The National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights organization, embraced Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales at an awards ceremony last night, breaking with other civil rights organizations that have denounced Gonzales for his role in producing the administration memo that allowed harsh treatment of detainees overseas.
Although La Raza supported Gonzales's appointment as attorney general, last night's ceremony marked a first, highly public step in the group's effort to alter its image as a left-leaning organization, said Janet Murguia, its president and chief executive.
Gonzales's appearance at the ceremony was his first before a large Hispanic civil rights group since he was confirmed last month by the Senate. La Raza hopes the warm reception will show the Bush administration that it seeks to move to the center politically and gain more access to the White House. President Bush declined to attend all of La Raza's annual conferences during his first term, citing the group's criticism of his policies.
"We want to make sure that people understand that we are reaching out to this administration," Murguia said. "We think it is a unique opportunity when a president is in his second term . . . to get things done.
"I know there are some folks who've said maybe NCLR is leaning left in the past or choosing sides," said Murguia, who served as deputy director for legislative affairs for the Clinton White House and as a liaison between the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign and constituent groups in 2000. "I want to make a clear point: We are reaching out to all sides, we're going to build coalitions, build bridges and put our people first."
La Raza is not the only Hispanic civil rights organization employing that strategy. Another leading Hispanic rights organization, the League of United Latin American Citizens, strongly supports Gonzales.
"You have to understand that we've had a long-standing relationship with the attorney general," said Brent Wilkes, LULAC's national executive director. "He's been an individual who's been very involved in the community, with the United Way, Big Brothers/Big Sisters. He's constantly talking to LULAC. We've had an open-door policy."
At the dinner, Gonzales was greeted with light applause. In his five-minute speech, he reached out to La Raza, saying, "I . . . have this organization to thank for support of my nomination for attorney general." He added that he and La Raza have not always agreed in the past but that both share a commitment to Latinos.
Last night's ceremony also highlighted the group's split with Latino organizations that are unhappy with Gonzales. Eugenio Arene, executive director of the Council of Latino Agencies, a Washington-based organization that represents Salvadorans, Nicaraguans and Guatemalans, and is affiliated with La Raza, said the move ignored the plight of Central Americans.
"Many of us came from Central America because of political violence and torture," he said. "We are really concerned about a Latino organization . . . taking a position to support someone with what I call manosmanchados, his hands are stained. He's not clean."
The Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund also did not support Gonzales's confirmation. The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund remained neutral, said Angelo Falcon, president of the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy and senior policy executive for the fund.
"Lately there seems to be a much more centrist kind of approach to the issue of civil rights by Latino organizations," Falcon said. "In Washington, the issue tends to be access. Their job is to advocate on behalf of Latinos, and a lot of that depends on access to agencies. But at what expense do you take that posture? What do you give up in terms of your principles?"
Gonzales has testified that as White House counsel he disagreed with portions of a 2002 Justice Department memo that narrowly defined what constituted torture, but could not recall whether he conveyed those objections to other government lawyers at the time. He said he did not quarrel with its general findings. The memo -- which was used to formulate permissive government rules on interrogations -- was repudiated by the Justice Department after it was revealed publicly in 2004 and has since been rewritten, reaching much different conclusions.
Cecilia Muñoz, vice president for policy at La Raza, said that Gonzales's body of work with Latino organizations, rather than his contribution to the memo, motivates her organization's position.
"Many people were not aware of Judge Gonzales's long history with our affiliates in Texas, and moving then-Governor Bush to the right posture, from our perspective on key civil rights issues, like anti-English only requirements, like anti-immigrant ballot initiatives, bilingual education and affirmative action," Muñoz said. "There's a list of issues where Judge Gonzales and Governor Bush did the right thing."
Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, of which La Raza is a member, said he understands the group's position, though his organization strongly opposed Gonzales's nomination.
"Our strength is the diversity of our membership and our unity of purpose," Henderson said. "Unity of purpose doesn't mean we are in lock step on every issue. Janet Murguia is a strong leader who reflects deep commitment to our values."