By WILL WEISSERT
Associated Press

READING, Pa. (AP) — The pastor opened with a prayer in Spanish, asking that the Lord's spirit and guidance direct the proceedings without offering an English translation. Most of the around 50 attendees were white and weren't appearing to follow along, though they knew enough to sing out “Amen!” at the end.

Thus began former President Donald Trump 's campaign teaming up with the Republican National Committee and Pennsylvania GOP to open a “Latino Americans for Trump” office Wednesday in the town of Reading.

“We believe in the American Dream and the only way to obtain the American Dream is working hard,” Luis Fortuno, the former governor of Puerto Rico, told the same crowd. For the smaller group of Spanish speakers present, he followed with remarks that leaned heavily on the theme of “Necesitamos cambio” — Spanish for “We need change.”

Trump and top Republicans are looking to boost their support among Hispanic voters in a swing state that could well decide the election. Having shuttered many party offices that specialized in minority outreach, they are betting that promises to prioritize entrepreneurship and smaller government can resonate with a voting bloc that historically has favored Democrats.

Reading is perhaps best known as the namesake for the Reading Railroad from the Monopoly gameboard. A town of about 95,000 around 65 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Reading is 67% Latino, according to U.S. Census figures, and home to high concentrations of people of Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage.

Biden’s approval rating has dropped among Hispanic adults in national polls, but it remains unclear if Trump can capitalize.

The Reading office opening comes a week after Trump’s campaign established its first Pennsylvania office at a site in northeast Philadelphia. That event was billed as a “Blacks for Trump” gathering and featured Republican Texas Rep. Wesley Hunt and other prominent Black Republicans.

Both in Philadelphia and in Reading on Wednesday, most of the attendees were white.

Trump himself held a rally meant to energize Latino support on Sunday in Las Vegas, where he quipped: “We need every voter. I don’t care about you, I just want your vote.” The former president also said immigrants were turning the U.S. “into a dumping ground” and vowed, “We’re not going to let them destroy our country.”

President Joe Biden ’s campaign says Trump is dealing in dangerous and racist stereotypes and has dismissed his campaign's office openings as superficial patronizing of minority voters.

Biden's reelection campaign, together with the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, has opened 24 offices and has 100-plus staffers across the state, and has spent months organizing house parties and other voter mobilization efforts. It has been spending on ads in Pennsylvania since late last summer with a special emphasis on voters of Puerto Rican or Caribbean heritage.

Yrene Rodriguez, 46, an accountant at Reading Community College who said she and her whole family are Biden supporters, dismissed Wednesday's efforts by Trump's backers as “just propaganda.”

“They just want to get people to say nice things about him,” Rodriguez said.

Luis Rodriguez, who owns a real estate wholesaling and rehabbing business with offices in Pennsylvania, addressed the Trump office opening and talked about the importance of extending the U.S.-Mexico border wall, a signature promise from Trump's first campaign that he pursued in office.

Asked after the event about concerns Trump's harsh personal rhetoric might alienate some Hispanics, Rodriguez, who isn’t related to Yrene, said such suggestions don't have "any backing or validity.”

Michael Rivera, a commissioner in Berks County, which encompasses Reading, spoke at the office opening in English and Spanish and said more effort to reach out to Hispanic voters "demonstrates the Republican Party's understanding of the power of diversity among the American people.”

Located in a red-brick building across from a downtown CVS, the campaign office was indistinguishable from most corporate spaces, except for the placards in the front window reading “Latino Americans for Trump," “Stop Illegal Voting” and “Joe Biden, You’re Fired.”

Attracting more attention was a table of Trump merchandise set up for the event on the sidewalk outside. Some people walking by rolled their eyes or voiced their objections, but others were delighted with the display.

“I only want the true king. The true king of America!" bellowed one man, loud enough to be heard inside the office. “That's Trump.”

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.