MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Later this hour, we'll talk about obesity and how it's affecting not just your health, but the nation's pocketbook. We'll talk with the former Food And Drug Administrator, Dr. David Kessler about his provocative book about why health reform must include reform of how we eat. That's coming up.
But first, we want to talk about an historic moment in our nation's history. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted yesterday to approve Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court, sending the nomination to the full Senate and putting her on track to become the nation's first justice of Latino heritage. But the vote was not unanimous. Senator John Cornyn of Texas was one of six Republican committee members who voted no.
Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): To consider only her judicial record and not consider other statements she has made about how judges should perform in office, I think is an incomplete picture. She has said there is no neutrality in the law. She has said that legal uncertainty is a good thing because it allows judges to change the law and to make policy. She said that foreign law can get the quote "creative juices flowing" close quote, as judges interpret the United States Constitution. And that ethnicity and gender can and even should have an impact on a judge's decision making.
MARTIN: Today, we wanted to talk about the politics of the Sotomayor confirmation, specifically how this nomination and the confirmation (unintelligible), as tame as many people think it was, will affect Latino politics in the United States. We'll start in Senator Cornyn's home state of Texas. We'll ask how his decision to oppose Sotomayor is playing there and how the response to Sotomayor is playing out among Latino voters nationwide. We'll ask what, if any, Sotomayor's nomination means to the political advancement of Latinos.
Our guests are Veronica Vargas Stidvent. She is the director of the Center For Politics And Governance at the University of Texas at Austin. She previously served in the administration of George W. Bush. Also with us is James Aldrete. He is a Democratic political consultant in Texas and he worked on President Obama's campaign. I welcome you both, thank you for joining us.
Ms. VERONICA VARGAS STIDVENT (Director, Center For Politics And Governance, University of Texas): Thanks for having us Michel, it's a pleasure to be on the show.
Mr. JAMES ALDRETE (Democratic Political Consultant): Thank you.
MARTIN: Well, thank you. Veronica, I want to start with you. How closely do you think Latino voters watched this process? As you know, many in the media pronounced it essentially a big snooze fest but we also saw that, you know, hundreds of people from all over the country, many of Latino heritage, flocked to the capital just to get a glimpse of the hearings, to be part of history. So, do you think this is something that engaged the voters, particularly Latino voters?
Ms. STIDVENT: I think it did. I can recall being a young girl when - Judge O'Connor was nominated for the court and that was a big deal. When, you know, you think about the first and what that means to people. So, I think people were paying attention. I don't know that people were watching every second of the hearings, but I think it made an impact. I think people were watching how people treated the judge, what kind of - what kind of animosity was displayed toward her, if any. I think we were watching for those signals, those cues. But I think it's another question entirely if this is going to have a big impact politically.
MARTIN: Okay, well, we'll come to that in a minute but James we want to hear from you. What do you think, do you think this is a process that engaged the voters, particularly Latino voters?
Mr. ALDRETE: I think there is a clear sense of that and I think Cornyn was definitely worried about that when he came down to visit with the legislative Mexican-American legislative caucus in the state house. And it was a preemptive part to kind of pave the way for what was going to be a politically risky vote for him.
MARTIN: So, what do you both think? And James, I'll start with you, what do you think of the decision to oppose her by six of the seven committee Republicans? South Carolina's Lindsey Graham was the only Republican on the committee to support Sotomayor. They all said that they felt that she was qualified and most said that they felt her decisions were in fact mainstream but they opposed her anyway. And I think we're particularly interested in Senator Cornyn because his state has what, I believe 30 percent of the voters are Latino. So, James, what do you make of his decision particularly, do you think he'll pay a political price for it?
Mr. ALDRETE: I think there is definitely a challenge. I mean, the benefit that Cornyn has is that he was just recently re-elected and it's such a large state. So it's, it hasn't necessarily been in play. Obama put a lot of attention into the Western states of Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. But the fact is, it's still one of the fastest growing states. You're going to have new congressional districts here. And the state is becoming increasingly more Western than it is Southern. And the more that that happens, the combination of the changing Anglo vote with an Hispanic vote is going to pose some severe challenges to him.
MARTIN: Veronica, what do you think?
Ms. STIDVENT: Well, I think it's interesting that you can make that calculation now. Both Cornyn and Hutchison, who has stated that she will oppose Judge Sotomayor's confirmation as well. And it's a pretty easy calculation for a Republican to make, at least at this point, because Latino voters have not turned out for Republicans, and they sort of walked away from the party after 2000. And despite their numbers they haven't been showing up at the polls. And so I think at least for now it's an easy calculation for a Republican to make to mollify the base rather than try and expand the party and go after Hispanics. I think it's bad for Hispanics in terms of their political power, and I think it's bad for the Republican Party.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Veronica Vargas Stidvent of the University of Texas, and - she is also a former Bush administration official, and Democratic consultant James Aldrete about the impact on Latinos of Judge Sonia Sotomayor's likely confirmation to the Supreme Court, and also the political impact of the confirmation hearings and how they were pursued. So, Veronica I want to go back to a point you made just a minute ago. You said that the way she was treated will be watched. How do you think that played out over time?
As we mentioned, a lot of people think that the hearings were ultimately in some ways unsatisfying. That's probably a commentary on the larger process of how confirmation hearings are playing out these days where nominees really have no incentive to answer very many questions. But do you think - but the one area of obvious tension was over the wise Latina comment that she made in a speech in 2001, and - obviously there was a source of much discussion over the course of the hearings. Do you think that there is any lasting impact and how do you think that will play out?
Ms. STIDVENT: Well, I think the senators had to tread very carefully on that and question her record, question her judicial philosophy without seeming as they were attacking her ethnicity. And I think it started, there were some pieces very early on in her nomination that seemed to be very thinly veiled attacks. There was a - piece by a professor who questioned her temperament, that seemed like a very thinly veiled attack on a Latin temper in the court room. And so I think people were very careful not to embrace that kind of attack, to question her judicial philosophy without questioning her as a Hispanic. And I think that - I think overall they did a pretty good job of that because, like I said, people were watching to see how she was going to be treated.
MARTIN: Do you think that they stayed on the right side of civil? And obviously that's a moving target. That means different things to different people. You know, one person's tough questioning is another person's bullying, so there is - I don't know that there is a bright line, but do you think that they stayed on the line - on the right side of civil? At least that…
Ms. STIDVENT: I think for the most part they did. Anyone who has appeared before Congress - it can be brutal, it can be tough, they can ask whatever questions they want and they enjoy their position of being in that, being the interrogator without having to deal with the fall out of that. And so I think for the most part she was prepared, she knew what she was getting into, I think the White House and the Justice Department prepared her well. And I don't think it was uncivil. I think there were couple of moments where people gaffed. The one that comes to mind was the, you've got some 'splaining to do and…
MARTIN: That's Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
Ms. STIDVENT: That's right. And so there was some question of was that a - was that in any way a bigoted comment? And so people were waiting to interpret those comments. I think people had to be very, very careful about how they phrased their questions and how they appeared when they did question her philosophy.
MARTIN: James, what do you think? Do you think there will be any lasting impact in the impression that people have from these hearings?
Mr. ALDRETE: Oh, most definitely. And the challenge to the Republicans has been that this really has been a continuation of the immigration debate that started in 2006. And that's where you saw a major shift in the way the Latinos aligned themselves among the parties. And it was, you know, increasingly with Democrats, a huge drop even from Hispanic Republicans in the gains that they had made under Bush, especially in his first term.
And the part about the immigration debate has just been which party is welcoming. And this continues to show that one party on that fairly party line vote on the Republicans is six out of seven voting no, that they're not welcoming. And the other thing that - it was actually Matthew Dowd, who was one of the pollsters for Bush had always noted, that there's a real ricochet effect when you're dealing with minorities, and especially with a woman. And that is how independent white women are looking at this, as well.
MARTIN: Do you envision, for example, Tom Coburn's comment - you got some 'splaining to do. Do you envision that in an ad, for example, in a campaign ad down the road?
Mr. ALDRETE: Actually, when it comes down to it, it's still going to be bread-and-butter issues. It's still going to be health care, education and the economy, and that opportunity to kind of push your own family forward. But that is - it's really the Coburn stuff, as well the Rush Limbaugh part of it, it makes it very hard for Hispanics to openly consider the Republican Party. And so what you've seen is not only a slight increase in turnout but what you're going to have in Texas is maybe not so much the increase in turnout, but you're going to have that partisanship go much more heavy towards the Democrats.
And, you know, Bush when he was governor here had a very interpersonal relationship with the community. He met a lot of folks one on one, got out there and really got into the mid-40s, but that hasn't happened again. And when that wall kind of comes back with the Coburn rhetoric, with the Limbaugh rhetoric, it's going to be hard for them to break.
MARTIN: And - well, Veronica, obviously I want to hear from you on this, we only about a minute and a half, but I guess what I'm wondering overall is does this - is this kind of a punctuation mark, these hearings, this confirmation a punctuation mark or is it in any way a turning point? And it's obviously a very hard thing to predict, but I'm thinking about, for example, Jesse Jackson's campaign for president, which was not only important as a sort of a political event, but it was also a training event for many people.
Many people learned how to do presidential campaigns from working on his campaign, and they went on to work on other people's campaigns. This isn't a kind of a broader grassroots event in that sense, but I wanted to ask you, Veronica, I'll give you the final word, do you think that this historic event has a similar effect?
Ms. STIDVENT: I don't think so in that we've been talking about turning points for eight years now. Where is the turning point? It was the immigration debate was going to waken the sleeping giant, we were going to see massive turnout and the truth of the matter is, though the number of eligible Latino voters has increased more than 21 percent, in 2008 voter participation rate in the same group only increased 2.7 percent. So you're not seeing a massive turnout.
But what I think it is in terms of the Jesse Jackson analogy, it's - if it was a punctuation mark at all, it's a comma in that Hispanics continue to gain ground in this country. They're - look around, they're leaders at every level. And so I think about the Sotomayor confirmation in terms of my own two daughters who are too young to view this as an anomaly that there's going to be a Hispanic on the Supreme Court. But as they grow up, it's going to be the assumption that there's a Hispanic on the Supreme Court and that's what changes.
MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. Veronica Vargas Stidvent is the director of the Center for Politics and Governance in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. She's a former Assistant Secretary for Policy at the Department of Labor in the George W. Bush administration. She joined us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. James Aldrete is a Democratic political consultant and he joined us from Weslaco, Texas, and I thank you both so much.
Ms. STIDVENT: Thank you, Michel.
Mr. ALDRETE: Thank you.
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