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UT Award for George P. Bush Draws Criticism, Praise From Latinos

Image: George P. Bush
Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush takes part in a school choice rally at the Texas Capitol, Friday, Jan. 30, 2015, in Austin, Texas. School choice supporters called for expanding voucher programs and charter schools statewide. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)Eric Gay / AP
/ Source: NBC News

The University of Texas gave an inaugural award honoring Latinos to George P. Bush, an elected Texas official and the newphew and grandson of U.S. presidents. The choice is causing a split in the state’s Latino community over whether he is the best pick as first honoree.

The Latino Leadership Award was given Monday night by the UT Center for Mexican American Studies and the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies.

Nicole Guidotti-Hernandez, chair of the department, said the award winner had to be someone who represents leadership for the future and who is a person dedicated to service.

She said the dissent over the choice "is emblematic of the diversity of opinions in Latino communities and that like any other award "you are always going to have some people who are not going to be happy with the decision."

Bush, who is Mexican American and Republican, is the state’s land commissioner. His duties include overseeing the flow of money from oil and gas exploration on public lands to the state’s public universities. Bush is the first Latino elected to the job since the office's founding in 1836.

He also is the son of Jeb Bush, a potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate.

But critics are questioning whether his success and credentials qualify him as a leader for the community just yet. Some question whether his Republican politics are truly beneficial to Texas’ Latinos and whether the award was itself a political move.

“Why did they choose to politicize this award at a time when there is division in Texas on democratic issues that predominate in the Latino community?” asked Martha Cotera, a founder of the Center for Mexican American Studies.

Bush’s office did not provide comment requested by NBC News.

Gonzalo Barrientos, a former Democratic state senator and House member who chaired the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, has asked for criteria for the award and how Bush was chosen. Some critics have complained of a lack of transparency in the decision.

Guidotti-Hernandez said the conversation has been in process with the president's office since October 2014, although that process was not accessible to the public. In addition she said the center has events all the time "and we never see any of these people at our forum."

"We had our opening and all the future projects and potential series of awards" were announced, said Guidotti-Heranandez. She said the choice of Bush as an award nomonee was not publicized. An advisory council to the center was aware he was under consideration and the council, which contains community partners, was supportive, she said.

Barrientos named other Latino leaders such as Henry Bonilla, former U.S. representative; Dr. Hector P. Garcia, who started the GI Forum and others as more appropriate and who are Latino leaders

Asked whether Bush’s election, his teaching background, work for Big Brothers Big Sisters board, his military service and other background were enough for the award, Barrientos responded “Hell no, that’s not enough.”