It’s safe to assume that Marc Racicot, the Montana-born chairman of the Republican National Committee, hasn’t spent a good deal of time in Washington Heights, the largely Latino neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan.
But that’s exactly where he’s headed on Thursday, July 24. On that afternoon, Mr. Racicot, along with R.N.C. senior adviser Ed Gillespie, Governor George Pataki and other national and local G.O.P. luminaries, is planning to cut the ribbon on a new office that the Republicans are opening as part of a drive to get New York Latinos to vote for President George W. Bush in the 2004 election.
The office, which is to be called the Hispanic Outreach Center, will be a downstate branch office of the New York Republican State Committee. Its function is to serve as a recruitment center for Latino voters in local elections, as well as to lure new voters for Mr. Bush in 2004.
But its existence is also symbolic, a part of a broader ongoing effort to retool the G.O.P.’s national image. The ribbon-cutting, which comes in the midst of a high-profile, four-day visit to New York City by national Republicans involved in planning the 2004 convention, is meant to convey a picture to the national audience of a Republican Party that’s receptive to minorities and travels comfortably in the city’s varied immigrant communities.
Mr. Bush himself has worked hard to appear friendly to minorities. He speaks Spanish at public events, has appointed Latinos, blacks and Asians to high-profile cabinet posts and recently embarked on a trip to Africa. With the convention coming to New York City in 2004, Republicans strategists have a huge opportunity to build on those efforts.
“A significant reason the Republicans decided to hold their convention in New York is that they wanted to project an inclusive image to the nation,” said Rick Davis, a nationally known Republican consultant. “It contrasts strongly with the way the party presented itself at the 1996 convention [in San Diego], when Pat Robertson spoke and the party was seen as catering to the Christian Right. The 2000 convention in Philadelphia was really the very first effort to send a message that the party was interested in competing for Hispanics, Asians, blacks and other minorities. Now the challenge is, how do we do that without just finding the most artful Hispanic or black spokesman?”
The decision to hold the convention in New York City, Mr. Davis continued, was partly an answer to that question, adding: “The opening of the office in Washington Heights is a manifestation of this effort to redirect the party’s image.”
Of course, by aggressively reaching out to Latinos-a constituency with growing power-as well as other minorities, national Republicans are hoping to accomplish other goals. In particular, they want to force Democrats to invest resources in hanging onto voters that were once solidly in their corner.
As it seeks to craft a convention message with New York as its backdrop, the national party will be building on the successful efforts by the state G.O.P. to make inroads among Latino voters. New York’s two top Republicans, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Pataki, both did surprisingly well among Latinos in their elections in 2001 and 2002.
Hence the new outreach office. According to sources familiar with the effort, the office will be on Dyckman Street, abutting the Harlem River Drive in Northern Manhattan. It will be manned for the foreseeable future by one full-time state G.O.P. employee, as well as other upstate Republican operatives who will lend time to the office as needed. The office is also going to be a kind of political pied-à-terre for state Republican chairman Sandy Treadwell, a place where he can run his operation whenever he’s in the city with his staff.
“This is a voter-registration office that’s meant to show that, in fact, we do care,” said James Ortenzio, the chairman of the Manhattan G.O.P. “We find a consistency in values between national Republicans and Manhattan Hispanics. Why not build a chapel in the place where the marriage can occur?”
In addition to carrying out political chores like canvassing neighborhoods and registering new voters, the office is also expected to function as a kind of old-fashioned constituent-service center that provides aid to local residents who, in search of information or help, might otherwise have gone to the office of their local Democratic elected official. (There are no Republican legislators in Manhattan.)
“We’re going to provide services to the community, and in the process let them know what the mind-set of the Republican Party really is,” said Fernando Mateo, a prominent Latino activist who helped plan the office in discussions with high-level Republicans. “We want to make sure that people see the office as an alternate place for getting services and information.”
Mr. Mateo also told The Observer that Karl Rove, the President’s chief political adviser, had told him privately that Mr. Bush might pay a visit to Washington Heights during the convention in September of 2004. “Karl told me he’s working on getting the President to come,” he said.
The new office has infuriated some Latino Democrats, who describe the initiative as a cynical exercise in image-making that is at odds with the party’s policies.
“Remember when the Republicans were saying ‘English only’?” said Roberto Ramirez, the former chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party who now hosts a Spanish-language radio show. “Well, now they’re saying, ‘ Habla español ‘? This outreach is happening at a time when the war on terror is being used to erode immigrants’ fundamental rights. It’s happening at a time when Bush is challenging affirmative-action programs that benefit the very same people that this new office is supposed to recruit.”
In the view of some national Democrats, the new office will represent an extension of the strategy that local and national Republicans have already used to great effect: to win over Hispanic voters by appearing to care about them.
“Republicans do not have a lot of issues where they agree with large numbers of Hispanics,” said Sergio Bendixen, a Democratic consultant who has polled national Hispanic voters extensively on all sorts of issues. “So the strategy has been to basically say, ‘We’re your friends, we know you’re there, you’re important-if you ever need something, give us a call.’ It’s based on making immigrants feel they have access to the power structure. Republicans have had great success with this approach.”
Some Republicans say this assessment isn’t too far off the mark. As Republican consultant Scott Reed put it: “While the Washington Heights office is a great first initiative, it’s only when the Republicans seriously focus on issues important to Latinos, like education, jobs and health care, that they will be able to succeed in capturing this emerging market.”