DALLAS, March 1 (UPI) -- One candidate's refusal to speak entirely in Spanish became an issue Friday night in an historic Spanish-language debate between the leading candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Texas.
Dan Morales, a former two-term Texas attorney general, answered reporters' questions in both Spanish and English during the hour-long debate with Tony Sanchez, a Laredo millionaire. Sanchez said Morales had violated the negotiated rules that they would only answer questions in Spanish.
The Spanish-language debate was billed as the first ever in the nation between gubernatorial candidates and recognition of the growing political power of Hispanics in the United States.
The moderator announced during the debate that the sponsors were not in agreement with Morales' decision.
Asked about Morales' decision during the debate, Sanchez said his opponent had broken his promise.
"My parents raised me to be a man of my word," he said. "We entered into an agreement, he was prepared for it. He wanted a debate in Spanish, five, six or 10 times he asked. At the last minute, he changed his mind because he's embarrassed to be Hispanic."
Morales said it was important to communicate with all voters, including those who are Hispanic and speak only Spanish. "I also believe the great majority of the voters in the state of Texas, including those who are Hispanic, speak English," he said.
In an English debate earlier in the evening, Morales said he was proud of his Hispanic heritage but that English is the dominant language in Texas and the United States.
"I think we need to promote the fact that children should learn to speak English as quickly as they can," He said.
Sanchez said Morales decision was a "slap in the face" to the 7 million Latinos who live in Texas.
Morales had trouble answering questions in Spanish and then English within the time allotted and he was cut off several times by the moderator.
On the eve of the debates, Morales announced that he would answer questions in both English and Spanish. He accused Sanchez of trying to divide the state "by race" by pressing for a Spanish debate.
"Mr. Sanchez's insistence that we basically elevate Spanish, the Spanish language, to an equal status with the English language in this race for governor of Texas is ill-advised," he said.
Sanchez disagreed, stating that his campaign was one of inclusion and he had "reached out to people in every community, and my support reaches across all lines."
Nearly one third of Texas' 21 million residents 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 speaking more Spanish.
Hispanics are also taking more interest in the Democratic gubernatorial race this year because of Morales and Sanchez campaigns. The winner of the May 12 primary will face Republican Gov. Rick Perry.
Sanchez, a 59-year-old Laredo native, made millions as a banker, oilman and rancher in South Texas. His family has lived in the United States for seven generations, dating back to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War in 1848.
Morales, a 45-year-old native of San Antonio, is the grandson of Mexican immigrants. The Harvard-educated lawyer already has statewide recognition after a political career as a local prosecutor, state legislator and state attorney general.
Perry has been taking Spanish lessons but has no intention of debating either candidate in the language, according to his spokeswoman.
Sanchez was leading in the race for the Democratic nomination with little serious opposition until January when Morales shocked the Texas Democratic party by entering the race for governor rather than the U.S. Senate as he had hinted for months.
Latino Democrats may represent 40 percent of the party vote this year, according to experts.
The impact of the debate is expected to be more symbolic than practical, according to 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."
Voters must be U.S. citizens and they must live 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 says.