DALLAS, Jan. 15 (UPI) -- A plan by the two leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor in Texas to debate in Spanish is not only historic for the state but another acknowledgment of the Hispanic voter's growing influence in U.S. politics.
Nearly one third of the 21 million people who live in Texas are Hispanic, according to the 2000 Census. In the 90's, the state's Latino population increased more than 50 percent so it comes as no surprise that politicians are paying more attention to their opinions.
Hispanics are also taking more interest in the Democratic gubernatorial nomination because of Dan Morales and Tony Sanchez, the two front-runners in the March 12 primary. Not only their surnames attract attention, but also they speak Spanish fluently.
Sanchez, a Laredo native who made millions as a banker, oilman and rancher, is making his first bid for public office, touting his expertise as a businessman. He was leading the race without any serious opposition until Morales decided to run for governor instead of the Senate in a surprise move earlier this month.
Morales, whose name is already recognized statewide, was a prosecutor, state legislator, and two-term attorney general. The Harvard-educated lawyer stresses his experience in his bid for the Democratic nod to oppose Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who has no primary opposition.
The Sanchez and Morales campaigns have created a political dilemma for Latino Democrats, who experts say may provide up to 40 percent of the party vote this year. Many are looking for answers and they may find some of them in the Spanish-language debate.
Negotiations are still under way for the date and place of the debate, but both sides seem to agree there will be one in Spanish. The Sanchez campaign wants a second in English but the Morales campaign is pushing for six to eight debates around the state.
The Spanish-language debate, which is a first for Texas and possibly the nation in a statewide race, will probably be at Telemundo's KVDA-TV in San Antonio. It may also be carried on stations in Dallas and Houston but the details are still being worked out.
The campaigns have heartily endorsed the historic debate.
Jim Moore, senior adviser and communications director for the Morales campaign, said putting the candidates on television to answer questions in Spanish recognizes the diversity of the Lone Star state.
"There is still a large segment of the population that is more comfortable conversing in their homes, business and churches and whatever social venue in Spanish," he said. "And in order to reach out to as many people as possible, to help them understand the issues and candidates, we thought it was appropriate to take part in a debate in Spanish."
Michelle Kucera, spokeswoman for the Sanchez campaign, said the debate recognizes the growing strength of Hispanic voters. "They are becoming more of a force," she said.
The value of a debate in Spanish may be more symbolic than practical in the view of Nestor Rodriguez, a sociologist and co-director of the Center for Immigration Research at the University of Houston.
"If you are looking at Hispanic voters in Texas, the majority are going to be U.S.-born and they are going to be English dominant," he said. "I think it probably has a symbolic value. It shows a connection to the ethnic heritage and the ethnic origin."
To vote in Texas, you must be a citizen and you have to have lived in the United States at least five years to become a citizen under federal law. "By the time you become a citizen you have some functional skills in English," he said.
Kucera agreed that is probably true but the purpose goes behind that.
"It is a sign of respect to do a debate in Spanish," she said. "There is significance too in that many of these people regularly watch the Spanish-language networks."
Moore said the debate could also turn out more voters at the polls.
"Because of the Spanish surnames on the Democratic ballot, they will turn out in larger numbers for this primary than they ever have," he said. "If you have a debate in Spanish that can only serve to increase that turnout beyond what's going be drawn out because of the Hispanic surnames."