Rick Perry’s Complicated Relationship with Latinos

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Melina Mara / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Surrounded by media, presidential candidate for the GOP nomination and Republican Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, spoke to New Englanders at the Politics and Eggs breakfast, in Bedford, New Hampshire, Wednesday, August 17, 2011.

In San Antonio on June 23, Rick Perry addressed the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials’ annual meeting. He was optimistic, focused on Texas’ booming economy, and reminded the crowd – Republicans and Democrats – about his most high-profile Latino appointments, including Eva Guzman, the state’s first Latina supreme court justice, and the alcoholic beverage commission’s chief, Jose Cuevas Jr. “That is the right job for that man,” Perry said, an apparent reference to Jose Cuervo, the Mexican tequila brand. The poor attempt at humor was probably intended to reflect Perry’s ease with Latinos. Instead, it laid bare a complicated relationship between the governor and one of the most crucial electoral blocs in Texas and the U.S. as a whole.

To understand Perry’s relationship with Latinos, it helps to consider the state he’s governed for the last decade. As Perry notes in his book, Fed Up!, Texas’ “unique culture” has been formed by a centuries-long melding of “Mexican and Anglo” traditions. More than half of the 2,000-mile U.S.- Mexican border spans Texas, a crucial membrane between America and its third-largest trading partner. At Laredo, Americans often drive across the Rio Grande River, into Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, to shop. Nearly 40% of Texas’ population is Hispanic – about 9.2 million people mostly of Mexican origin, comprising the second-largest Latino population in the U.S. after California. “Latinos are all around,” observes Lionel Sosa, a San Antonio marketing executive who helped cultivate Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush’s relationship with Hispanics. “So having a good relationship with us is a must.”

In his gubernatorial campaigns, Perry, who speaks moderate Spanish, frequently traveled to Hispanic neighborhoods. Last November, he won a third term with about 38% of the Latino vote, up from 31% in 2006, according to exit polls. And his record on immigration, a key issue for Latino voters nationwide,  is nuanced. Even though three-fourths of Latinos in the U.S. are American citizens, a new spate of severe state laws pursued by Republican legislatures have made the issue a foremost concern. Perry supported making undocumented immigrants eligible for in-state college tuition. Shortly after Arizona passed a restrictive measure requiring local law enforcement authorities to check the citizenship status of people believed to be undocumented immigrants, Perry flatly told a gathering of the National Council of La Raza: “It may be right for Arizona, but it ain’t right for Texas.”

In his book, Perry railed against the federal government’s handling of the U.S.-Mexican border. Texas has invested more than a quarter- billion dollars in recent years hiring patrols to tame drug cartels – “terrorists,” Perry called them – while Washington has dispatched barely 300 of 1,200 promised National Guard troops to the state. In June 2010, bullets from a gun battle in Juarez struck El Paso’s city hall. “Border security, unfortunately, has been unnecessarily and inappropriately wrapped up with ‘comprehensive immigration,’” Perry wrote in Fed Up!. And yet he insists that a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border is unnecessary.

This nuanced approach might resonate with Republican immigration hardliners, and some Latinos. “Hispanics on the border are all for security,” says Aaron Pena, a Republican Texas legislator who switched parties last year. “But nearly all of us are against some of the harsher, more draconian aspects of the immigration debate.”

Of the immigration bills introduced in Texas’ last legislative session, the most striking is a so-called “sanctuary cities” bill. Introduced by Burt Solomons, a Republican legislator from a north Dallas suburb, the measure would have essentially prohibited cities from passing ordinances barring law enforcement authorities from asking about a suspect’s citizenship status. In Houston, Perry’s office said, authorities can only verify a suspects’ citizenship status at jails, under the federal government’s Secure Communities program. Solomons’ bill failed. But in May, when Perry called a special legislative session to resolve a fiscal crisis, the governor revived the sanctuary cities bill and declared it a priority. With other pressing matters – health care, education – on the table, some Texas political observers were taken aback. “That didn’t reflect the traditional Republican pragmatism in Texas,” says Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, an El Paso-based immigration reform advocacy group.

The sanctuary cities effort drew the ire of Texas’ business community and Latinos. Somos Republicans, one of the nation’s largest Latino Republican groups, in June downgraded Perry from an “A” to a “B-“ on its influential scorecard. DeeDee Garcia Blasé, the 6,000-member group’s president, told TIME the governor’s handling of the bill “was a chance to get anti-immigration points with the Tea Party people.” The bill still ultimately failed, but damage persists: several prominent Hispanic evangelical pastors declined invitations to Perry’s Aug. 5 Houston prayer event, known as the “The Response,” in protest to the legislative campaign.

Despite Perry’s recent rightward shift on immigration, his experience with Latinos could help him in a general election, where he will need to appeal to a broader audience. Gary Segura, an analyst at Latino Decisions, a nonpartisan political research firm, suggests that Republicans will need at least 40% of Latino votes in battleground states like New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada to succeed against President Obama, whose popularity among Latinos is falling. The last Texas Republican to serve as President, George W. Bush, captured 44% of the Latino vote in 2004, partly by espousing moderation on immigration and waging a social issues-focused campaign. Hispanics are “hard-working, religious, family-oriented – which is a pretty good definition of a Republican, in this age,” says Whit Ayers, a Republican pollster. “That means there’s a real opportunity for a savvy Republican.”

Steven Gray is a Washington Correspondent at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @stevengray or at Facebook/gray.steven. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.