it's just: 'Please listen to the message we are bringing forth,'" he said of the outreach strategy. "Of course we seek the major group, which is Latinos, but now we outreach to Asians, Filipinos and all the various language groups."

"We have a group that only goes out to Middle Eastern immigrants, including Jewish immigrants," he continued. "We have a spreadsheet of people who speak all the various languages, so if I need to find an Asian American woman teacher who speaks Cantonese, because somebody wants to hear a speech from such a person, I can find somebody right here."

Barajas, who grew up in heavily Mexican-American Echo Park, said, "We no longer use this one-size-fits-all method, sending out the Caucasian face or the English speaker to a group who doesn't relate to that."

One of the strongest volunteers to reach out to Jewish immigrants is attorney Paul Weisman, who oversees 350 precinct walkers who are familiar with heavily Jewish areas in Hancock Park and on the Westside.

Noted Barajas, "Paul has put his law practice aside, basically, to do this, and his energy level is being replayed in many other urban areas where Jewish Republicans are now a force."

Nobody believes the Republicans will score huge gains among immigrant groups this year. But there are signs that immigrant interest in the Democratic Party is not what it once was. If Republicans can shift even a modest percentage of immigrants to their side, the Democrats could face trouble in coming years -- even in California.

The voter registration gap between Democrats and Republicans in California is the narrowest it has been since the 1930s, with Democrats holding only an 8 percentage point lead over Republicans. Last October's election of Austrian immigrant Schwarzenegger as governor has not only helped pour millions of extra fund-raising dollars into Republican coffers, it has also made voter signup easier.

Now it's the Democrats who are sweating, not the once-divided Republicans. Lately, noted Republican pollster Stephen Kinney, large numbers of Latinos -- especially Latinas -- have begun registering as "decline-to-state" voters and rejecting the Democratic Party.

Kinney and many others believe the Democrats have taken immigrants for granted for too long. Nobody knows if the move by Latinos toward "decline to state" is a harbinger of a sea change in immigrant voter sympathies in other immigrant groups, but Kinney noted, "It's definitely not good news for the Democrats."

With immigrant interest in the Democrats waning somewhat, some GOP groups and activists are using the opening to interest immigrants in voting for and contributing money to Bush. Although Latinos get much of the attention, because they represent a potentially vast voting bloc, the Iraq War has enlivened Middle Eastern immigrant groups as well, and some are clearly siding with the GOP.

Kermanian typifies the Republican Jewish immigrants who are speaking out for Bush in 2004. He noted that no polls have been conducted that break out the Iranian Jewish vote for president. However, a poll by the American Jewish Committee shows Jewish support for Bush has jumped from less than 20 percent during the 2000 election to 24 percent now, a roughly 25 percent gain, laid in part to support from Jewish immigrants.

Iranian Jews make up about 30,000 to 35,000 of the half million Iranians in California, Kermanian said, and he estimated 75 percent back Bush.

"Our group takes the threat of terror and the militant Islamist ideology a lot more seriously than average Americans and average Jewish Americans," he said. "We had to live with it for generations."

Despite working so high up in the GOP effort for Bush in California, however, he does not yet see a fully engaged outreach to Middle Eastern and other immigrant groups, largely because they make up too small a percentage of voters. However, he said, the Republicans now see immigrants as up for grabs, while the Democrats appear to be assuming that they have a lock on the majority of immigrant voters.

Change could come if Republicans effectively spread the Bush message of "keeping more of your own money and giving less of it to government, and achieving your aims and your children's aims with the very values that made you immigrate to the United States," he said.

Si Frumkin is a well-known journalist for Panorama newspaper and political activist in the Russian Jewish community, whose column also runs in three papers in Israel and two in the former Soviet Union. Frumkin is among the growing number of voices urging Jewish immigrants to get involved in politics -- through the GOP.

Frumkin noted that at a recent Bush-Cheney organizing event at the Sportsmen's Lodge in the San Fernando Valley, within the group of about 50 volunteer activists who attended, several were immigrants -- and six were Jews from the former Soviet Union.

"People keep getting in touch with me to register and to get the forms so they can sign up voters," Frumkin said. He said that decades ago, when he arrived in the United States, he and other Russian Jewish immigrants were shocked by the left-leaning views of American Jews.

But today's Russian Jewish immigrants, who he said lean heavily Republican, "have gotten over the surprise and are much more eager to speak out than before. American Jews were shocked and horrified at [Ronald] Reagan for calling the former Soviet Union an evil empire, but immigrant Jews knew it was an evil empire. When you go to a party now where the vodka flows, people stand up for America and love America and are real flag wavers."

While there are probably fewer than 100,000 Russian Jews in Southern California, Frumkin noted that "they are often very successful in business. What they lack in voting numbers, they make up for in financial contributions to George Bush."

Frumkin, a Holocaust survivor who has lectured at the Wiesenthal Center, said the GOP has also lightened up somewhat, loosening its tie so to speak, in reaching out to immigrants who didn't relate as well to the old, more formal version of the party.

"We like to enjoy the campaign fight and say what's on our mind," he said. "I like to say, 'My God, I cannot see Teresa Heinz as the first lady.'"

The California Republican Party is indeed no longer in the hands of a hard-right faction that dominated its voter registration effort and platform throughout the 1990s. That far-right wing became the tail that wagged the dog of a party that probably has fewer than 20 percent "very conservative" voters. The hard right drove many voters away from California's GOP, handing the Democrats their biggest statewide voting victories in 40 years in 2000.

Schwarzenegger's election has helped marginalize the far right in California. But even before Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy in the summer of 2003, the California Republican Party elected two moderates, Duf Sundheim and Mario Rodriguez, as its chairman and vice chairman, in the spring of 2003.

Five years ago, Rodriguez, a hip, bilingual, former military brat who owns a successful printing business, had little chance of being elected to such a post in the GOP. Now, he's in such demand as a public speaker for the Republicans at Latino and other immigrant events, that it can take weeks to book him.

Rodriguez's popularity has not gone unnoticed by outreach czar Barajas, who is making Republican immigrants available as speakers in dozens of different languages, no longer ceding even the high school crowd to the Democrats.

"The GOP used to be invited into the high school government classes to give their version of politics and government, and the GOP would not even bother, while the Democrats spoke to all the kids," Barajas said. "Now we are there, and we don't shrink from explaining the tough stuff, like why we oppose driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. These kids are the future voters."

Among a dozen top public and private pollsters in California, none believes Bush can win the state. But with a Republican president who's as comfortable in a monied group of Middle Eastern business leaders as with Latinos at a rally in the Southwest, it may be only a matter of time before Democrats have to fight back in order to hang on to immigrants. n

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist. She can be reached at www.jillstewart.net.

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