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Recruiting more Latino candidates is critical to the future of the California Republican Party, prominent Hispanic Republicans said during an afternoon forum at the party's convention in Sacramento.

The event was hosted by GROW Elect, an organization devoted to cultivating Republican Latino candidates for elected office, and participants spoke to a growing recognition that the Republican party's fortunes will be increasingly tied to how well they appeal to Hispanic voters.

Noting that California's Latino population is on pace to become the state's largest ethnic group by the end of the year, GROW Elect CEO Ruben Barrales called Latino outreach "the greatest challenge for the Republican Party today." His organization's goal is to build a "farm team" of potential officeholders, he said, in an effort to "start changing the brand of the Republican party with Latino voters."

Judging by the attendance at the event, Republicans are keenly aware of the issue's importance. The event was standing-room-only even after officials enlarged the initial venue, with a knot of people clustered at the door and others standing against the walls. Former state senator and lieutenant governor Abel Maldonado made note of the event's popularity.

"Listen, I'm sad that it took a big election to fill this room up," Maldonado said, "because the Latino community has always been there, and it's the fastest growing independent community in America."

The growing clout of Latino voters also does not appear to be lost on the party's leadership. Senate minority leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, and Assembly minority leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, were there. Jim Brulte, widely expected to become chair of the California Republican Party, made a surprise appearance at the talk and said the party needs to implement GROW Elect's program in communities around the state.

"It is axiomatic that, in a neighborhood election, the person who most looks like, sounds like, has the shared values and shared experiences of the majority of the neighborhood tends to win," Brulte said, reprising a theme from a visit to The Sacramento Bee's offices earlier this month.

Barrales said the organization's goal is not to focus on particular issue but to elect Latino Republicans. But freshman Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, R-Oceanside, said that an emphasis on keeping Latino families together would resonate with Hispanic voters while staying consistent with the party's focus on family values.

"When we address the immigration issue we will connect with the Latino population," he said.

For Maldonado, simply having a presence in Latino communities is a crucial step. He said that Latino Republican candidates have often "felt like leprechauns -- we know they exist, we've just never seen them."

"We need to work hard and we need to get our message out and I just think the most important thing for the Latino community is respect," Maldonado said.

"Just showing up," he added, "is respect."



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