Ruben Navarrett Jr / Politics

Outer-Space Pettiness

SAN DIEGO -- Who's afraid of a Mexican-American astronaut? When that astronaut is also a Democrat running for Congress, apparently, the answer is: a Republican-leaning law firm.

According to The Fresno Bee, the Sacramento, Calif.-based law firm of Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk has actually gone to the extraordinary lengths of filing a lawsuit to prevent Jose Hernandez -- a Democratic congressional candidate who, besides being an engineer and scientist, was also a crew member on the space shuttle Discovery in 2009 -- from using the title "astronaut" to identify himself on the June primary ballot.

Really? How petty and childish can you get?

The firm - which, the Bee reported, has strong ties to Republican candidates and the California GOP -- seems determined to show us. Lawyers there have asked a judge in Sacramento County Superior Court to block Hernandez from using the job title on the ballot because, they claim, the descriptor is not a title that "one carries for life."

That's an interesting argument, but not a very strong one. I grew up in Central California, where this story is unfolding and where agriculture is king. And many times, when I went to vote, I saw candidates on the ballot identifying themselves as a "farmer" -- when it was public knowledge that the individual had been a farmer years earlier but wasn't anymore. Apparently, that's one of those special titles one does carry through life. As I recall, no one ever raised a fuss over something like that.

So what is this fuss really about? The answer has to do with partisan politics and the recognition that Hernandez's greatest strength is his amazing life story. Given that this astronaut -- oops, I said it again -- is Mexican-American, it's a story that inspires many. But given that Latinos represent more than 40 percent of the residents in Central California, and an ever-increasing percentage of voters, it is also one that frightens others.

As the son of Mexican immigrants, Hernandez spent part of his youth picking fruits and vegetables alongside his parents in the fields of Central California. In school, he took a liking to math and science, and did well enough in those subjects and others to eventually earn a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and go on to graduate school. Later, he went to work for NASA and wound up fulfilling his childhood dream of going into space.

Yep, this is just your average, run-of-the-mill everyday success story. Nothing special here.

Now, Hernandez -- a vocal supporter of comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented students legal status if they went to college or joined the military -- has resigned from the space agency and wants to go to Congress. Should he win his primary, he'll run against freshman Republican Rep. Jeff Denham in the newly drawn 10th Congressional District.

Republicans, feeling threatened by this challenge, are going after Hernandez by way of one of his most valuable assets: his history as an astronaut.

Yet, here's the problem. This man worked hard for that title. He earned it against pretty steep odds. A title like this is not something that -- as my father would say -- they hand out in cereal boxes.

I'm curious. Do you suppose Republicans would object if this Latino candidate were identified on the ballot as a "farm worker" or a "gardener"? I don't think so.

I hope a judge throws this case out. I also hope the Republicans at that law firm come to their senses -- or, if that is too much to ask, at least that other Republicans decide they want no part of a stunt like this.

You see, at the national level, as some heavy-duty Republicans such as Karl Rove and Jeb Bush have acknowledged, the GOP is facing a demographic tsunami. By 2040, Latinos will represent a quarter of the U.S. population. And, at the same time, the Republican Party is about as popular among this group of voters as death and taxes.

It's a contempt that is well-deserved. Take a look at the mischief that a group of shortsighted Republicans are making in a congressional district in Central California, and you'll understand why.

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Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben(at symbol)rubennavarrette.com

Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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