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Republican Latino delegates defend Trump's pandemic response, are confident about re-election

"I definitely think he's a manager and he's not afraid to stand up to people," says Adolpho Telles, a former GOP chairman in El Paso County, Texas.
Delegates ahead of the first day of the Republican National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday.Chris Carlson / Pool via Getty Images

SAN ANTONIO — The car caravans known as "Trump trains" that Adrienne Peña-Garza joins on Saturday morning have been growing as they have traversed the Rio Grande Valley the last couple of months, according to Peña-Garza, chairwoman of the Hidalgo County Republican Party.

The cars, festooned with Trump flags, stickers and other flash, travel a predetermined route in her area of South Texas. They started in July with about five cars and now have had about 300 participants, Peña-Garza said.

Texas' Rio Grande Valley, where Hidalgo County is located, is deeply blue, but as Peña-Garza likes to point out, underdogs like her who want President Donald Trump to be re-elected are spread throughout the region. She hopes the caravans are a sign that more than expected will be out to vote for Trump in November.

ImageIMAGE: Adrienne Pena-Garza and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush
Adrienne Pena-Garza, chairwoman of the Hidalgo County, Texas, Republican Party, with Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush.Adrienne Pena-Garza

"It's a fun way to show support and to show you are not afraid," said Peña-Garza, 41, a Republican National Convention delegate who has been watching the convention from home.

Republicans opened their convention this week pitching Trump as assurance of an American future and the bulwark against Democrat cultural revolution, Fidel Castro-style socialism, violence and chaos.

The GOP showcase was a sharp contrast to that of the Democrats, who, a week earlier in their convention, issued dire warnings of worse things to come and issued scathing criticism of Trump's handling of the coronavirus.

While COVID-19 and its brutal impact on the economy were mentioned largely superficially at the convention — first lady Melania Trump was the exception — the coronavirus has risen to the top of concerns for Latinos, according to a recent poll. Hispanics have seen disproportionate cases and deaths while suffering job losses. The same poll showed that 73 percent of Latinos give Trump low marks for his coronavirus response and agree that how he responded is to blame for the crisis.

Hidalgo County, on the Mexican border, is 93 percent Latino, and it is one of the hardest-hit counties, having logged more than 25,000 cases Monday, The Monitor newspaper of McAllen reported.

Throughout the Rio Grande Valley, COVID-19 cases have pushed hospitals near or to capacity, forcing some patients to be transferred to other hospitals.

Republican delegates who spoke to NBC News hold Trump blameless in the COVID-19 crisis and speak of him as steering the country out of it to greater economic times.

Asked about the number of cases in her county and her view of Democrats' criticism of Trump, Peña-Garza said it was a great question for local officials, "all of whom are Democrats."

Some officials in Texas have blamed the state's leadership as hewing too much to Trump's approach. Gov. Greg Abbott has been criticized for having taken too long to shut down businesses and to require masks, as well as for having reopened businesses too quickly.

Local officials who had established mask mandates or other restrictions, such as a curfew and quarantine requirements, found those orders supplanted by orders from Abbott.

Confident about Trump's re-election

Peña-Garza said she is confident about Trump and expects his Hispanic support to grow for other reasons.

Hispanics "expect to see fruits of their labor," said Peña-Garza, who said her grandparents were migrant workers. "That's part of what my grandparents taught me: Nothing in life is free. Everything you work for you keep.

"This whole 'I need to have everything for free' — that's how some of the politicians are down here. It's we need more money, we need more money, we need more money, we need more money. ... The government is not a nonprofit," she said.

She mentioned college tuition and governments' "paying for abortions."

The Hyde Amendment, implemented in 1977, prohibits use of federal funds for abortions except in cases rape or incest or when the woman's life is in danger.

In Texas, a recent poll released by the nonpartisan Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation found that about 47 percent of Hispanics supported Joe Biden, compared to almost 38 percent who supported Trump, with about 13 percent of Latinos voters still undecided.

Peña-Garza, a political and business consultant, suggested that there is plenty of possibility for Trump to pick up support in the area.

"When you go to Spanish-speaking communities in South Texas, when you knock on their doors and you are talking to them and they say they are Democrats, they really don't know why. They think it's the party of JFK," she said. "I strongly believe JFK and MLK would not be Democrats today."

Adolpho Telles, 70, a former GOP chairman in El Paso and one of six Texas convention delegates who attended in person, said Trump can't be blamed for the pandemic or its impact in the same way you cannot be blamed if you're T-boned at a red light.

He said that the facts of the coronavirus change regularly and that as a former businessman he makes decisions based on what he knows about today, as he said Trump does. "Tomorrow they can be different, and all you can do is adjust," Telles said.

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Telles formed the Republican Alliance, a group of large donors and volunteers, to help elect local Republican candidates in heavily Democratic El Paso.

Democrats and human rights activists have condemned Trump's hard-line immigration measures, including separating children from their parents and forcing people to wait outside the United States while their asylum claims are adjudicated, policies that were launched and tested in El Paso.

Telles disagrees with those who suggest that Trump's harsh immigration rhetoric, including referring to the arrivals of migrants seeking asylum as an "invasion," played a role in the Aug. 3, 2019, massacre at a local Walmart by a gunman targeting Latinos. Twenty-three people were fatally shot, and over a dozen were wounded.

In his racist diatribe, the shooter criticized both parties, including Republicans, Telles said.

'He's going to put everything up front'

"I definitely think he's a manager and he's not afraid to stand up to people and he doesn't whisper 'wait till I get elected.' He's going to put everything up front," said Telles, a retired certified public accountant who was El Paso County Republican chairman for 5½ years.

Bertica Cabrera Morris, a Republican strategist and convention delegate from Central Florida, said that Trump will "keep us on track" during the pandemic and that that is what is attracting Latino support.

"He is the guy who is going to keep the country going. The guy knows what to do when a company goes down," she said. "The markets are doing great.

"I think he has done the best that can be done with the pandemic. I don't know that anyone can do better than this," she said, adding that the pandemic hasn't slowed the campaign's outreach.

"I have been on his campaign for a year. We have knocked on over 1 million doors," Cabrera Morris said. "We have been making phone calls for a long time. We have 1,500 people on the ground."

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