State Rep. Aaron Peña of Edinburg, who recently changed the D after his name to an R, is forming a legislative Hispanic Republican Conference, which he hopes will “inject a dose of realism” into some of the session’s most divisive issues. Before everyone jumps to the comments section to be the first to make the joke about meeting in a telephone booth, let me explain the membership of the new group: it includes the six Republican members of Hispanic descent (Peña, Jose Aliseda of Beeville, Dee Margo of El Paso, Larry Gonzales of Round Rock and Raul Torres of Corpus Christi). But it will allow participation by members with 30 percent or higher percentage of Hispanic constituents in their districts. Those include, at 50 percent Hispanic, Connie Scott of Corpus Christi; at 40 percent Hispanic, Tryon Lewis of Odessa and Dwayne Bohac of Houston. Members with 30 percent Hispanic districts, based on 2000 numbers, are: Geanie Morrison of Victoria, Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi, John Kuempel of Seguin, Jason Isaac of Dripping Springs, Drew Darby of San Angelo, Tom Craddick of Midland, John Frullo of Lubbock, Rodney Anderson of Grand Prairie, Dan Branch of Dallas and Ken Legler of Houston. Peña will serve as chairman and Aliseda will serve as First Vice-chair. As he said when he changed parties, Peña said Thursday he felt ignored as a conservative in the Democratic Party; he hopes that his views will have a bigger impact and “a moderating influence” on Republicans. For instance, on the issue of Voter ID, Peña says the bill passed by the Senate will have little effect on ending voter fraud. “If it makes us feel good to pass it, okay….(but) It’s not the solution to the voter fraud that is out there,” he said. He says he has legislation that would target the practice of “harvesting” elderly votes by permitting one person to “assist” dozens of persons. His legislation would limit to two the number of voters any one individual could assist. “To me, that’s the growing voter fraud,” he said. After announcing he was switching parties, Peña was roundly criticized as a traitor and as someone who basically lied to his constituents by running as a Democrat. But he says his values and judgements about issues have not changed. On the budget: “I don’t like the budget because it hurts my constituents.” In particular he hopes to blunt cuts to education: “It’s the one honest way out of poverty.” On the issue of sanctuary cities: “I knew the Arizona law was unconstitutional because it allowed the use of racial criteria.” As a Hispanic Republican, he feels he can play a valuable role by explaining why certain proposals won’t work. In one discussion, a fellow member suggested that police were justified to check of the immigration status of a full car of Hispanics — a sight somehow deemed suspicious. Peña disabused him of the notion: Families and co-workers travel together to save gas. “That’s all you see in my hometown,” he said, adding, “We don’t want the police pulling over our grandmothers.” Despite the censure by his Democratic colleagues, Peña said he had made the right choice to change parties. “I wasn’t allowed to express myself,” he said. “I wasn’t a full individual. I was half of an individual. Once I became a Republican, I became a full individual.”
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