Until very recently, Phoenix businessman Elias Bermudez was content to wander the desert in search of faces that might bring some color to the overwhelmingly white tent of Republicanism. As an evangelical Republican in mostly Catholic and Democratic Latino Arizona, he was a lone voice in the political wilderness. But the 56-year-old activist and radio DJ took solace in knowing that a political prophet of a previous era, Barry Goldwater, had found success knocking on the rickety doors of the huge ranch houses and shacks dotting the same desert landscape, launching the first commercial radio station in Phoenix–and a grassroots revolution. Bermudez had initially been won over by the GOP because, he says, it backed his efforts to leave the “shadows” of undocumented life and become a citizen, then the first elected mayor of San Luis, Arizona, a border town of about 21,000–89 percent Latino–that he helped incorporate. And like many of the roughly 40 percent of Latinos wooed by Karl Rove and longtime GOP Latino strategy guru Lionel Sosa into voting for George W. Bush in 2004, Bermudez joined the party because it “believed more in family, morality and the ability of the individual to succeed by pulling himself up by his own straps.” He broadcast his beliefs weekly on his popular radio show, Vamos a Platicar (Let’s Talk), where he translated Rove’s and Sosa’s carefully crafted messages about Americano dreams for tens of thousands of potential recruits in the poor, Spanish-dominant sectors of Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa.
But then Arizona politicos like Congressman J.D. Hayworth and other GOP legislators began pushing “some of the most hateful legislation in the US,” in Bermudez’s words. (Consider for example Goldwater’s nephew and GOP gubernatorial candidate Don Goldwater, who proposed building a “tent city” where undocumented immigrants would be indentured “as labor in the construction of a wall [along the border] and to clean the areas of the Arizona desert that they’re polluting.”) Bermudez was, he says, “sickened” by the proposals on various state ballots in recent elections–four passed in Arizona–denying basic rights, like bail, to immigrants. These GOP-led initiatives, he believes, embolden those “flag-waving white people yelling at me, ‘You’re no better than a Mexican dog’ and those I see at protests who burn the Mexican flag or wear it as a diaper or on the bottom of their shoes.”
So, rather than go deeper into the tent of Republicanism, Bermudez opted to tear it down.
“I began a campaign to target Republicans,” he said. During the elections, the born-again activist immigrant DJ used media and grassroots organizing methods to help oust anti-immigrant politicos like former TV anchor Hayworth, who was elected as part of the Gingrich revolution in the politically fateful year of 1994.
The roots of the Republican Latino debacle of 2006 lie in the launch of the immigration wars that began with California’s Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative that denied education and healthcare to undocumented children. Bermudez’s conversion and the fact that only 29 percent of Latinos voted Republican this past election indicate that the appeals to the lower instincts of the white base come at a steep electoral cost. And in this era of narrow victories and contested results, with black support of the GOP mired near the single digits of the post-Southern Strategy era, securing a significant percentage of the vote of Latinos, the country’s largest minority group, is imperative for the GOP. In the same way that appealing to the desire among some whites to segregate the health, education and basic rights of blacks cost the GOP their votes for decades after Jim Crow, similar appeals to deny health, education and basic human rights to Latino and other immigrants may cost the GOP critical votes in the era of Juan Crow. The effects of such dynamics may be felt even more powerfully in the 2008 elections, in which 12 million new immigrant voters (303,600 in Arizona alone) could participate, according to a study by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. These are especially bad omens for the Republicans when we consider that foreign-born Latinos were largely responsible for the historic increase in Latino support for the GOP engineered in the ’04 elections by Rove and a now glum Sosa.