Led by then-governor George W. Bush, Texas Republican Party heads launched an intensive push to try to organize supporters among the state's burgeoning Hispanic population. Bitter infighting at the largely unreported state convention of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly (RNHA) in Corpus Christi indicates the effort has a long way to go.
In the past, Latino activists charged that Anglo party officials refused to make a place for them at the table of power. From the evidence of the RNHA gathering early this month, the current problems appear to lie more with the credibility of the statewide Hispanic GOP leadership itself.
A defeated Houston candidate for the state chairmanship of the organization claims a clique that controls the RNHA threw out the credentials of delegations from the largest cities in the state and then elected officials for the next two years based on a handful of remaining votes.
According to Yale-educated financial consultant Leo Vasquez III, the tactics made a sham of the group's stated mission to foster the principles of the Republican Party. By Vasquez's account, the conduct of the convention more closely resembled the governing principles at work in a Central American military junta.
"It was just a sad example of the minority trying to maintain some semblance of power and not ready to take the next steps necessary for the advancement of Hispanics in Republican politics," says Vasquez. He's now talking with state GOP party leaders about forming a new group to represent Lone Star Hispanics in the party.
His critics, including outgoing RNHA chairman Fernando Cantu, dismiss the dissident's complaint as sour grapes from a losing candidate who simply didn't do the paperwork necessary to qualify his delegation for voting privileges.
Although there were 23 statewide chapters of the group in 2002 with a potential for 55 delegates, only 17 delegates were allowed to vote in Corpus. Montgomery County's Marisa Rummell was elected state chair after many of Vasquez's supporters were declared ineligible.
At one point the convention bordered on farce, as credentials chair Roy Casanova of San Antonio called in police after a disgruntled Houston delegate allegedly assaulted him. The cops eventually left after advising both sides to talk it out.
According to a detailed narrative supported by backup e-mails, Vasquez explains how he and other county chairs began asking the state RNHA leaders about the requirements for the convention back in December, when it was postponed for lack of participation. Vasquez and others submitted checks for payment of their chapters' membership fees, as well as lists of delegates and alternates to the convention.
On February 27, the eve of the Corpus Christi gathering, an El Paso delegate circulated an e-mail noting that neither Vasquez nor the chapters supporting him would be seated at the convention. This occurred before the credentials committee had even met, and gave rise to the suspicion that there were already plans to rig the convention. Once the confab started, Casanova and other RNHA leaders told arriving delegates that they would not be seated.
Delegate Tony Cantu says he made the four-hour drive from Houston with his wife and two children, expecting to give his family a civics lesson. "I'm telling them about the Democratic things we have in the United States," recalls Cantu. "Then we come into the hotel and they tell us we can't vote. Next day, in the morning, everybody raises hell."
He was particularly irked, he says, because he had talked to Casanova the previous day and the official gave him no hint that he and others would not be seated as delegates.
"He let people, many of whom don't have a lot of money, go all the way to Corpus Christi, when he already knew the trick they were going to play."
Cantu confronted Casanova on the issue. During an animated discussion, he says, he tapped the man on the shoulder and "he just starts screaming like a little girl, 'He attacked me,' 'assault, assault!' Then he goes and calls the police."
According to Cantu, the cops arrived, assessed the situation, then were bemused. "They come, talk to some people, and just rolled their eyes. They suggested I stay away from him."
Despite the comic overtones of the convention, Cantu says it will have a chilling effect on recruiting new GOP Hispanics in Texas.
"They claim to represent Hispanic values. In this case, those are not exactly the values I want to transmit to my kids. There are a lot of people who got cooled off, and decided, 'I don't want to associate myself with people like that who do these under-the-table tricks.' "
Another Houston delegate who supported Vasquez, SuZanne Feather, says the RNHA leaders effectively disenfranchised 70 percent of the organization.
"This is not about Hispanic values and Hispanics participating in the Republican Party," she wrote in a protest letter. "This is about the process of an organization that claims to be the outreach to the community to Hispanic voters It is clearly its own worst enemy and you have to be the 'right' Hispanics to be included."
In an e-mail response, new RNHA state chair Rummell denied charges that her election was rigged and pointed out that delegates from Harris County were appointed to leadership positions -- even if they didn't have the right to vote on their own selection. Those delegates just happened to be Rummell supporters.
Former chair Fernando Cantu was more acerbic, blaming the hubbub on Vasquez's bruised ego.
"Mr. Vasquez is a sore loser and he's just having a hard time because he lost. What he ought to do is go forward and next time maybe read the instructions and do the forms right.
"Are we supposed to be treated differently because we're Hispanic? We have to fill out forms and follow the rules also. The man's a college graduate from Yale University. You'd think he would have sat down and read the instructions."
Vasquez counters that other delegations were seated even though they submitted outdated membership lists, the very pretext used to oust delegations from Harris and other counties. He also notes that Casanova's own delegation was decertified after the credentials chairman was caught submitting a clearly forged membership application.
Vasquez says the debacle in Corpus is just another example of the boorish, unethical behavior of the RNHA leaders that has led statewide Republican leaders to shun the organization. He notes that no prominent Republican officials attended the convention.
"On the local levels in Texas, Republicans do have good relationships with RNHA chapters," says Vasquez. "It's just at the state level, there just has been this dearth of leadership and professionalism."
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Houstonians may soon get to see the organization's warts close-up, at the RNHA's national convention, which is scheduled to start April 25 at a Galleria-area hotel. The group's local problems may be a small sideshow, predicts Vasquez, because Hispanic Republicans are a diverse, sometimes contentious coalition with roots ranging from Mexico to the Caribbean to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America.
"In New York State," he explains by way of example, "you have the Cubans battling each other within the RNHA, with a certain group standing by the anti-Fidel Castro line, and another group saying it's been long enough, we should reopen lines of communication with him.
"From what I understand," he chuckles, "our little battling here in Texas is kinda minor compared to some of the other states'."
If so, the upcoming show promises to be a political version of the Worldwide Wrestling Federation.