DES MOINES, Iowa – Gov. Tom Vilsack (search), a potential vice presidential candidate, signed a measure two years ago declaring English the state's official language. That could hurt his chances of joining the Democratic ticket.
Iowa's English-only measure and dozens like it nationwide draw virtually unanimous and vehement opposition from Hispanics, an important Democratic constituency, who view them as thinly veiled racism. Hispanics, the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority group, are being eagerly courted by Democrat John Kerry (search) and President Bush.
Dennis Goldford, who teaches political science at Drake University, said the situation for Kerry and his advisers is aggravated by recent polling that shows Republican Bush running behind Kerry among Hispanics, but getting the support of about four in 10, for a relatively strong showing.
"If they're really tipping back and forth over the choice, this could hurt (Kerry) with some important Democratic constituencies," Goldford said.
Hispanics are Iowa's largest minority group, at 3.1 percent of the state's population. Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt agreed they can't be taken for granted.
"The Latino community is very mobile, fluid, not committed to one party," Schmidt said.
Matt Paul, a spokesman for Vilsack, issued a statement Wednesday defending the governor's record on minority issues, saying he's made Iowa "a welcoming place for all people."
"Iowa has experienced an increase in the number of children and families of color living in our state, which is evidence of the success of our efforts," Paul said.
The English-only bill was hotly debated for two years before it passed the Republican-controlled Legislature in February 2002. Liberal and labor groups urged Vilsack to veto it and staged vigils at his home and the Statehouse. Backers cited polls showing overwhelming support for the bill and said they were hardly surprised that he signed it.
The law makes English the state's official language and requires that all government proceedings be conducted in English. Exceptions are for teaching foreign languages in school, and dealing with other countries on trade and similar issues.
"I recognize that the bill is not without controversy," Vilsack said at the signing. "My hope is that we will look beyond the controversy and put politics behind us so we can focus on our commitments and responsibility to improve education for all our children."
Aides said Vilsack decided to make Iowa the 27th state with such a law because the measure was more symbolic. Influencing Vilsack's decision was a $1 million increase for programs to teach English as a second language, which the governor said was more important.
At the time, Vilsack had his share of political headaches — from a stagnant economy to deep spending cuts that forced state worker layoffs — and was in a poor position to pick a fight that polls showed wouldn't be helpful.