Language of Lopez
For local Republicans, secretary of state candidate Ed Lopez is a dream come true,
even if they aren't ready to embrace a pro-Hispanic agenda
by Shawn Zeller
Ed Lopez embodies every stereotype of the political neophyte. He is the classic
true believer, a wide-eyed 1960s-style optimist. He is convinced, despite
Watergate and Iran/Contra and Whitewater and campaign finance and Monica
Lewinsky, that government can matter again. Like every other college senior who
has marched off to Washington or to the state capitol for his or her first
political internship, Lopez believes in the power of government to shape
America for the better.
But at 23, Lopez is already moving beyond internships. He has announced his
candidacy for Rhode Island secretary of state. And, in perhaps the most
egregious example of his optimism, Lopez believes he can win.
This is probably a tad naive, given the popularity of incumbent Democrat James
R. Langevin, who has been widely praised for taking on his own party in issuing
a report last January that detailed repeated violations of the state's Open
Meetings Law by local lawmakers. Even so, Lopez's lack of cynicism, despite all
the reasons for cynicism in American politics today, is refreshingly quaint.
By a variety of different measures, Ed Lopez is an atypical politician.
Perhaps most interesting, though, he is a Hispanic Republican in an age when
that classification is virtually an oxymoron. Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico,
son of a Guatemalan father and a Puerto Rican mother, Lopez is staunchly
conservative on social issues, advocating a rollback of abortion rights and
affirmative action laws while denying that legislation is needed to protect gay
Americans from discrimination. Those are values, he says, that Hispanics --
many of whom are socially conservative Roman Catholics -- share.
That in mind, Lopez has an ambitious plan to transform the Republican Party in
Rhode Island into the party of young people and Hispanics. "It's just a matter
of making everyone feel like they're part of the process, like they have a
voice in where the party is going," Lopez says.
And, in fact, transformation is something Lopez knows well. As a boy, he and
his parents, who are both academics, moved repeatedly -- from San Juan to
Syracuse back to San Juan to Boulder, Colorado, and finally to Cranston. After
high school in Boulder, Lopez studied for a year at the University of Utah,
converted from Roman Catholicism to Mormonism,
and spent two years on a proselytizing mission in the Dominican Republic. He
rejoined his parents in Cranston after the mission and has just completed his
junior year at the University of Rhode Island.
Lopez's life has been one of transformations, and he brings his hard-earned
ability to recreate himself in situation after situation and place after place
to his work as a professed political junkie. Not surprisingly, his youthful
leap into the world of politics has been greeted enthusiastically by the state
GOP, which is backing his candidacy.
"We think Ed Lopez is an impressive young man," says state GOP chairwoman Joan
Quick. The state party, she says, strongly supports Lopez's efforts to woo
Hispanic voters and young people to the Republican banner. And Lopez, if his
early success is any indication, may indeed become a player in Rhode Island
politics, even if his long-shot bid against Langevin falls short.
The big picture
Lopez knows Hispanics have not always seemed so solidly Democratic. In
1984, Ronald Reagan won nearly 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, and certain
Hispanic groups, most notably Florida's Cuban population, have long been GOP
loyalists. Lopez also knows, however, that tough Republican rhetoric on
immigration, welfare, and bilingual education during the 1996 election season
drove many traditionally Republican Hispanics into the Democratic column.
"I think Republicans are new to the majority position in Washington and
they've needed a little time to learn the ropes," says Lopez. "Even in 1996,
their message was good but it was expressed poorly. It didn't provide for a
smooth transition period on a lot of issues."
In the end, Bob Dole won only 6 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1996. And last
August, Republican pollster Frank Luntz argued in a now-infamous memo to
Republican party leaders in Washington that the Republican majority in Congress
was at stake because of "the utter collapse of the Hispanic vote."
Luntz's critique was right-on, according to Washington political analysts.
"The rhetoric of Republicans in 1996 was deeply offensive to many Hispanic
voters, and given the way population patterns are going, if you become the
party that's insensitive to Hispanics, your prospects for the future are not
good," says Norman J. Ornstein, a fellow at a conservative Washington think
Indeed, while the black and white population remain stagnant, Hispanics are
the fastest-growing ethnic group in the nation, and in Rhode Island. The US
Census Bureau predicts that in the year 2000, Rhode Island will be home to
70,000 Hispanics out of a total population of a million. That's a rise of 2.5
percent from the 1990 census. By 1990, Hispanics had already become the largest
minority group in Rhode Island at 4.5 percent of the population. By 2005,
Hispanics are expected to become the largest minority group in the nation.
In response, the Republican National Committee is trying desperately to boost
the Republican profile with Hispanics. Committee staffers have been traveling
the country, making appearances in Hispanic strongholds. Even Newt Gingrich
seems to have grown sensitive to Hispanic concerns.
Last year, Gingrich helped roll back sections of the 1996 welfare reform bill
that threatened to deport thousands of Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, and
Salvadorans who had fled political strife in their homelands. And just last
month, Gingrich announced that the GOP would work to redress Hispanic land
claims in the American Southwest, which date from the Treaty of
Guadalupe-Hidalgo signed after the Mexican War in 1848. Hispanics in the
Southwest have long claimed that they were cheated out of land by white
settlers after the war.
The GOP mistakes of 1996, Republican Hispanics insist, were errors of
rhetoric, not of substance. "Hispanic values are conservative values," says
Luigi Crespo, executive director of the National Republican Hispanic Assembly,
referring to Republicans' "pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps" attitude toward
entitlements and "family values" issues like abortion. "The mistake in 1996 was
not with the message, but with the way it was communicated. Don't tell me
`English-only,' tell me `English-first.' Don't say, `Immigration is bad,' say,
`Illegal immigration is bad.' These are things Hispanics believe as
And is the new effort working? Some prominent conservative Hispanics -- most
notably Linda Chavez, who runs the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington
-- don't think so. "The GOP, unfortunately, is focusing more on playing ethnic
politics than they are on developing policies that truly would help Hispanics,"
Lopez, however, sees things differently. "Look at the issues Republicans have
stressed this year -- voting to let Puerto Rico decide whether to become a
state, pushing for a resolution of the Guadalupe-Hidalgo issue," he says.
"These are things Hispanics really care about."
No concerted effort
But despite the swarms of Republican political consultants, pollsters,
and PR gurus toiling in Washington, leaders in Lopez's own local party still
haven't outlined any sort of pro-active Hispanic agenda. According to several
sources familiar with Rhode Island campaigning, the importance of attracting
minority support has not yet clicked with state politicians accustomed to a
small and inconsequential minority vote. When asked to discuss the party's
outreach efforts with Hispanics this election season, party leaders often can
point to only one person: Ed Lopez.
Governor Lincoln Almond, to be sure, has had more success than the state party
as a whole in including minority concerns in his policy-making. His efforts to
expand the state's child-care entitlement for working families and to extend
healthcare coverage to every youngster in Rhode Island are both hugely
important to Hispanics. Nonetheless, administration spokesmen are strangely
reticent about discussing Almond's Hispanic agenda, maybe because they have
been burned so many times before.
Last fall, Providence Journal-Bulletin columnist M. Charles Bakst wrote
a critical piece on the nearly complete lack of minority representation in top
Almond administration positions and the governor's apparent reluctance to do
anything about it. When reached last month, a top Almond aide discounted the
story's importance, calling Bakst a "hard-core, left-wing liberal" who
shouldn't be taken seriously.
"He doesn't represent the views of most Rhode Islanders," the aide said.
Still, Almond staffers and appointees remain almost universally white.
Other gaffes have gotten attention as well. Last month, the Phoenix
reported that Republican leaders in Rhode Island allegedly had sought to
convince William Bundy, the former director of the state Department of
Transportation and an African-American, to run against Representative Patrick
Kennedy for Rhode Island's 1st Congressional District seat.
Bundy, according to political sources, was told that having a black man run
against Kennedy would make the congressman look bad by forcing him to beat up
on a minority. But when Bundy asked for $100,000 in campaign money and a pledge
of support for a second run in 2000, state party leaders allegedly balked.
Although Bundy will not confirm or deny the report, the story has caused a
buzz in state Democratic circles. A source close to Kennedy called the plan to
recruit Bundy -- if it truly existed -- "completely half-baked" and virtually
"This kind of idea saddens me, because it's more about playing the race card
than actually developing policies that appeal to minorities," the source
State Republican Party leaders deny the incident ever occurred. Still, the
relationship between the state party and minorities, as described by chairwoman
Quick, seems just as unfocused. "There's never been a concerted effort to
attract minority candidates," she admits.
The state GOP has helped Lopez in his efforts to start up a Rhode Island
outpost for the National Republican Hispanic Assembly. But even in that
instance, Lopez approached the party himself, methodically contacted leading
local Republicans, and carefully explained his plan. "The rank and file here
are often suspicious of new ideas," says Quick, "but he's been careful. He
hasn't confronted the party saying things like, you know, `It's about time we
should focus on Hispanics.' "
Almond campaign manager John Holmes Jr. insists that Republican outreach
efforts go beyond just Lopez, adding that he recently met with Hispanic Rhode
Islanders interested in helping with the Almond campaign. But according to
Patricia Martinez, executive director of Central Falls-based Progresso Latino,
this is just standard election-year fare.
"All of a sudden at election time, the politicians start to come around to our
neighborhoods," Martinez says. "They forget about us pretty quickly after the
votes are counted."
In an effort to not let that happen again, area Hispanics will announce the
formation of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee (PAC) next
month, and will begin distributing funds and endorsements to candidates who
support a pro-Hispanic agenda. "We'll be getting the candidates on the record
and we'll hold them to their promises," says founding member Dr. Pablo
Meanwhile, local Democrats scoff at the notion that Republicans have put forth
a concerted effort on minority concerns. "Minorities haven't really occurred to
their thinking," says one Democratic political consultant who closely follows
Rhode Island politics.
In the 1980s, the state Republican Party was also the first to run women
candidates. But it was never known for advancing much of an agenda on women's
issues. In other words, the consultant says, the Rhode Island GOP seems happy
to have visible minority and women party members, but "I can't think of
anything consistent they've done for those groups."
What's more, Lopez says, his campaign is not relying on the state party for
funding -- funding that skeptics say the party is not willing to invest in a
23-year-old college senior running for a seat he has virtually no chance of
This is partly why Ed Lopez's devotion to local Republicans is so
surprising. "They've given me the red-carpet treatment," he says, apparently
unaware -- or accepting -- of his status as their sacrificial lamb.
In an era when politics is dominated by public-relations mumbo-jumbo,
poll-driven message development, and special-interest campaign cash, Lopez
stands out as someone who means what he says. He isn't trying to corral the
center, to "triangulate" a la Bill Clinton, or to push the latest poll-driven
For Anthony Britto, an 18-year-old URI student, this genuineness was what
convinced him to sign on to work on Lopez's campaign. Britto remembers first
meeting Lopez. "He was visiting classrooms at URI, talking up his plan for a
Rhode Island branch of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly," he says. "I
remember one individual kept confronting him about how a Hispanic could be a
Republican. Ed was so calm and persuasive. He handled it masterfully."
Still, the classroom critic had a strong case. Many Hispanics in this country
are poor and undereducated. The Republican Party -- the party of welfare
reform and English-only education and nativist immigration policy -- does not
readily come to mind as the logical ideological home for such voters.
But for many Hispanic conservatives -- Ed Lopez included -- the explanation is
simple: religion. Hispanics are almost universally Roman Catholic, and many
support the Church's teachings on issues such as abortion and homosexuality.
Lopez's Catholic upbringing lent itself well to the socially conservative
beliefs of Mormonism, the faith he adopted at college in 1992. In fact, if
every state were like Utah, the home state of Mormonism, Bill Clinton would
have finished a distant third in the 1992 election, behind George Bush and Ross
Perot. For a little further perspective -- last month a minor scandal shook
Salt Lake City when Mormon church elder Marlin Jensen announced that good
Mormons could actually vote Democratic.
In addition to providing a conservative philosophical grounding, Mormonism has
helped Lopez develop his skills as a politician. Before coming to Rhode Island,
Lopez spent two years as a Mormon missionary in the Dominican Republic. And
nowadays, when he's not playing politics or studying for a political science
exam, Ed Lopez knocks on doors in Rhode Island part-time.
"The experience in the Dominican Republic gave him focus," says campaign
manager Jack McDonald, a fellow Mormon. "As a missionary, you're working 15
hours a day. You're living by a strict set of standards and procedures. With a
campaign, you're, in effect, doing the same thing. You're getting voters to
believe in your issues."
Despite his lofty dreams of secretary of statehood, Lopez, in reality,
is still a kid, spending the summer with his parents and little brother in
Cranston, whimsically strolling through the corridors of power. And, in fact, a
career in politics is not even a sure bet -- Lopez says he is also considering
going to medical school after graduating from college.
In other words, Ed Lopez is not someone who can pick up the phone and meet
Almond for lunch or mull over policy concerns with Lieutenant Governor Bernard
Jackvony. Lopez has not paid his dues. He is young, ambitious, and optimistic.
But he is not wise, respected, or experienced. He is someone the state party
wants to encourage but not to involve. He is someone they want to point to as
an example of inclusiveness. But he is not someone they can possibly take too
Indeed, by all accounts, it will take more than charisma and hard work to
defeat Langevin in November. In a state where registered Democrats hold a
decisive numerical edge, Republican candidates often lose based on their party
To overcome that disadvantage, Lopez will need to get his message out and make
his name recognizable to voters. With a small campaign war chest, cable TV and
radio advertisements may be possible, but will definitely be limited. And
anything less than a full-bore media assault will probably not be enough to
click with voters before November. Even so, Lopez's opponent is taking no
"We're taking the challenge seriously," says Langevin spokesman Peter Kerwin.
"Of course, we believe we've earned the right to be reelected. We're taking a
wait-and-see attitude. We want to find out who Ed Lopez really is."