Martinez to Speak for Gonzales en Español

Posted February 1, 2005 at 6:53pm

In a historic rarity, freshman Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) will speak from the chamber floor in Spanish today, urging his colleagues to confirm Alberto Gonzales to be the next — and first Hispanic — attorney general.

Martinez said the bulk of his first-ever Senate floor speech would be in English. But he noted that he thought it was appropriate to make some remarks in Spanish given the timeliness of the Gonzales confirmation.

“I will do it in a respectful way, because I know we are an English-speaking country,” said Martinez, who moved to Florida from Cuba as a teenager. “But I think to resonate … saying a few words in Spanish will be a good thing.”

It is rare for a Senator to speak in a language other than English, according to Senate Historian Richard Baker.

“It is clearly something that was extremely unusual a generation ago,” Baker said.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is not Hispanic but is fluent in Spanish, has spoken the language on the Senate floor.

It is not clear whether fellow freshman Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), who like Martinez is of Hispanic heritage, would vote for Gonzales to be attorney general, much less speak about it in Spanish on the Senate floor.

“I have thought about a statement,” Salazar said. “I am not sure about the context or the language.”

In recent years, Republicans have made courting Hispanic voters, a traditionally Democratic-leaning demographic, a top priority. In the 2004 election, President Bush “did significantly better among Hispanic voters, probably by 5 points” compared to the 2000 election, said Roberto Suro, director of the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center.

“There is no question [that Republicans] are trying to create a fairly well articulated and substantial long-term strategy, really led out of the White House, to gain a larger share of the Hispanic vote,” Suro said. “They put a lot of money and effort into it.”

It has also become common for presidential candidates to throw out a few lines, or more, of Spanish during stump speeches.

Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic candidate, had traveled widely in Latin America as a youth and, while “a stiff in English, he was transformed when he spoke Spanish — suddenly passionate, a hellion, a Latin Lover,” political journalist Joe Klein once wrote.

Bush, who as Texas governor led a state with a large Mexican-American population, has been especially fond of throwing Spanish into his rallies.

While Martinez will likely speak to a largely empty chamber, Republicans said they believe his remarks will carry weight well beyond the Beltway, particularly into Hispanic homes.

“It will help immensely because he is the first Cuban-American in history speaking on behalf of a Hispanic nominee to be attorney general,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “I can tell you, Hispanics have a lot of pride in Gonzales and the fact he has been nominated.”

But Democrats are not backing down in their opposition to Gonzales, suggesting that he condoned the torture of prisoners in U.S. custody. Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) predicted that 25 to 30 of his colleagues would vote against Gonzales, too few to keep him from being confirmed. Reid said Democrats decided Tuesday not to filibuster the nomination.

A vote on Gonzales could come on Thursday.

Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he doesn’t think the Democratic opposition to Gonzales would hurt his party’s standing within the Hispanic community.

“I think what you are going to find is there is going to be a very aggressive effort by the Democrats to reach out to the Hispanic population through their television stations, radio and other media,” Durbin said. “We are not going to give an inch when it comes to that group of voters. We want to keep them loyal to the Democratic Party.”

Just last week, Reid delivered the Hispanic Democratic radio address using a voice-over.

But Martinez predicted that Hispanics have not looked kindly upon Democratic opposition to Gonzales, nor upon their successful efforts in the 108th Congress to deny Miguel Estrada a federal judgeship.

“I think that Democrats are doing particularly bad at it,” Martinez said of the party’s outreach to Hispanics. “I don’t think this happens without there being a price to be paid.”

Martinez said he doesn’t feel any pressure form his GOP colleagues to serve as their main emissary to the Hispanic community, because it is second nature to him. As for Gonzales, Martinez said it is important for him to make such a public stand.

“I think we have to recognize that this is a fairly unique moment,” he said. “It is a neat opportunity for Hispanics in America to have an attorney general. I have sat at that Cabinet table and I know there are seats at the table. This is one of those real seats at the table.”