Can the GOP bring Hispanics home?
IT WAS THE SPRING OF 1994. The Smashing Pumpkins ruled the airwaves. I was 22 years old, recently graduated from Arizona State University and living in the “Real World” house in San Francisco. Rooming with six strangers and having my life taped for MTV’s groundbreaking reality series, The Real World, in the nation’s most liberal city was a formative experience for a young, Hispanic, conservative, Catholic girl from the Southwest.
The Real World perfectly captured the politically correct, multicultural zeitgeist of the 1990s, and it was exhilarating to be at the center of a pop culture phenomenon. In San Francisco, I saw my first gay pride parade with my HIV-positive Cuban roommate, Pedro. I attended “spoken word” night at a dry hip-hop nightclub with my dreadlocked, African American Muslim roommate, Mohammad. I regularly bar-hopped in seedy neighborhoods with my anarchist bike messenger pal, Puck. I went to more drag shows than I care to admit, and once was even taken to “bondage night” at a local club, where I observed a sad, topless, wrinkled grandmother in leather shorts, and misfit weirdos of every stripe, spanking and electrocuting each other. I was shocked (no pun intended), but in youthful optimism also convinced that somehow this “culture” would make me a more well-rounded, worldly, sophisticated adult.
So I was annoyed when my “open-minded” roommates balked and moaned after I invited them to experience my world at an Empower America conference. Jeane Kirkpatrick and my political hero, Jack Kemp, were headlining the event.
That morning, several of my roommates took in the beautiful view of the Golden Gate Bridge from our pimped-out pad on Lombard Street. It was a gorgeous day, and our flat had enormous windows overlooking the bay and the charming North Beach neighborhood Jack Kerouac once trolled. What a waste, they complained as cameras rolled, to spend a beautiful afternoon with a bunch of Republicans.
In their subsequent “confessional” interviews (taped to add drama and help narrate the storyline of each episode), it became clear that my roommates left the conference more convinced than ever of their Republican stereotypes. They all complained about the lack of diversity and seemed genuinely baffled, even outraged, by my affiliation with a group that so clearly didn’t look like me. My Jewish roommate from New York explained that he had always thought the GOP was the party of old, white, straight men. And when he went to the conference, all he saw were…well, old, white, straight men. Even I had to laugh when I saw the episode for the first time. The show’s producers timed it for maximum comedic effect: a long, slow shot of one old man after another until the camera landed on me, the only ethnic person in the room.
At the time, I chalked it all up as more evidence of the myth of liberal tolerance. Here I had delved so enthusiastically into my roommates’ lives and fetishes, yet they refused to take from my world anything more substantive than an appraisal based on skin color. I was frustrated that their liberal orthodoxy prevented them from hearing the universal message of economic freedom and self-determination.
Jack Kemp, it turned out, shared some of my roommates’ concerns. Long before the Hispanic vote became a favorite topic for pundits and talking heads, he profoundly understood that changing demographics created consequences for the GOP if it failed to aggressively and continually engage minorities in ideological debate.
Today, Harry Reid says he doesn’t understand how anyone Hispanic could be a Republican. Actor John Leguizamo claims that Hispanics voting for Republicans are like roaches voting for Raid.
But when Kemp was alive, he specifically and exuberantly made the case that Hispanics belonged in the GOP. He passionately argued that the work ethic and entrepreneurialism of Mexican Americans is quintessentially American—and very Republican. He understood that our parents and grandparents came north for economic freedom, not more government. He recognized that Hispanics are inherently pro-life and very traditional in their principles and values.
Jack Kemp is the reason I became interested in Empower America, and the reason I brought my roommates and the MTV cameras with me on that beautiful afternoon. Later, I received a handwritten note from “Old #15” that I still have framed in my home office. It reads: “Rachel—I’m sure glad you made it to M.T.V. They need a young (beautiful), sharp, conservative ‘bleeding heart’ Hispanic woman from Arizona.”
What Jack didn’t say in that note, but knew to be true, was that the GOP needed me too.
HERE WE ARE NEARLY 20 YEARS LATER, on the cusp (at press time) of a critical election in which Hispanics are projected to cast critical votes, and Obama has pandered accordingly. Recall how in June, he halted deportations for 800,000 “dreamers” with his temporary and hastily devised plan. Four days later, an article in Politico declared: “President Barack Obama’s campaign wants to turn Mitt Romney into the candidate of old, straight, white men.” So little has changed from the spring of 1994.
But it needs to change. In 2004, George Bush captured an impressive 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. In 2008, McCain got 31 percent. As of this writing, Romney is pulling a dismal 24 percent. Since we know that our Hispanic population will triple by 2050—to a full 30 percent of the U.S. population—these trends threaten the very future of our party.
The question is how to bring Hispanics home. My family’s story, an all-American story about hard work and sacrifice, can provides insight into the culture and events that have shaped Hispanics’ political views and party affiliation.
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