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Md. GOP sees growth of Hispanic businesses as an opportunity

When courting the Hispanic vote, politicians often put immigration at the front of their talking points. But Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration is taking a different approach.

The Hogan-Rutherford administration has been keen on addressing the economy as a Hispanic issue, particularly within the business community. On Tuesday, Hogan appointed CEOs, small business owners and those who have had roles in the U.S. Small Business Administration to the Governor’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

“I’m really impressed with the governor’s selections as they are more business-oriented,” said John Fiastro, 37, a legislative aide in the General Assembly and former chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee.

Fiastro, the son of a Cuban immigrant, sees Hogan’s appointments to that commission as an opportunity for the state’s 40,000 Hispanic-owned businesses to have a voice in Annapolis.

While the Hispanic business sector is on the rise in Maryland and elsewhere, so is its voting power. According to a 2012 study by the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics make up about 8 percent of the state’s population, giving Maryland the 18th-highest Hispanic voting population in the country.

The Future Majority Project, run by the Republican State Leadership Committee, has spent millions since it was founded in 2011 to promote women and minority candidates for state elections. In Maryland, the Hispanic vote is much more influential at the state level.

But contrary to the Hogan administration’s agenda, Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland, still sees immigration as the No. 1 issue for Maryland Hispanics.

“‘Immigration is my top issue,’ always that is what we hear from our community,” said Torres.

CASA de Maryland helps 40,000 people every year by offering education, immigration services and other assistance through nine different centers across the state. The organization has a membership of over 75,000 people.

“They are not becoming citizens because of the economy. They are becoming citizens because they want to vote against people who hate our community,” said Torres, referring to presidential candidates such as Donald Trump who has said he plans to deport the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants if elected.

“Voters cannot ‘hear’ what a candidate is saying about the economy if they believe given their stance on immigration that the candidate does not want them or their grandmother in the United States,” Kimberly Propeak, chief of politics and communications at CASA de Maryland, wrote in an email.

But as the population becomes more established in the state, Fiastro sees that priority changing for Hispanics.

“The truth is, folks are concerned about maintaining a job, paying their bills. I think that’s the top priority,” he said.

Another survey by Pew last year found that 49 percent of Latino voters said the economy is the most important issue facing the country, followed by health care at 24 percent and illegal immigration at 16 percent. Those rankings are on par with all U.S. voters, according to the study.

“They (Hispanics) want a government who is viewed as a partner, they want government to not be in the way of their business, they want to earn money without government interference,” said Fiastro.

At the Maryland Hispanic Business Conference which drew hundreds of area business owners to Bethesda on Tuesday, business owners said they were looking for better access to government agencies and clearer regulations.

In his keynote address, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford pledged that the administration will treat businesses like customers instead of using a “gotcha” approach to handle businesses.

When asked what his clients want from the government, Torres responded: “Opportunities, opportunities, opportunities. We want the opportunity to drive, work authorization, to develop more businesses.”

When CASA de Maryland started its work 20 years ago, it was mostly helping day laborers. Many of those people now own a business and are employing their own workers, said Torres.

Many first- and second-generation Hispanic-Americans are eyeing leadership positions, whether it’s through public service or opening a small business, said Fiastro.

“They want to be leaders, they want to be employers.”