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A Restaurateur Has a Thing (or Two) to Teach the GOP About Immigration Reform

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Brad Bailey
Brad Bailey
“I’m an honest-to-God conservative. I even have a dog named W,” said Brad Bailey by way of introduction. In his mid-30s, with close-cropped, sandy blond hair and dressed in a suit and tie, Bailey looked like one of the dozens of newly elected Republican state officials milling around the lobby of the downtown Austin Hilton during a conference for conservative policymakers in early January.

But Bailey, who runs a chain of family-owned catfish and seafood restaurants near Houston, said he felt like an outsider. “I’m not a politico. I’m in the hospitality business,” he said. The Texas Republican Party could learn a thing or two from the hospitality business. “At one of my restaurants, if I were to turn my back on my customers or treat them rudely, they wouldn’t come back,” he said. “That’s how the Republican Party treats Hispanics.”

Bailey had never felt a calling to get involved in Republican state politics until last year, he said. His “aha moment,” as he called it, was when a longtime employee, who is Hispanic, came to him one day at the restaurant and asked whether it was true that Republicans hated Hispanics. “This guy had worked for me for 10 years,” Bailey said. “He’d seen the Republican bumper stickers on my car and he said, ‘You and your family seem like good people. So why do you hate Hispanics?’

“There wasn’t anything I could say to convince him otherwise,” Bailey said. Alarmed, he went to his local representative, who advised him to get involved in the next Republican state convention. So last June, the restaurateur found himself in Fort Worth among the state’s most die-hard Republicans, trying to convince them to endorse a guest worker program as part of the state GOP’s immigration platform. After that, Bailey went to the Republican National Convention in Tampa. His lobbying of delegates there proved successful; the platform called for a guest worker program.

Bailey said he’s worked mostly with Hispanic conservatives to convince the party to soften its divisive rhetoric toward Latinos. Hispanic conservatives recruited Bailey to speak to his fellow Anglo Republicans about their immigration hang-ups. “They said, ‘It’s going to take a white guy like you appealing to other white guys to get the GOP to turn around.’ It’s unfortunate but true,” he said. “There’s Hispanic outreach and then what I do—we call it ‘gringo inreach.’”

Bailey said he’d already spoken to 30 Republican clubs across Texas. On this day, he was in Austin to take part in an immigration panel at the conservative conference held by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.Republicans know they need to appeal to Hispanics if the party wants to remain in the majority, but that doesn’t make Bailey’s gringo inreach any easier. “I had a guy tell me the other day that there were 30 million illegal aliens living in the United States,” he said. “There’s just no way that’s true, but it was hard to convince him otherwise.

“We need to change, and I think Texas can be a leader for the nation,” he said. Then Bailey excused himself, eyeing a group of legislators across the lobby. “Better go,” he said. “I’ve got work to do.”

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.