The Party for His People

Author: Jerry Kammer ’71

The kickoff event for George W. Bush campaign’s at the 2000 Republican convention was a throbbing musical extravaganza whose Spanish-language theme—_Es Un Nuevo Dia_ (It’s a New Day)—trumpeted a message that GOP leaders believed vital to their success at a time of huge demographic change.

With a population that surged nearly 60 percent during the 1990s, fed mostly by immigrants from Mexico, the 35 million Hispanics in the United States were a principal target of Bush’s message that his “compassionate conservatism” was transforming his party and making it a comfortable fit for immigrants.

The producer of the show, which brought mariachis, salsa queen Celia Cruz and Cuban-born pop star Jon Secada to the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, was the unassuming 49-year-old Panamanian immigrant Raul Romero ’75, ’77M.S.

Romero makes his professional home in Houston and his political home in the Republican Party. He was one of the Bush campaign’s “Pioneers,” a group whose members—including former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach and Enron’s Ken Lay—raised at least $100,000 for the campaign. Now Romero is making a name nationally as the Bush administration’s point man for “Hispanic outreach,” a high-stakes, high-energy bid to woo Hispanics away from their traditional home in the Democratic Party. In 2000, the effort was good enough to win Bush 35 percent of the nationwide Hispanic vote. Working without an official title and off the party payroll, Romero maintains steady contact with fellow Texan Karl Rove, the White House political adviser whose job it is to get Bush re-elected in 2004.

Rove’s number crunching has indicated that, with the steady increase of Hispanic voters, 35 percent won’t be good enough next time around. The word from the White House is that the nation’s changing demographics mean Bush will need 40 percent of the Hispanic vote to be re-elected.

That means Bush needs Romero.

Romero has kept his regular job as president and CEO of S&B Infrastructure, a Houston-based engineering and construction company that designs and builds everything from highways and bridges to airports and wastewater facilities. But as a bachelor, he is mobile enough to have bought a second home in Washington, D.C.’s Virginia suburbs. And he has moved into an office on Pennsylvania Avenue, one block from the White House.

Romero’s constant business travels allow him to scour the country for Hispanic talent to be brought into the Bush administration. U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, Surgeon General Richard Carmona and Small Business Administration head Hector V. Barreto are some of his finds.

“In the Hispanic community, he is known as the kingmaker,” says Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, who studies Hispanic politics as director of the Mexico project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Romero chafes at the designation. “If we are making role models that are good for the Hispanic community, then so be it,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean I’m making kings. I’m just trying to make sure we have the talent.”

While Bill Clinton appointed more Hispanics to top posts than any previous president, Romero takes pride that Bush is appointing even more. “The prior administration never got over 7 percent of Hispanics” in positions that require Senate approval, he says. “We are close to 10 percent.”

Democrat leaders scoff at the GOP’s efforts to woo Hispanics, claiming that the politics of wages, working conditions and health care make them natural Democrats. Bush prefers to think that their work ethic and Catholic values should make them lean to the Republicans —as long as the Republicans are inclined to welcome them.

Larry Gonzalez, director of the Washington office of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, makes it clear how far the GOP has to go. He reports that the 1,520 Hispanic Democrats elected to office across the country outnumber Republicans 13 to 1.

Romero has become a political arm of one. He became a Bush partisan in 1993, when Bush was preparing to run for Texas governor and visited Romero’s offices at S&B Infrastructure. He asked Romero to organize a meeting with Hispanic businessmen.

“I told him I had a big debt of gratitude to his dad,” Romero says, recalling the first President Bush’s 1989 decision to send in U.S. troops to topple outlaw Panamanian strongman General Manuel Noriega.

“My family had to go into exile in Costa Rica during the Noriega years, and because of his dad I had my country back,” he says.

Romero pitch to Hispanics that the Republicans are now the party of George W. Bush—is an effort to reverse the anti-GOP antagonism that took on a militant cast after former California Governor Pete Wilson’s mid-1990s crusade against illegal immigration. While Wilson said services to illegals, such as education and health care, were busting the state’s budget, Hispanics complained that they were being scapegoated for the state’s problems.

Romero says Bush’s Texas background has given him an affinity for Hispanics akin to Arkansas-bred Bill Clinton’s ease with blacks. “They say Clinton was the first black president,” Romero says. “I’d say Bush is the first Hispanic president.”

Jerry Kammer is a reporter in the Washington, D.C., bureau of Copley News Service.