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Selling the American Dream

Can the GOP bring Hispanics home?

By From the November 2012 issue

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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.

My father was raised a union Democrat. He cast his first ballot for a Republican in 1980 for Ronald Reagan. At the time, he was a married father of four and an enlisted Air Force sergeant. But the seeds of my father’s conservatism were planted decades before in Sonora, Arizona, the poor copper-mining town where he was born and raised.

When my Mexican-born grandfather, Rafael, immigrated to work in the mines of the American Southwest, where he eventually settled with his young bride to raise 15 kids, he did it to give his children a better life. What he couldn’t do in Mexico—transcend his poverty and lack of education—he did do in America through hard work and ingenuity.

Though a heavy drinker and certified machista, Rafael was a man determined to take financial responsibility for his extra-large brood. When government social workers came to my grandmother Beatriz’s house and saw the conditions, they returned with toys and food, which my abuela gratefully accepted. When Rafael, a traveling laborer at the time, returned and saw the toys and food his toil did not provide, he was furious. These were his kids, and he was man enough to provide for them.

My father was the eleventh of Rafael and Beatriz’s children. The family was poorer than most, and in Sonora that was saying something. The Campos siblings had one green bike to share, and my dad occasionally recounts a painful moment in kindergarten, when a fellow classmate cruelly pulled his pants down to reveal the depth of his family’s poverty: his bare bottom. They were so poor that they couldn’t afford underwear.

But out of poverty came resourcefulness and a work ethic forged at an age today’s culture would deem unjust. Knowing his parents couldn’t afford to buy him underwear, much less gum or a ticket to the movies, my dad was inspired to become a shoeshine boy. At only six years old, Miguel, or “Mickey,” as his friends and family called him, would go to the bars where the miners hung out after work. If one had a date later that evening, he might pay a dime for a shine, or maybe even a quarter if he splurged for a spit shine. Mickey and his brothers would also go into the mountains in search of “nopales” cactus leaves, also known as prickly pear or “tuna.” They would cut the leaves, pull the needles out, peel, clean, and dice them, and sell them door-to-door, always saving a portion of their income to give back to my abuela Beatriz. Sometimes my grandfather would send the boys into the mountains to harvest barrel cactus fruit, from which he made homemade Mexican candy for the boys to sell.

In sixth grade, my dad apprenticed with a piñata maker, a teenager who came from Mexico each summer to live with his relatives. During his visit, between neighborhood baseball games, he would make dozens of piñatas for his extended family to sell to local stores—the flower shop, the mercado—and to families celebrating a birthday or graduation. My father mastered the craft quickly and soon enlisted my grandmother to make the glue out of flour and water. At the ripe old age of 13, my dad started his own piñata business. Decades later, my Papi would create elaborate and creative piñatas for his own children, ones that made me the envy of my grade-school classmates.

When my father graduated from high school, he joined the Air Force and began a family on an airman’s salary. He didn’t think twice about taking a night job as a dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant or about later becoming a night janitor at a local high school—a job today’s minority activist leaders deem far too demeaning for economically disadvantaged kids to do for extra cash. Newt Gingrich was excoriated and mocked during his presidential campaign for suggesting this prescription for poverty and lost work ethics.

My dad earned his bachelor’s degree in night school while serving in the military. My mother, whom my father met while stationed in Spain, taught herself English, earned her GED at night school, and later, after raising children, went back to school to earn her degree. My dad retired after 30 years of service and worked several menial jobs to cobble the money together to earn his master’s degree and start a second career as a public school teach-er. For a time, my parents worked together in Arizona teaching Spanish and English as a second language to immigrant children, many of whom were illegal.

Today, my pa-rents are semi-retired and living in a comfortable, beautiful Arizona home. My dad works from home teaching computer science online to other servicemen. Both of my brothers became Marine Corps officers, went on to law school, and be-came attorneys. One is a partner in his firm and the other is a successful international businessman living in Dubai. My sister, a mother of four, has a postgraduate degree, became a CIA operations operative, and recently ran for Congress in Arizona. I earned a bachelor’s in economics, a master’s in international affairs, and went on to become a television host, pundit, and writer.

Not bad for the family of a shoeshine boy who was once too poor to own underwear.

FOR A REAGAN DEMOCRAT LIKE MY DAD, voting Republican in 1980 created the space to begin questioning his family’s Democrat heritage, the Catholic loyalty forged by the election of JFK, and the union rhetoric he grew up hearing. Reagan had a way of transcending ethnic, racial, and political lines and of making everyone feel proud to be an American. It was an attractive message for a first-generation Mexican American soldier raised on Elvis and baseball. Plus, Reagan delivered results. In 1984, it was morning again in America. My dad voted for Reagan a second time and eventually registered Republican when he could no longer square the Democrats’ position on abortion with his faith, principles, and values. The decision would make my father the only Republican in his large Mexican American family.

So why haven’t more hardworking and socially conservative Hispanics joined the GOP ranks? The answer has more to do with tactics and institutions than ideology.

For too long, the party’s strategy has been to hire a few Beltway conservative Latinos six months before an election and call it “outreach.” What’s needed is permanent outreach at the grassroots levels between elections. Conservative Hispanic activists on the ground know that the GOP needs to take a few cues from successful groups like the far-left La Raza, which has made its mark by bringing public policy to the neighborhood level.

Nor can we afford to cede Spanish-language media to the Democrats. Obama and his team are effectively and aggressively penetrating the Latino media with ads featuring celebrities like Cristina Saralegui—the Spanish-language Oprah. At the same time, Democrat-friendly news producers, reporters, and anchors create the impression on Spanish-language television that Democrats are the only ones who care about Hispanics. Publications like People en Española and Latina Magazine might as well be arms of the DNC.

Fox News Latino brings some balance, but conservatives still need an aggressive strategy to capture Hispanics via their media, by both advertising and deploying Hispanic surrogates who are articulate, informed, and can offer classic American stories of struggle and success.

Which brings us to another problem: The Republican Party has a shockingly shallow pool of Hispanic surrogates. The left successfully grooms Hispanic talent at the local level, with the understanding that the fruits of the effort may not be visible in the next election. Julian Castro, the young mayor of San Antonio who gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, is an example of this.

Republicans have an extraordinary representative in Marco Rubio, who can sell American exceptionalism with the clarity of Reagan and the enthusiasm of Kemp. In New Mexico’s Susana Martinez, they have a relatable Mexican American governor who grew up around a family business.

But Martinez is being under-utilized, and Rubio cannot do it alone. The Republican Party needs to work harder to find, train, fund, and empower Hispanic conservatives who can go out, particularly during the off years, to present our principles and our values.

FURTHER, TOO OFTEN the Republican approach to Hispanic outreach is, simply put, a poor imitation of the Democrats’ position. We’ve heard GOP leaders assert that Hispanics are not one-issue voters solely concerned with immigration, but Republicans still campaign as if that were true.

Yes, immigration reform is a key issue for many. But in poll after poll, Hispanics rank it fourth in importance after the economy, education, and health care. No wonder: Hispanics start businesses at a rate that’s twice the national average. There are two million more Hispanics living in poverty than when Obama took office in 2008. Millions of second-generation Hispanics, like myself, will never deal with an immigration issue in their lifetimes.

If you ask my father, he’ll tell you the problem isn’t immigration, the problem is integration.

Mexican Americans raised in the ’50s and ’60s were encouraged to love America and to become a part of it. Post-’70s popular culture has had no such quaint aspirations. My parents instilled the American Dream in me, but over and over throughout my college years, I was told that America wasn’t the land of opportunity and that I needed government assistance and affirmative action to overcome the institutional barriers that were holding me back.

Today’s “dreamer” kids are steeped in a multicultural, bilingual public school curriculum that’s heavy on victimhood and light, if not altogether silent, on our Founding Fathers and the Constitution. A return to American history and civics in the classroom for all children, including ESL students, is imperative to righting this ship.

Politically, what seems to matter most is the tone a political party takes toward immigration. Despite having done nothing to advance comprehensive immigration reform and having presided over an unprecedented number of deportations, President Obama’s poll numbers among Hispanics are still high. Hispanics simply perceive him as “caring” more about them.

Romney did himself no favors by unnecessarily distancing himself from his family’s connection to Mexico. George Bush, on the other hand, went out of his way to show his affection for their culture, music, and food. Even his gringo attempts to speak Spanish endeared him to Latino constituents.

ON ISSUES OTHER THAN IMMIGRATION, many Hispanics are already Republicans at heart. They don’t need to change anything but their label. Governor Martinez, for instance, discovered this as an adult. After a dinner discussing policy with a couple of Republicans, she walked back to her car with her husband and declared, “I’ll be damned, we’re Republicans!”

Engaging Hispanics in issue-by-issue conversation is the way to win over those who are already inclined to agree with so much of our party platform. A natural gateway is school choice, the civil rights issue of our day, which clearly demonstrates the stark differences between what the two parties offer minorities and those seeking upward mobility. A conservative community organization, modeled after La Raza, that helps families fight for access to good schools would earn the trust and political allegiance of parents by showing them, firsthand, who is really on the side of the poor.

We can win Hispanics over—at least enough to remain electorally competitive. But doing so is a generational task. Reagan did it with my dad. Kemp reinforced it with me. And now every one of my siblings is a proud Republican, raising more Republicans (14 grandkids in all!).

It’s high time the GOP gets its act together, stands up, and boldly reaches out to its most promising and natural constituency. We came to America for the American Dream. Convince us that you are the party preserving that dream for our children and grandchildren, and you will win our hearts and our votes. I stand ready to help.

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About the Author

Rachel Campos-Duffy is an author, pundit, and television host, and the wife of U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin.