Hispanic Leadership Network meets in Florida
On Friday, at the end of a week in which the country was transfixed by the mass murder in Arizona and when political reporters were engrossed by the election of a new RNC chairman, an important event took place in Florida. Sponsored by the conservative American Action Network (which raised gobs of cash in the 2010 election cycle), the Hispanic Leadership Network staged a gathering and invited prominent figures -- including former Colombia President Alvaro Uribe, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, recently elected Florida Gov. Rick Scott, likely presidential aspirant Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman (AAN's CEO), and former White House press secretary Dana Perino -- to begin serious conservative outreach to the Hispanic community. HLN aims to deliver a center-right message to a large section of the electorate that will, by 2050, represent 30 percent of the population.
The panels tackled tough issues, including trade, immigration, media and education. According to event organizers, registration had to be closed a few days before the event because the RSVPs had exceeded the conference center's capacity.
American Action Network CEO Norm Coleman told me on Friday night that the response to the event, both in numbers and in enthusiasm, was "truly extraordinary." He said that there is a "hunger in the Hispanic community" for center-right ideas on everything from education to social issues to business-friendly economic issues. Moreover, Coleman argued, "One of the worst sins in politics is not being able to count." Simply put, Republicans can't win the presidency in 2012 without improving their standing with Hispanic voters.
I spoke with AAN chairman Fred Malek, who has advised four Republican presidents and been a key player in the GOP, by phone on Saturday. "I am the product of immigrants," he told me. "Both my grandfathers were immigrants." He contends that "without a constructive approach to immigration, [the GOP] cannot be a majority party." He said: "We must be pro-immigrant. We must be pro-law-enforcement."
On the topic of immigration, Coleman observed that President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid "made a promise" to pursue immigration reform, but "they broke it.... They should be held accountable." From what he characterized as "robust discussion" on immigration at the conference, he extracted several lessons.
First, "immigration is a tone issue, but it is more than tone." He said that conservatives need to be the party of "the rule of law," so border enforcement is a necessity. But he added that the GOP should explore whether some formulation of the DREAM Act is supportable and work toward developing a comprehensive immigration plan. Interestingly, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) was at the conference and reminded the audience that he supported the DREAM Act in committee. But, he argued, the Democrats, anxious to use this as a wedge-issue against Republicans, refused to allow amendments, making the final bill and the process untenable for GOP senators.
Second, Coleman singled out Republican rock star Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and the two new Republican Hispanic governors, Brian Sandoval in Nevada and Susana Martinez in New Mexico, for employing rhetoric that is "not demeaning to immigrants," yet takes a tough stance on border enforcement. Republicans can be true to their law-and-order principles without turning off Hispanics.
And third, Coleman said that on issues such as school reform, free trade with Colombia and Panama, abortion and many others, the conservative message can and does resonate with the Hispanic community.
So what does HLN do next? In the short run, it hopes to stage similar events in Texas and New Mexico. Beyond that, Malek said: "We need to come forward with a policy and a program [on immigration] that will have merit but also works politically."
Immigration is not the entire picture. (The topic did, however, virtually take over the media panel.) Perino said that potentially more important than immigration is the issue of "economic freedom." Hispanic want the "ability to send their children to better schools, which is why vouchers and school choice programs are very popular," she said. She added that Republicans need to encourage voters to "just look at how Florida has improved because of its aggressive push for accountability and school choice. Contrast that with Obama letting the choice program lapse in D.C., which is a horrible shame." She said that Obama "should have taken a bigger hit for that. The hit, sadly, will be against the kids that won't get to be in the program anymore."
And then there really is an issue of tone. Malek was blunt: "If we are seen to be the angry, intolerant and punitive party, that isn't going to work." While talking to Republicans on Capitol Hill, I have found Republican staff, senators and congressional leaders quite sensitive to the issue of how immigration rhetoric plays in Hispanic communities. Gadflies such as Tom Tancredo, who infamously dubbed Miami a "third world country," continue to provide fodder for the media.
The good news for Republicans is that three dynamic and capable Hispanics (Rubio, Martinez and Sandoval) have been effective messengers for conservative ideas. "Watch for that Susana Martinez!," Perino said. "She is a really appealing communicator."
As for Rubio, there is no GOP figure about whom the consensus among party leaders and activists is so clear: He is a future presidential candidate (but definitely not running in 2012) and an extraordinarily adept communicator. But he is not simply a good spokesman for the GOP in Hispanic communities. Malek said, "I think he is going to be a leader in the Senate, period. He's not defined by [the immigration] issue." If conservatives are at odds over immigration, that is one statement on which there is near unanimity.
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