By Robert T. Garrett and Gromer Jeffers Jr, Dallas Morning News
Newly installed Gov. Greg Abbott made several stabs at wooing Hispanic Texans in his inaugural speech Tuesday, even as staunch conservatives in the Legislature push immigration bills that could complicate the GOP’s outreach to Latinos.
Abbott spoke approvingly of Texas’ multicultural past — and his wife’s heritage. He stressed an urgent need to educate the state’s many poor children and to cast off partisanship.
His soothing words, though, soon could give way to emotional debates by lawmakers of long-stalled measures to deter illegal immigration. While most tea party adherents are eager for the fight, some Republican leaders view the prospect warily.
“It’s important that our elected officials over at the Legislature make sure that they’re using welcoming language and avoid anything that can be interpreted as being offensive to any community,” said state GOP chairman Steve Munisteri, one of the worriers.
Experts said Abbott will walk a tightrope as he tries to return to former Gov. George W. Bush’s politics of inclusion, which triggered competition by the two major parties for Hispanics’ votes, while satisfying his own party’s base.
Staunchly conservative voters now dominate the Texas GOP’s primaries, and they badly want to curb unauthorized entries and financial incentives for illegal immigration.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who also was sworn in Tuesday, has called the grant of in-state tuition rates to those in the country illegally an example of unwise “magnets” that he says help attract their families to Texas.
Abbott’s attempt to roll out an ethnic welcome wagon has ramifications beyond the state’s borders.
National Republicans, hoping to reverse two bad defeats in presidential races, have a stake in his success. They plan to use Texas’ economic “miracle” to woo other states back into the GOP fold, even as they hope that a Hispanic demographic bulge doesn’t erode the party’s political sway in the nation’s second-largest state. Hispanics are the fastest-growing component of Texas’ population and are expected to outnumber other ethnic groups as soon as 2020.
Abbott’s effort also could improve relations with Mexico, which is opening up its vast shale areas to energy exploration. After former Gov. Rick Perry called out the Texas National Guard in border regions last summer, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto labeled the deployment “unpleasant” and “reprehensible.” According to a published report, Mexican border governors were not invited to Abbott’s inauguration — either through an inaugural committee oversight or from fear of the reactions if they came.
Abbott, though, saturated his big day with Hispanic-friendly gestures.
He said the state “has been a blending of cultures from across the globe even before we became our own nation.”
As he did in last year’s campaign, he stressed that his mother-in-law’s parents came to San Antonio from Mexico, making his wife, Cecilia, “the first Hispanic first lady” in state history. He hailed the rise of another child of Mexican immigrants, Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman. And he laid problems along the Texas-Mexico border at Washington’s doorstep, vowing to “secure our border” without ever mentioning immigrants in the U.S. illegally.
Although some Democratic operatives dispute the finding, a November exit poll indicated that Abbott posted gains among Hispanics over recent Texas candidates. It said he attracted more than 40 percent of Latinos’ ballots, something not seen since Bush’s gubernatorial races in the 1990s.
Still, a raft of measures offered so far by hard-line conservative GOP lawmakers poses a threat — not just to further progress by Abbott, but to his maintaining that level of support. Some would end the in-state tuition rates, while others would bar cities and counties from adopting policies or ordinances that prohibit law enforcement officers from inquiring about the immigration status of people they arrest or detain.
Munisteri, the state GOP chairman, said Abbott can still attract Hispanic support.
Republican leaders must avoid sounding as if they are calling for mass deportations or proposing laws that single out an ethnic group, “as opposed to conduct” such as illegal entry to the U.S., he said. He’s confident the new Texas leaders won’t stumble and expects Abbott will push for educational and economic improvements that will resonate well with Hispanics.
“He’s absolutely committed over the next four years and hopefully eight years to send a message continually that he wants to promote the Hispanic culture in the state and … make sure that there’s opportunity for every Texas citizen,” Munisteri said.
Jerry Polinard, a political scientist at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, agreed that Abbott is looking far down the road.
“Greg Abbott is now part of this battle for the soul of the Texas Republican Party,” Polinard said. “His 2014 campaign was the most successful in appealing to Latino voters since George W. Bush. But now he must deal with the most conservative lieutenant governor in the history of the state. Dan Patrick has made his name on the immigration issue.”
Patrick, who has taken a hard line on illegal immigration, used his inaugural speech to tap fears about a porous border.
“Make no mistake, the terrorists, the drug cartels and gang members’ risk of crossing our border and coming here to do us harm is high,” he said.
Southern Methodist University political science professor Matthew Wilson said talk of “sanctuary city” bills and measures targeting immigrants’ in-state tuition rates “really does pose a challenge” for Abbott.
“I’m sure that in his heart of hearts, he wishes most of this stuff would just go away,” Wilson said of Abbott. “If there’s going to be a shield to keep Abbott from having to sign a lot of this stuff, it’s going to have to be [Speaker Joe] Straus and the House,” he said, referring to the newly re-elected House leader, a San Antonio Republican.
Andy Hernandez, a Democratic voter-turnout expert, said Hispanic residents won’t buy mere rhetoric from Abbott.
“You can’t do outreach with one hand when you’re slapping Latinos in the face with the other hand,” he said. “People look at what these guys do, not just listen to what they say.”