U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney has done something no other sitting South Carolina congressman has done - conduct a town hall meeting in a language other than English.
Mulvaney, a Republican whose district stretches from Spartanburg to Sumter, met with about 150 people Monday evening in Gaffney. He gave a brief talk and answered questions, primarily about immigration reform.
Mulvaney, who studied Spanish at Georgetown University and spent a summer in Madrid, he said he was nervous because he had not spoken the language much in the 25 years since. Also, some phrases - such as being very pregnant and very embarrassed - are strikingly similar.
"It went OK," he said. "I don't think I said anything really, really stupid, at least not moreso than I usually do."
Hispanic voters make up less than 2 percent of the 5th congressional district electorate, but Mulvaney said he has been willing to talk to any group, not just his political base.
He said he also is aware of those who say the Republican party must reach out more to Hispanic voters to succeed nationally.
"Our problem right now is that so many Republicans are afraid to talk to the Hispanic community because of immigration that they don't talk to them at all about anything," he said. "That's why we're losing the Hispanic vote."
Mulvaney said he doesn't expect immigration reform to pass until after this fall's elections, although some pieces, such as securing the border and expanding channels for legal immigration, have a better chance.
On the other hand, he said it will be tough to find common ground on handling this nation's approximately 11 million illegal immigrants. Hispanic voters also care about other issues, he added, such as jobs and the economy.
Mulvaney said he hasn't gotten any pushback from voters who think Hispanic immigrants should learn English sooner. He said a few conservative voters were present Monday evening and had to rely on the English translator.
"What one of them said last night is they were a little anxious about me doing it in Spanish," he said, "but they felt a lot better when they learned I was saying the same thing in Spanish that I was saying to the conservative groups in English. I think that calmed a lot of people down."
Matthew Blanton, with the Spartanburg County Baptist Network, helped coordinate the event. His organization is part of the Evangelical Immigration Table, one of several sponsors interested in seeing federal immigration reform.
Blanton said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., held a recent town hall meeting in Beaufort that was targeted at the immigration community and its issues, but that event was held in English with a Spanish translator.
"The thing about this event that was so historic is that it was all in Spanish - all of it," Blanton said. "That's the first time that has happened in state history, and we felt history in the air, that's for sure."
Blanton said immigrants made up the vast majority of the audience, which was the third- or fourth-largest gathering of the 40 to 50 that Mulvaney has held.
"It was a humanizing of the issue," Blanton said. "We had real immigrants, some of whom were facing deportation. I think that had a real impact on him. ... When you meet somebody and you shake their hand, it's hard to feel some of the things we feel about immigrants sometimes."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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