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Hispanic groups divided over Gonzales' nomination

WASHINGTON—Many Hispanic groups are celebrating the likely ascension of Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general as a landmark event: the first Latino to hold one of the most powerful Cabinet positions.

But as the Senate prepares to debate his nomination this week, nagging questions about Gonzales' role in the Bush administration's policies on torture have emboldened Democratic opponents and created dissent within the Hispanic community.

Melvyn Montano, the first Hispanic adjutant general in the Air National Guard, said he opposes Gonzales' nomination because, as White House counsel, "his interpretation of law on the Geneva Conventions was very wrong and put our troops at risk."

"Supporting someone because of a surname is just tokenism," said Montano, a retired Vietnam veteran in Albuquerque, N.M., who joined with Human Rights First, a legal group, to oppose Gonzales' nomination.

Several major Hispanic organizations back Gonzales, including the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a large Latino civil rights group that's pushed for high-level appointments. The group praised Gonzales' legal record, community involvement and compelling life story.

Leaders of LULAC interviewed or "pre-vetted" Gonzales early in Bush's first term and touted him for the next vacancy on the Supreme Court, said Brent Wilkes, the group's national executive director.

"He has been a moderate Republican, supportive on affirmative action, and he knows what it's like to live in a low-income family," Wilkes said.

Gonzales, the son of Mexican-American migrant workers, grew up in a home with no running water. He excelled at Harvard Law School and became a top corporate lawyer in Houston and a judge on the Texas Supreme Court.

Critics of Gonzales, including the eight Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee who voted against him, focused on his role in policies that pushed the limits on the interrogation and treatment of prisoners and scaled back Geneva Convention protections for detainees. They said he evaded key questions and gave bad legal advice that paved the way for torture.

"Maybe Gonzales should have stood up more against that, but there are many strong personalities in this administration," Wilkes said. "It's important to look at his entire career."

Other Hispanic groups backing Gonzales include the National Council of La Raza, the Hispanic National Bar Association and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, which called his nomination "an historic milestone for the Latino community."

But the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund withheld its endorsement, citing doubts about civil liberties issues. The Mexican American Political Association and the National Latino Law Students Association also oppose Gonzales.

One opponent, Mariano-Florentino Cueller, took note of the support for Gonzales among large, mainstream groups.

"I reluctantly have to ask: If these (prisoner) abuses primarily victimized Latinos instead of non-Latinos, would Latino groups be so united in their support?" said Cueller, a professor at Stanford Law School.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, composed of Democrats in the House of Representatives, also decided not to endorse Gonzales, complaining that he couldn't find time to meet with them.

Gonzales is "pleased to have the backing of many prominent Hispanic groups and would welcome an opportunity to meet with the caucus," Taylor Gross, a White House spokesman, said last Friday.

Democratic senators who oppose Gonzales run the risk of angering Hispanic voters, warn some political observers. Ken Salazar of Colorado, the lone Hispanic Democrat in the Senate, praised Gonzales when he introduced him to the Judiciary Committee.

In 2003, Senate Democrats blocked one of Bush's judicial nominees, Honduran-born Miguel Estrada, but Gonzales is much better known than Estrada was.

"Bush has been making inroads on the Hispanic vote, and opposition on this will hurt the Democrats," said Wilkes of LULAC.

Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist, said Democrats "have to be careful about how they oppose Gonzales, but there is a strong basis for it."

"They can't oppose him just because he's Bush's nominee, and he's certainly not a radical conservative, but the torture stuff is completely legitimate," said Cardona, who headed the Hispanic project as the New Democrat Network's senior vice president.

Montano, the retired Air National Guard general, said he knows "what it feels like to be the first Hispanic named to an important leadership position."

"I respect Judge Gonzales' inspiring personal story," Montano said. "But given his record, senators who are afraid to vote against him for fear of being labeled `anti-Hispanic' are doing themselves and their constituents a grave disservice."

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(Davies reports for The Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Alberto Gonzales

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): Gonzales bio

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