By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Northern Virginia Republicans, realizing they need to improve their appeal among the region's large ethnic population, will stage a "unity" rally Saturday that they say will draw 1,000 people.
Organizers said the annual rally, which has grown in recent years, is particularly significant this year because ethnic minorities represent an increasingly powerful voting bloc that will help decide which presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain, wins the state Nov. 4.
But Democrats say the rally does not signify a surge in immigrant support for Republicans, and even GOP organizers acknowledged that evidence of a broader coalition of ethnic Republicans is slim.
"We confront a perception problem, which we have to fight every day -- that the Republican Party is not for working people or immigrants," said Jim Hyland, a rally organizer and chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee. "The only way that we can battle that is to take the fight directly to the people in these communities, spread the word that the Republican Party represents more of their views than the Democratic Party."
Hyland said he expects as many as 1,000 supporters to turn out for the event at Edison High School, where former senator George Allen and Reps. Tom Davis and Frank R. Wolf are expected to speak. Former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III is planning to attend, as is a widely known surrogate from McCain's campaign, organizers said.
Republicans have boosted their efforts to reach out to immigrant communities that traditionally have voted Democratic. To bolster participation at the rally, they are targeting Korean, Arab, Chinese, Taiwanese and Latin American communities across the county through phone banks and door-to-door visits.
County Republicans also have translated McCain's education policies into Korean and Spanish, and workers will distribute the information at the rally. They are also operating Korean-language phone banks to invite voters to the rally. And to appeal to small-business owners in immigrant communities, organizers are talking about low taxes, less regulation and encouragement of entrepreneurialism. They are also rallying around family values and social conservatism in the hope that those issues will connect with voters.
"We all have our own little enclaves, small enclaves, and no unified voice," said Ken Feng, 59, a Chinese American from Herndon who is active in Republican politics and focusing on Chinese turnout for the rally. "We are trying to gather all the ethnic groups together so we can have a unified voice for our candidates."
Two events last week had sparse turnout, offering little evidence that the voice is growing stronger. To announce the weekend rally, county Republicans held a news briefing at which organizers representing seven ethnic groups explained their efforts to boost minority turnout. But all were steadfast Republican volunteers -- not examples of newly minted Republican voters.
Later, the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Virginia, Latinas for McCain, Hispanic Veterans for McCain and local Hispanic leaders gathered to endorse McCain for president.
About 15 people participated in the event, which was held at the Tower Club in Tysons Corner -- and not in one of Fairfax's commercial or residential enclaves, such as Annandale or Baileys Crossroads, known for their concentrations of ethnic minorities.
The events, Democrats said, say more about Republican nervousness than the party's chance for success among minorities. Virginia is a presidential battleground state for the first time in 44 years, prompting the candidates to devote more time and energy to the area. In particular, vote-rich Northern Virginia will be crucial in deciding who wins.
"This happens almost every election cycle," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. He is seeking the congressional seat held by Davis, who is retiring.
"Prominent Republican minority figures come out and say, 'We're a diverse party.' But you know, if you looked at the convention in St. Paul, the numbers were appallingly low. If you looked at the McCain rally in Fairfax, it was an overwhelmingly white event. Every election cycle they do this, and every election cycle, minorities vote for Democrats in large numbers."
Some of the county's largest minority enclaves are also some of the strongest performers for Democratic candidates.
The population of the county's Mason District, for example, including Annandale, Baileys, Willston and Lincolnia, is mostly minority -- and it delivered some of the widest margins for Connolly last year, when he was reelected chairman; for Sen. Jim Webb (D) in 2006; and for Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) in 2005.