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Susana Martinez, Marco Rubio and the New Latino Leadership

Susana Martinez, Marco Rubio and the New Latino Leadership

Photo: Luisita Lopez Torregrosa

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Today’s guest blogger is Luisita Lopez Torregrosa. Luisita a correspondent for Politics Daily, is a columnist for the International Herald Tribune and NYTimes.com global editions and a contributor to the Los Angeles Times Op-Ed page. She is an adjunct professor at Fordham University’s Latin American and Latino Studies Institute and at Columbia University and a guest lecturer at Syracuse University.

Out of the historic victory of a surprising number of Hispanic Republican candidates in the midterms two weeks ago, a new political profile of Latino leadership is taking shape, and it runs counter to the dominant liberal and pro-Democrat image.

After the remarkable electoral shakeup of Nov. 2, the time seems ripe for this sort of turnover—time to reset shopworn ideas and cast out old images. New Hispanic leaders with a different bent of mind would seem primed to fill a vacuum at the helm of the nation’s 47 million Hispanics. According to a recent Pew Hispanic Center survey, most Latinos cannot name a single national Latino leader, and the ferocious debate over illegal immigration has created deep divisions among Hispanics themselves about what sort of leaders they want.

But a new generation of potential Hispanic leaders is emerging: Senator-elect Marco Rubio in Florida, Susana Martinez, the first female Hispanic governor of New Mexico, and Brian Sandoval, the first Hispanic governor of Nevada. There are more. A record eight Hispanic Republicans were elected to Congress on Nov. 2 for a total of 27 Latinos in the U.S. House. Five new Latino GOP representatives, who defeated Democratic incumbents, will join Rubio on Capitol Hill.

Martinez, Sandoval, and Nikki Haley, the first female and Indian-American governor of South Carolina, are some of the marquee names the Republicans paraded at the party’s governors’ conference in San Diego this week to highlight the new diversity, reflected in the slogan “The New Face of the G.O.P.”

There, Martinez was a star in the new class of governors, playing down her “historic firsts” and ethnic labels. “I have said over and over again that being a woman and being Hispanic is only one of the small steps,” she said. “Turning New Mexico around is what is going to be historical.”

But one issue she faces head-on is immigration. Martinez, 51, a county prosecutor, makes no bones about her opposition to illegal immigration and to any measures that would make it easier for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship or remain in the United States without punishment. Like Rubio in Florida and other Hispanic Republican candidates, she ran on an anti-illegal immigration platform, promised to secure the border and opposed allowing illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses in New Mexico.

Born in El Paso, Texas, of Mexican-American parents, Martinez was accused during the campaign of betraying Mexicans and Mexican-Americans for her support of tough anti-illegal immigration measures. But she was able to persuade enough Latinos who fear the violence on the border and who, like her, are pro-life and anti-gay marriage, to vote for her. She won upwards of 30 percent of the Hispanic vote, a large margin in Democrat-heavy New Mexico, where Democrat Bill Richardson, whose term in office is ending, was the first Latino governor. Richardson is a vocal and active supporter of immigration reform.

During a panel discussion at the Republican Governors Association conference, she was asked how she persuaded tens of thousands of Latinos to see the immigration issue her way despite overwhelming Hispanic opposition to anti-illegal immigration measures like Arizona’s. Martinez said it’s important for Republicans to emphasize that the issue “is not about the Mexican population. It’s about the Mexican border.” Simply put, she wants to stop all illegal traffic from coming in, whether it’s unauthorized Mexicans crossing the border to look for work, or drug and human smugglers, or illegal immigrants from anywhere else in the world.

“I have been the prosecutor and the district attorney in a border county,’’ she told Latina magazine. “We live next to the most violent city in the world. It’s not just that I am Latina and happen to live in the state of New Mexico. But I deal with the criminal element every day and people who have come here to New Mexico illegally with the sole purpose of committing crimes.”

Asked about immigration reform, she said, “I don’t know what the comprehensive reform act would be, but the first thing to do is we have to secure the border.” She had also given little consideration, by her own admission, to the so-called Dream Act that would allow children of illegal immigrants to stay in the country as long as they go to college or serve in the armed forces. The measure has been dormant in Congress for 10 years, though the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who won re-election thanks to the Latino Democratic vote in Nevada, has said he plans to revive it.

“What I am concerned about is that we have New Mexico citizens who want to attend college and there’s only so much funding to go around,’’ she said, referring to the cost of sending illegal immigrants to college. “The Dream Act has to be a part of federal comprehensive immigration reform, but we have to secure the border first. I can’t emphasize that more.”

That is the conservative Republican stand, and it is hers to her bones. It’s a notable turnaround for a girl whose parents were Democrats, who grew up Democrat and worked for the party in Doña Ana County. She and her husband are pro-life, believe in small government, and oppose welfare and handouts. In other words, she fits the conservative Republican mold. She had no trouble getting tea party support.

She is definitely a new kind of Latino leader. She’s far from the time and persona of Cesar Chavez, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America and a hero to Mexican migrant workers. But this is another time, another century, and perhaps the onetime near-monolithic view of Hispanics has fractured and become, ironically, more like this nation itself.

Like Martinez, Marco Rubio, 39, son of Cuban exiles but born in Florida, ran on an anti-illegal immigration and pro-life platform. He was a tea party favorite early on. Now he is being talked about as a potential vice presidential nominee in 2012.

The success of Martinez, Rubio, Sandoval and the other newly elected Hispanic Republicans signals a new political dimension for Hispanics. And that alone should embolden and encourage Latinos of all political persuasions. Perhaps when the next Latino leadership survey comes around, Latinos will not only be able to name one national leader, but many.