Prominent Maryland Hispanics say Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. must hire more Latinos to well-paying administration positions or risk losing support from an increasingly influential interest group when he seeks re-election.
The Maryland Hispanic Republican Caucus has scheduled a meeting with Ehrlich next week to discuss what its members see as a lack of diversity in appointments. The group is demanding that the governor conduct a national search for a Hispanic higher-education secretary and that he appoint a top adviser to handle Hispanic affairs.
Jorge Ribas, chairman of the recently formed caucus, said that no Hispanics have been appointed to what he calls the "top 125 government positions" in Maryland, which include Cabinet secretaries and their deputies, as well as the governor's staff.
"It is a new ball game in town. You better listen to us, because people are extremely dissatisfied. And you are not going to find loyalty with dissatisfied people," said Ribas, a pathologist and consultant from Montgomery County, in an interview yesterday. "People want to be players. People want to sit at the table. And if that doesn't happen, they'll be looking for another candidate."
Administration officials say that while they do not keep such a breakdown of high-level hires, they do not dispute Ribas' claim. However, they point to five Latino appointments, including the first Hispanic member of the unpaid State Board of Education. The other positions are midlevel jobs.
Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said that the governor remains committed to diversity and has filled only a small portion of the positions under his direct control.
"There are a number of bright, talented individuals from the Hispanic community presently under active consideration for prominent positions in the Ehrlich-Steele administration," Fawell said.
The caucus' aggressive stance comes as Hispanics in Maryland and elsewhere are learning to wield a strength that comes with numbers. The U.S. Census recently reported that Hispanics have surpassed blacks nationally as the largest minority group in the United States.
In Maryland, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Central and South Americans are a small but growing political subset that has never commanded much political attention. The 2000 census counted 227,916 Marylanders of Hispanic extraction, or 4.3 percent of the state's population. But Ribas said the figure does not include those fearful of reporting their status. He believes that the true population, including growth over the past three years, is closer to 400,000.
Maryland Hispanics are not yet sufficiently organized to make statewide politicians such as Ehrlich tremble, said Del. Luiz Simmons, a Silver Spring Democrat who returned to the State House this year after an absence of two decades, during which he switched parties.
"There is a percolating Hispanic vote, but I'm not sure it has come to a boil yet," Simmons said. "There's got to be more effort, frankly, on the part of people like me to go out and participate in a sustained voter registration drive."
While Ehrlich may be well-positioned to capitalize on Hispanic interests, he has yet to turn campaign rhetoric into tangible results, Simmons said. In May, Ehrlich vetoed a bill that would have allowed certain undocumented immigrants who graduated from Maryland high schools to pay in-state tuition rates at public universities.
"I really don't see Governor Ehrlich resonating with Hispanics the way that President Bush does, or [Florida] Governor [Jeb] Bush does," Simmons said. "Just giving a speech in which you say 'Hola' does not necessarily generate a program or personal empathy that people are going to buy into."
Although exact figures are not available, some observers say that Hispanics voted for Ehrlich in large numbers and that Ehrlich has recognized in speeches the importance of their efforts.
"The Ehrlich campaign did reach out to Hispanics, and they did spend money on the Hispanic community," said Jose A. Fuentes, a Republican and former Puerto Rico attorney general who lives in Annapolis.
The outreach illustrates a growing political trend: Republicans believe they can parlay their more conservative positions on social and family-related issues into Hispanic votes, winning over a constituency more typically thought to be aligned with Democrats.
Fuentes said that Maryland governors have turned their backs on Hispanics for decades, and the hope is that Ehrlich will be different.
"It has to change, because the number of Hispanics in Maryland has really increased," Fuentes said. "If the Republican Party in Maryland wants to participate in the migration of Hispanics that has taken place from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, they have to show their support and they have to show their commitment."
Frustration with Ehrlich is not universal. Sen. Alex X. Mooney of Frederick, the Assembly's lone Hispanic Republican (he is of Cuban descent) said administration officials contact him regularly. "I feel I've been looked to and included in my input and help," he said.