Washington is a city full of dueling egos, a kind of bubble of exaggerated self-awareness. But it’s where Raul Labrador, the forty-something immigration lawyer-turned-Congressman, has made his bed.
There is something brutally honest about Labrador. And it’s not just that he tells it like he sees it or that he has a diagnosis for every problem (though he does). He’s in the negotiating business. From afar, his fellow conservatives in the House seem to be wandering leaderless through a desert, chasing budget cut mirages, hunting for Obamacare oases. In Labrador, they may have found their man.
Today, it’s mid-summer and Labrador is sitting in his tiny office in a back corner on the fifth floor of the Longworth House Office Building. Outside, the Capitol is engulfed in the kind of steamy, blistering humidity Washington, D.C., is known for. Inside isn’t much better. A portable fan is running to try to cool things down.
It’s been four years since the wave that swept him and so many of his conservative colleagues into the marbled halls of Congress. Like so many others, Labrador fell into the hardline camp almost immediately. Now, credibility in tow, he’s working to refine that image.
Though he says he disagrees with the accepted Washington narrative about disillusioned pols in a dysfunctional Washington, there’s no denying things have been rough for him and the rest of the 2010 class. Debt ceilings. Continuing resolutions. Budget negotiation after budget negotiation. A government shutdown that snuck in there along the way.
The class of 2010 came to Washington with a clear mandate. So far they’ve been thorns in the side of the Obama administration. But that’s easy. What’s more difficult is staying true to conservative principles and getting things done, all without turning Americans off. Labrador, for one, is perfectly honest about it: his party’s messaging and negotiating techniques stink.
Take last year’s government shutdown. Many have blamed the sixteen-day mess on Labrador and his fellow Republicans in the House, but won’t mention that to his face. In fact, he outwardly bristles when I suggest that the shutdown was right out of his playbook. “It actually wasn’t, because we never had a consistent message. We kept changing the playbook. So one day we’re asking for X and the next day we were asking for Y,” he says. “If you’re going to negotiate, you have to be consistent and be clear what your demands are.”
He continues: “What House conservatives were asking for was pretty simple: give us a one-year delay of Obamacare and we will give you a one-year CR. That was a pretty simple message,” he says, clearly miffed. “That was never the message that came out of our leadership. Our leadership said give us a complete repeal of Obamacare and we will give you…nothing.”
I sat down with Labrador less than a week after the congressman had attempted the riskiest move of his political career. He threw his hat in alongside heir-apparent Kevin McCarthy to replace the defeated and outgoing Eric Cantor as majority leader. In many ways, it was the political story of the summer. If nothing else, his leadership bid made people sit up and start paying attention.
Up until that point, Labrador was probably best known for his championing of comprehensive immigration reform, a position informed by his background as an immigration lawyer and very much in line with the aspirational Reagan-era conservatism in vogue when he came of age politically. Like Marco Rubio in the Senate, Labrador was young-ish, affable, articulate, and, of course, Hispanic: well-suited, in other words, to taking up the task of reaching out to Latino voters on behalf of his party. Many observers were surprised last June when he dropped out of the so-called “Gang of Eight,” the bipartisan group devoted to pursuing immigration reform in the House. At the time he told reporters that he disagreed with his colleagues about immigrants’ health care, saying in a statement, “Like most Americans, I believe that health care is first and foremost a personal responsibility.”
Principles aside, it is hard not to see his retreat as a concession to political reality: hard as it may have been to predict back in 2010, the GOP grassroots has turned out to be thoroughgoingly opposed to comprehensive-style reform and, some would say, to the optimistic view of immigration Labrador and Rubio made their names espousing. Without walking back anything he’s committed himself to, he’s beginning to sound like more of a hardliner.
Take the recent influx of child immigrants at the border: “This is why I said for a year that we shouldn’t be talking about immigration, because I predicted what’s happening at the border now,” he says. “Now I didn’t think it would be at the level that it’s happening right now, but I knew as soon as you send a message to Mexico and Central America and South America that we’re not actually following the law in the United States that they would rush to the border because everyone wants to live in the United States.”
“Nothing would send a stronger message to these families than if all these children were returned,” he adds. “People say that is inhumane, and I totally disagree. What’s inhumane is what is happening to these children in their trajectory to the U.S. in order for them to get through Mexico. They’re suffering. That is the real human tragedy, and I think the most humane we can be is letting them know there is no amnesty for them. There will be no pathway for them to remain in the U.S.”
Born the only child to a single mother, Labrador spent the first thirteen years of his life in Puerto Rico while his mom worked in the hotel and restaurant industries—and even as a television personality—to make ends meet. As Labrador tells it, she was the kind of parent who would “drive me to the areas where people had nice homes. And she’d say, ‘This is something that you can have someday.’”
“Instead of putting them down,” he adds, “she actually wanted me to aspire to be in that environment.” His mom, he notes, “always taught me pretty simple rules. If you want to be successful in life, study hard, play by the rules, learn the keys to success.”
When he was thirteen, the family moved to Las Vegas. It was here, says Labrador, that his life really began to turn around. He refined his grasp of the English language. He found mentors. He joined the Church of Latter-day Saints and became interested in politics. After attending Brigham Young University and the University of Washington School of Law, he settled down to his legal work in Idaho.
For fifteen years he assisted companies in bringing workers to the United States and helped spouses of American citizens become legal permanent residents. He also defended illegal immigrants slated for deportation after being convicted of crimes.
These days, the father of five is focused on making a different sort of case: selling his version of conservatism to the American people, one that proves that Republicans are about more than just big corporations and the wealthy. He spends the better part of half an hour explaining how everything people think they know about conservatives is just plain wrong.
Labrador leans back. It’s almost time for him to leave for a briefing—as his press secretary reminded him more than once—but he appears to be in no hurry. He tells a story about the debt limit fight during the summer of 2011. During that first budget showdown, he says, he actually reached out and helped John Boehner get some of the more conservative lawmakers on board with a compromise continuing resolution. And he took plenty of heat for it.
“I was the one who brought both sides together,” he says. “I just think there’s this false narrative that I’m not willing to work within the system and negotiate.” But the delicate balance always remains: “I’m willing to negotiate as long as we stay within our commitment to our voters.”
It’s why he was willing to work with Democrats in the Gang of Eight. Things ultimately didn’t work out and his abrupt departure raised some eyebrows, but part of negotiating is knowing when the debate’s parameters have stretched too far and it’s time to walk away. It’s also about knowing when to stick your neck out in the first place. Labrador wants, and is willing, to go to the table.
At this point, Labrador could easily twist the knife in the gaping wound that is John Boehner’s lack of achievements as Speaker. I’ve put the target right in front of him; all he has to do is pick up the blade. But he demurs. “I actually think Speaker Boehner is a very honorable man, and he assumes that the people on the other side of the table are just as honorable as he is,” says Labrador. “And I think that’s a great mistake in negotiations. And I think he goes in there saying immediately what he’s willing to give up without realizing that the other side wants to cut his throat.” Spoken like an experienced haggler.
Labrador is probably the only politician I’ve ever interviewed who, when I ask whether there’s anything he’d like to add right before I turn off the recorder, declines to keep talking. I prod him some more. Awkward silence ensues. Still, he declines to volunteer anything beyond what I’ve directly asked him to respond to. In the context of our entire discussion, it’s so strikingly unlike the Boehner approach he has derided.
It may be Labrador’s biggest asset. Unlike many politicians, he knows when it’s time to stop talking. It’s certainly why he’s so bothered over the current leadership’s message to the country.
“I think there’s a void in telling the American people what we’re for,” he says. “We have spent the last four years telling the American people what we’re against. We’re against Obama. We’re against Obamacare. We’re against everything this administration does. But if you think about it, that’s not how you win elections.”
Labrador’s got a bill of goods to sell to the American people, and with the midterm election just a few weeks away, he’s almost running out of time. Last time around, Republicans squandered every election-year idea they tried to advance. The American people never really got anything except disenchanted. This didn’t, and still doesn’t, sit well with the congressman.
“We are talking not just about opposing the Obama administration and their ideology and really downright bad management of this nation, but also talking about what are the things that we are for,” says Labrador. “What would we do with the tax system? What would we do with NSA reform? What would we do when it comes to treating everyone the same?”
It’s with that he realizes what time it is. He’s running late.