GOP Grilling of Sotomayor: No Hit with Hispanic Voters

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Win McNamee / Getty

Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor testifies on the third day of her confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, on July 15, 2009

By the third morning of Sonia Sotomayor's hearings to be confirmed to the Supreme Court, the atmosphere in the room was practically jovial. Despite the best efforts of some Republicans to spark a confrontation on hot-button issues like abortion, gun rights or her general approach to judging, Sotomayor had largely steered clear of any trouble, and the process had taken on an air of inevitability. But that didn't mean the grilling of a Latina woman by a panel made up mostly of white men didn't produce its share of uncomfortable moments. One such moment occurred the morning of July 15, when the appellate judge was being questioned by Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican. In the middle of an exchange on gun control, Sotomayor tried to illustrate the reach of New York gun laws by joking about running home to get a gun in self-defense. "If I go home, get a gun, come back and shoot you, that may not be legal under New York law because you would have alternative ways to defend ..."

"You'll have lots of 'splainin' to do," Coburn interrupted, invoking a phrase familiar to fans of the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy, on which Lucy's long-suffering husband Ricky Ricardo (Cuban-American Desi Arnaz in real life) would often utter the refrain in exasperation at his zany wife's antics. Sotomayor paused awkwardly before nervously agreeing with a chuckle, "I'd be in a lot of trouble then."

For a Republican Party that has already lost much of its standing with the country's Hispanic population, the entire Sotomayor nomination has spelled trouble. Ever since President Barack Obama announced his choice to replace David Souter on the nation's highest court, the GOP has had to tread lightly in appealing to its conservative base by fighting the nomination of the first Hispanic American to the bench. It hasn't helped matters that one of their major lines of attack against Sotomayor seems borne out of ethnic stereotypes — the contention that she is a temperamental person unable to resist her own passions and biases in deciding cases. Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic in America and often the deciding bloc in swing states like Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. After the Republicans' anti-immigration-reform stance alienated Hispanic voters, they became a key ingredient in Obama's victory, with the Democrat winning two-thirds of their votes nationwide. And now, with Latin-American groups across the country paying close attention to the hearings, seemingly innocent, offhand quips like Coburn's aren't helping the GOP's case.

"It was insensitive," says Representative Charlie Gonzalez, a Texas Democrat who chairs the Hispanic Caucus Civil Rights Task Force. "It probably demonstrates where the Republican Party is today. They just don't get it. This is a serious issue for many members of the Latino community. Growing up, you're very conscious of the mispronunciation of words. Sometimes it was also a subject of humor, but I think Dr. Coburn doesn't understand the stereotyping he was engaging in."

Lillian Rodriguez, president of the Hispanic Federation, an organization that builds Latino institutions in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, says she understood that the remark was meant in jest, "but you've got to be very careful in those kinds of characterizations. It sends a message that that's the way you see us: in a time capsule of a 1950s sitcom. We've progressed a long way since then."

Coburn's poor attempt at humor was all the more notable because the committee's seven Republicans have thus far kept their questioning relatively respectful, something that hasn't gone unnoticed by Democrats. "During the course of this nomination, there have been some unfortunate comments, including outrageous charges of racism made about you on radio and television," Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the panel's chairman, told Sotomayor on July 14. "One person referred to you as being the equivalent of the head of the Ku Klux Klan. Another leader in the other party referred to you as — as being a bigot. And to the credit of the Republican Senators, they have not repeated those charges." Leahy was referring to jibes made by former Republican Representative Tom Tancredo and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich soon after Obama named Sotomayor. Gingrich later apologized for his comments.

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