Ruckus at the Las Vegas WRLC conference: Conservative Latino activists reveal GOP dilemma

Conservative Latino activists clashed this week with establishment Latino Republicans sitting on a panel at a regional GOP conference in Las Vegas. The discussion topic was how to stimulate jobs and prosperity for the Latino community. But in the final moments, some panelists dispensed advice about how to woo Latino voters, many of whom default to Democratic candidates despite holding cultural values that align more closely with Republicans.

Members of the audience began to shout as the panelists wrapped up and prepared to leave the stage.   The dissonant voices belonged to several  Republican Latinos from Las Vegas.  GOP activists from other states joined in, pelting the panel all at once with war stories suggesting that its highly-placed members, two of which served in the Bush Administration, might be out of touch with the realities of grassroots outreach.

“It’s one thing to sit back and talk about it, but we are doing it,” said Las Vegas businessman Robert Zavala after the skirmish ended.

The stage was cleared following a few minutes of chaotic exchange. The panel moderator appeared to minimize the challenges, urging the locals to stay informed and keep fighting, which only stirred them to further shouting.

The public squabble reveals a big GOP dilemma at a time when 50 thousand American Latinos per month reach voting age, creating an ever more powerful political force.  Republican volunteers who are best equipped to understand Latino voters – other Latinos – say they’re encountering resistance because of the party’s relentless focus on immigration.

The anti-illegal immigrant message comes across to Latinos as anti-Latino, according to these folks, who spend their time on the ground.

Many Latinos are offended that Republican leadership doesn’t denounce extreme rhetoric coming from conservative factions that make immigration their top issue, says Jose Cuevas, a Texas restaurateur who is also the chairman of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.  Cuevas sat on the panel in Las Vegas, but did not enter the fray while he was on stage.

Backstage, he expressed agreement with the local activists.

“I’ve been  a Republican all my life, and I’ve told leadership, ‘if I’m having a hard time staying with you, then you have no chance of bringing anyone else on board’,” Cuevas said in an interview.

“I’m frustrated that we don’t have a leadership that tells the intolerant to be quiet,” he told the Reasonable Reporter.

And so, the GOP must take a politically-dangerous stand against a core constituency, to strengthen its relationship with a less dependable one that’s increasingly decisive in elections.

“You’ve just got to do the math,”   Cuevas said. “If you alienate the Latinos, we stop winning elections in four to six years.”

The GOP establishment encourages Latino outreach to focus on hard work and family values, which is not substantially at odds with the approach the local activists believe is correct.  But they say the immigration issue clouds the perception of the party.

The Las Vegas panel discussion was sponsored by Americans for Prosperity as part of the Western Republican Leadership Conference.  Spokesman Adam Stryker says the program was not intended to touch on immigration. Its purpose was to focus on the organization’s key objective of promoting conservative economic policy.

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