The growing pains of growing the Republican Party en español

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is greeted by his running mate Mike Pence after arriving by helicopter at the Cleveland Science Center on Wednesday.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is greeted by his running mate Mike Pence after arriving by helicopter at the Cleveland Science Center on Wednesday. LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA TNS

The email hit reporters’ inboxes at 3 p.m. Sunday. The Republican National Convention had added a news briefing for reporters at 5:15 p.m. that afternoon — in Spanish.

Except no one told the GOP staffers who were supposed to conduct the brefing.

When the 4:30 p.m. English-language press conference ended, Spanish-language reporters clamored for their turn. The Republican National Committee’s Hispanic communications director, Helen Aguirre Ferré of Miami, who had been standing in the back of the room, kept her cool and made her way to the podium to translate the English-language remarks from the previous briefing on the fly.

These are the growing pains of growing the Republican Party.

“The party is coming together,” Aguirre Ferré insisted Wednesday morning at a briefing, this time planned well in advance.

Over the past four days in Cleveland, the GOP has accentuated its efforts to communicate with Hispanic voters, dedicating a daily time slot to Latino media so they could disseminate messages from Spanish-speaking surrogates for presidential nominee Donald Trump. Trump recently won the endorsement of a group of Hispanic conservatives headed by Alfonso Aguilar of the Latino Partnership.

Each convention surrogate tried to underline Trump’s convention theme of the day — security, jobs, American exceptionalism.

On Wednesday, ahead of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s speech accepting his vice-presidential nomination, Florida state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz of Miami praised an Indiana school-voucher program that Pence backed.

“He’s been very invested in the Hispanic community,” Diaz said. With the voucher program, poor students “can go to whatever private school they like.”

Outside the convention hall, conservative groups held breakfasts and luncheons also addressing the GOP’s challenge with Hispanics.

“It’s been back-to-back-to-back,” said Diaz, who attended events hosted by Latino Leaders and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “At those lunches, I’m always shocked to see how many elected Latinos there are around the country at the state level.”

At a press conference room a few blocks away, Democrats insisted otherwise, that the GOP has been regressing in its courtship of minorities, especially Hispanics.

“I get the sense that this country doesn’t really have doors open to everyone,” said U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, the House Democratic caucus chairman, who compared Trump’s immigration talk to when his father, a U.S. citizen, remembered businesses in his youth posting signs that read “No dogs or Mexicans.”

Recent Univisión and Telemundo polls show record-low support among Latinos for Trump and the GOP. Only 11 percent of Hispanic voters hold a favorable view of Trump, according to the Telemundo/NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Univisión found 79 percent of voters oppose Trump’s proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall.

For three days in Cleveland, Spanish-language reporters demanded attention not only from the GOP but from the Trump campaign itself.

Why didn’t the convention program list more Hispanic headliners? How would Trump adapt his campaign pitch — if at all — to cultivate more Latino support, especially in swing states like Florida?

And why, they wondered, couldn’t they ask questions of Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who fielded English-language queries every morning? (Most of the Spanish-language reporters at the pressers are bilingual.)

The answers remained consistent. Hispanics do appear on the program, chiefly on Wednesday night with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and a video from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, both former Trump rivals. Trump’s rhetoric on creating jobs and improving the economy — and promoting legal immigration over illegal immigration — appeals to voters of all ethnicities.

As for Manafort, well, that’s why Aguirre Ferré was translating.

But Aguirre Ferré works for the GOP, not for Trump — a point she made clear when she took the thankless Hispanic spokeswoman job last month, after denouncing Trump when she campaigned for Jeb Bush.

By Wednesday, the party, at least, had relented. Aguirre Ferré brought in Sean Spicer, the national GOP’s chief strategist and communications director, to take a few questions in English (“I’m not even going to try with my Spanish,” he joked. “It’s been a while, and I get mocked.”) Most of the queries came from Univisión, the Doral-based television giant that Trump’s campaign has banned — along with a slew of English-language media outlets, including The Washington Post and Politico — from covering his campaign events.

“I talked to Jorge Ramos last night,” Spicer said, referring to Univisión’s star anchor and chief Trump foe. “I told him I would continue to address [the ban] and I will.”

Trump, meanwhile, plans to soon reschedule a recently postponed Miami trip for Hispanic outreach, Aguirre Ferré said. The newly minted nominee will travel to Tampa and Miami on Tuesday for a pair of big-name fundraising receptions.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton will travel to Florida even earlier, on Friday and Saturday — fueling speculation that she might announce a Hispanic or Spanish-speaking running mate one of those days.

“We need to do better with the Hispanic population,” Spicer acknowledged Wednesday. “For too often, frankly, our candidates and our party have not done a good enough job growing [Hispanic] populations in places like Virginia, Georgia, Colorado.”

The same day, Clinton’s campaign unveiled a Spanish-language Twitter account.

Trump staffer fesses up

It took two days, but Donald Trump’s presidential campaign on Wednesday acknowledged cribbing from first lady Michelle Obama’s speech — unintentionally, the campaign said — when writing Melania Trump’s own speech.

Meredith McIver, an “in-house staff writer” for the Trump Organization, said in a statement that Melania Trump read her some of Obama’s lines over the phone as inspiration.

“I wrote them down and later included some of the phrasing in the draft that ultimately became the final speech,” McIver wrote. “I did not check Mrs. Obama’s speeches. This was my mistake, and I feel terrible for the chaos I have caused Melania and the Trumps, as well as to Mrs. Obama. No harm was meant.”