Meet the Middle Man

Can a former Mexican cabinet minister steer Texas Republicans into the future?
by Published on
photo by Alexander Aleman
Juan Hernandez

Four weeks before the 2008 presidential election, Juan Hernandez flew from Washington, D.C., to Phoenix for an interview on the Spanish-language news channel Univision. A charismatic public speaker and cheerleader for the Republican cause, Hernandez had been candidate John McCain’s Hispanic outreach director for 14 months. “I’d left my home and family in Fort Worth, not even thinking about how I was going to make money for the next year, because I would be working as a volunteer,” he recalls. “I was living in a cheap hotel called the Americana so that I could work out of the Washington, D.C., headquarters and be there every morning for the 7:30 strategy meetings.”

When Univision came calling, Hernandez figured it was a no-brainer. The United States’ top-rated Spanish-language channel was crucial to reaching Hispanic voters. Before saying yes, he says, “I checked it out with the campaign manager. He said ‘fine,’ and I flew to Phoenix.” When Hernandez arrived at the TV station, he encountered the puzzled faces of a receptionist and a producer. “They said, ‘Uh-oh. We’ve got a problem, because someone from your campaign called and told us the interview was canceled.’”  

It wasn’t the first time. Since McCain had asked Hernandez to lead his Hispanic outreach, the campaign had agonized to the point of paralysis over how to appeal to Hispanics without alienating the Republican base of older Anglos. “McCain would tell me, I want to have behind me many Hispanic-looking faces at this press conference,” Hernandez recalls. “So I would call and have 10, 12 women, men, doctors, nurses, laborers, and they would be invited and then not be put in the photograph. Instead there would only be white males over 50 in the photograph, and this would happen over and over again.”

Hernandez says the campaign filmed TV spots with McCain talking about the need for immigration reform and praising Hispanic veterans, but it never aired—or even appeared on the candidate’s website. “At one point, in great frustration, I went up to John and said, ‘I just want to thank you, sir, but I really have to leave. None of what I believe you hired me to promote is being promoted.’ He embraced me and wouldn’t stop embracing me, and he said, ‘Juan, don’t leave.’ And so I stayed for the rest of the campaign, but I was frozen.”

It didn’t help that groups like Americans for Legal Immigration were attacking Hernandez on the airwaves and over the Internet, calling him an “open borders extremist” and urging McCain to fire him. Bilingual and a citizen of Mexico and the United States, Hernandez had once worked for Mexican President Vicente Fox, advocating for Mexican migrants in the United States. Some accused him of being a reconquistador, especially when he became a frequent foil on Cable TV for anti-immigration champions like Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly. In a 2001 Nightline news segment about his work for the Mexican government, Hernandez said of undocumented immigrants, “We want them to know they’re not second-class citizens because they crossed a line.” When Hernandez was asked whether it was right to participate in the politics of both countries, he responded: “There are 20 million in the United States with one foot in Mexico and the other foot in the United States—if they want to attack me, then they’re attacking 20 million people.”

Hernandez, a conservative Christian and a lifelong Republican, sounded like a heretic to the anti-immigration set—or, even worse, “an open borders and sovereignty undermining extremist,” as the conservative pundit Michelle Malkin called him on her blog. On Fox News, Hernandez battled O’Reilly, Malkin and other conservatives over immigration reform. During one heated debate with Malkin in 2008, he exhorted her to “have a heart” for 1,300 undocumented workers arrested in an immigration raid shortly before Christmas. “I have a heart for people who have followed the laws to come into this country,” Malkin shot back.

“Every day it felt like acid in my stomach,” Hernandez says, remembering his tumultuous months trying to build a bridge between the McCain campaign and Hispanic voters. The right-wing attacks and the paralysis within McCain’s campaign over Hispanics taught Hernandez a powerful lesson, he says. “Hispanics need to be participating in the debate from the inside, not the outside. How can we ever fix immigration if Hispanics aren’t at the table?”

The only way to save the Republican Party, he decided, was to get more Hispanic candidates to run under the Republican banner. “Maybe it’s getting too religious, but I think Republicans have gotten too far away from the basic values that Hispanics hold very precious: family, hard work and faith in God,” Hernandez says. “So winning elections, getting more Hispanics into the Republican Party, can only do the party good.”

 

 

In a political age where everything is boiled down to a label or a 30-second sound bite, 55-year-old Hernandez defies easy categorization. He’s a blue-eyed Mexican American, bilingual and binational. He looks like a Paris café intellectual with his blond hair, streaked with gray, slicked tightly against his scalp. His face is framed by a full mustache and beard. He’s written several books of poetry and once made a living playing guitar for tourists on the streets of San Miguel de Allende.

He admits he often confounds people. “I’ll quote Walt Whitman: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes,’” he says. A born-again Christian, he reads his Bible every morning. He is married to his childhood sweetheart, Estela, and has three daughters and a son. He is pro-life, anti-gay marriage (though it’s “OK if they have some kind of legal agreement”) and a proponent of small government—core Republican values he believes a majority of Hispanics share. But he has liberal views on immigration and border security.

“My inclination is to build bridges, not fences,” he says. “I have a great compassion for the poor, immigrants … people think, ‘wait a minute, this guy should be on the other side with the liberals.’ But I live by choice in the most conservative county in the nation, and I go to a very conservative church because that’s what I’ve chosen.”

Little more than a decade ago, Hernandez was a college professor in English and Latin American literature at the University of Texas-Dallas. Then, he jokes, he took his “grave turn into politics.” In a twist, it was Mexican politics that introduced Hernandez to the higher echelons of the Republican Party in the United States. “We had created a center for U.S.-Mexico studies to bring artists, poets—very famous writers came like Carlos Fuentes—and then I made the great mistake of inviting a politician,” he says. “My brother-in-law had just gone to work for Vicente Fox, who had become the governor of Guanajuato. He was telling me that Fox spoke English, he had been the president of Coca-Cola and his grandfather was from Cincinnati, Ohio. I thought it would be a nice link.”

Through the university, Hernandez had also met George W. Bush, then governor of Texas. The day after Fox spoke at the university, Hernandez drove him to the Texas Capitol for a meeting with Bush.

“I introduced Fox to Bush, not knowing that both of them would run for president in two years,” he says. Fox, the lanky, conservative CEO and erstwhile rancher, hit it off with Bush, the “compassionate conservative” cowboy. Hernandez waited outside while the two talked in Bush’s office. “It was five in the afternoon, and all the staffers wanted to go home, but they weren’t ready to leave. Sometimes we could hear them laughing in there,” he says. “At one point, it sounded like they were moving furniture.”

By 1999, Hernandez was working full-time on Fox’s campaign, sometimes serving as a conduit between the Bush and Fox presidential camps. “I’m getting calls from Governor Fox and calls from a lady I’ve never heard of named Condoleeza Rice,” he says, “and from a guy named Karl Rove wanting to know if Vicente is going to run for president of Mexico, and Vicente is wanting to know if George Bush is going to run and how the polls are doing.”

Hernandez campaigned with Fox for nearly two years, crossing Mexico by plane, car and sometimes horseback. He introduced “gringo-style” politics into Fox’s campaign by bringing in Dick Morris, a former Bill Clinton strategist turned Fox News regular, and Dallas political consultant Rob Allyn. Fox won in 2000, toppling the one-party system in Mexico. An appreciative Fox made Hernandez the first U.S. citizen to serve in a Mexican presidential cabinet. He was appointed to head the Presidential Office of Mexicans Abroad. He shuttled back and forth to the United States to advocate on behalf of Mexican migrants.

In 2002, Hernandez left his post after rankling some of Fox’s cabinet ministers. Once he approved 200,000 survival kits for Mexicans crossing the border illegally, which created a diplomatic tiff. Another time, Hernandez showed up at a hospital in Arizona to visit migrants recuperating after nearly dying while trying to cross the border. Hernandez defended the survival kits in the media. “We are not going to close our eyes,” he told reporters. “We have individuals who are dying at the border. This office was created specifically to watch out for their needs.”

Hernandez and Fox remained on close terms, though. “Juan is an immigrant, heart and soul,” Fox says over the phone. “He’s a very special class that understands both cultures, and he’s the right guy to recruit more Hispanics into the Republican Party. It’s a pretty wise decision, because today’s minorities will be leading the United States in a decade or two.”

 

Now Hernandez has summoned his considerable energy and political contacts to change Texas’ Republican Party from within. Last August, Hernandez helped form a political action committee called the Hispanic Republicans of Texas, or HRT, which includes George P. Bush (nephew of George W.), who is 34, and 42-year-old Schertz businessman George Antuna. The HRT is the first Republican group in Texas focused on recruiting Hispanic candidates and helping them win. Hernandez says the HRT is not going to tell candidates which issues to run on.

hernandez

from L to R: George Antuna, George P. Bush, Juan Hernandez, Juan Roberto Hernandez          

 photo by Jen Reel

“All we do is find candidates, recruit them, find money for them, train them if they need it and then defend them once they are in office,” he says. He does expect that having more Hispanics in the Republican Party is going to change it. “I think in another 10 years, you’re going to see a much more moderate tone on immigration in the state’s Republican Party platform,” he says.

Last November, Texas elected two HRT-backed Hispanic Republicans to Congress, a Latina to the Texas Supreme Court and four Hispanic Republicans to the Texas House of Representatives—the most in history. The victories took even the Texas GOP by surprise, says Steve Munisteri, the party’s state chairman. “I’m glad they came into existence,” he says of HRT, “because the Republican Party is living on borrowed time. If every Latino were to vote today in Texas, the Republican Party would lose all of its statewide seats.” About the HRT, Munisteri says, “My only complaint is that we could have used them four years ago.”

Most grassroots Texas Republicans are unaware of Hernandez’s past role in Mexico or his advocacy for immigrant rights. Informed of some of Hernandez’s views, state Rep. Leo Berman, a Tyler Republican who recently filed a version of the controversial Arizona immigration bill, says the Texas GOP is doing fine without more Hispanic “outreach.” “There’s been a debate about how to include Hispanics for the last 20 years, and it hasn’t helped,” Berman says. “Still, the Republican Party holds 29 state offices and has a majority in both the House and Senate.”

Maybe there’s a place for someone with Hernandez’s immigration views within the party, according to Berman, but it’s on the fringe: “Just like there’s a place for pro-choice Republicans. You can cast your vote, but you’ll lose because it’s the majority that rules.”

 

On a crisp February morning in Austin, Juan Hernandez, his 24-year-old son Juan Roberto and political consultant Trey Newton, whom George P. Bush calls “our Karl Rove,” walk briskly through the Texas Capitol rotunda. Tapping away on a smartphone, Hernandez looks like a busy legislator on his way to a committee meeting. As they push through a crowd of visitors, Hernandez spies Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas System. “Oh,” he says, “I’ve got to go say hello,” and veers toward Cigarroa. They shake hands and exchange a few words. Hernandez returns. “What a great guy,” he says. 

Hernandez has a meeting with two of the newly elected Hispanic Republicans in the House. But first there’s a private chat with state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, a Kerrville Republican and member of Texas’ redistricting committee, which will help draw new legislative and congressional maps. Thanks mostly to its burgeoning Hispanic population, Texas will get four new congressional seats. “It’s no secret that we want to keep Republicans in power,” Hernandez says as he exits Hilderbran’s office. “Those seats should belong to Hispanics. And we’ve already proven we can get them elected.”

Asked whom he has in mind, he smiles. “Oh, I’ve got a total rock star in Houston, someone who has never run for office before, but I’m not ready to give names yet,” he says. “Hispanic Republicans are coming out of the woodwork. They felt isolated for so many years. Now they know they’re not alone.”

Can Hispanic Republican candidates convince other Hispanics to vote for them? Democratic strategist Matt Angle points out that so far, Hispanic Republican candidates haven’t translated into Hispanic voters. “In every case, the Hispanic Republicans, with the exception of [state Rep. Aaron] Peña, who had been elected as a Democrat, were elected on the strength of Anglo votes in 2010, not Hispanic votes,” Angle says. “Groups like the HRT are trying to create the illusion that by having Hispanic candidates, it’s the same thing as winning Hispanic support.”

Hernandez dismisses the criticism by paraphrasing one of his idols, President Ronald Reagan. “Hispanics are by nature conservatives and therefore Republican—they just don’t know it yet,” he says. By offering more Hispanic Republican candidates, he says the Republican Party would win over more Hispanic voters. One candidate HRT was banking on was state Rep. Raul Torres, a Republican from Corpus Christi who’d been elected in the 2010 sweep.

Torres is waiting in the bustling Capitol cafeteria with Republican state Rep. Larry Gonzalez of Round Rock. Both received funding and political consulting from HRT in 2010, and both beat incumbent Hispanic Democrats. Gonzalez defeated Rep. Diana Maldonado in Round Rock, while Torres unseated Rep. Solomon Ortiz Jr. in Corpus Christi with 52 percent of the vote. 

Now HRT was “cocooning” the freshmen, which meant raising buckets of money so that each candidate had a formidable war chest to warn off potential challengers. “What more can we do for you guys?” Hernandez asks.

“You can help us raise more money,” Torres says, smiling. “You guys really helped me out. The conservative Hispanic message is going to take hold in Texas. You guys are helping us break down that door.”

“We’re working on it,” Hernandez says, nodding. “I’m so proud of you guys with your Hispanic hearts,” he says, placing his hand over his heart. “You’re bringing a different attitude to the House floor. When it comes to cutting programs, you’ll be thinking, how can I make this hurt less for my community?”

Torres says Hispanic Democrats still don’t know what to make of the newly elected Republicans. He describes an uncomfortable meeting of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, chaired by Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer of San Antonio, at the beginning of legislative session. “When we arrived, they looked at us like, ‘What are y’all doing here?’” he says, raising his eyebrows in mock surprise. “And we said, ‘Well, we were invited.’ And so they didn’t talk about anything of substance for the rest of the meeting. And it’s not much different at the Tea Party Caucus—we’ve got to bridge that gap somehow.”

Torres, Gonzalez and the others formed their own caucus for Hispanic Republicans. They invited non-Hispanic members to join if they had 40 percent or more Hispanic voters in their districts. So far, they have six Hispanic members, including El Paso Rep. Dee Margo, “whose grandfather is 100-percent Hispanic,” and three Anglo members. Hernandez beams at the two legislators. “Keep up the good work,” he says, giving Torres a high five.

 

When the Hispanic Republicans of Texas announced their political action committee in a press conference last summer, it was easy to be cynical. Here was another Republican group pretending to do Hispanic outreach. Party chairman Munisteri agrees there was reason for skepticism. “There’s been a real lack of communication with Hispanics” by Republicans, he says. But, he swears, “you are going to find this time it’s different. We have a commitment from a group of significant donors who are committed to making this group succeed. They are very well aware that we need a larger majority of Hispanic voters to remain a majority, and at the same time HRT came around to fill that need.

“At our trough in 2006, we were probably getting 25 to 30 percent of the Hispanic vote. Right now we think we’re probably in the 35 to 40 percent range, but that’s not going to be significant enough for us going forward,” he says. “In the long term, we’re hoping for 50 percent of the Hispanic vote because we cannot win elections with just 30 percent. We need to do much better than that.”

In February, HRT held its second fundraiser since the November election—a Friday luncheon at the private Houston Club in a downtown skyscraper. It doesn’t get any more Republican establishment than the Houston Club, where generations of the city’s industrialists have made their million-dollar deals over lunch in the club’s hushed, mahogany-lined conference rooms. About 25 Republican donors had been invited. John Nau, a wealthy Houston Republican donor, had already RSVP’d. “He sends a very important signal that we are legitimate,” Newton said.

Hernandez was especially upbeat because George P. Bush would be the keynote speaker at the luncheon. For nearly a year, Bush had been serving in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer for the U.S. Navy Reserve. He’d just returned, and Hernandez said the 34-year-old Bush was excited to get more involved with the HRT. But no one was quite sure where he was at the moment. “He said he’d be here,” Newton assured Hernandez.

There was a commotion in the hallway. Bush had arrived, alone and unassuming, lugging a briefcase. “Mi amigo,” Bush said, slapping Hernandez on the back. “Que pasó Jorgisimo,” Hernandez said, hugging Bush and giving him a back slap.

George P.’s father, Jeb Bush, is the former governor of Florida. His mother, Columba, comes from the Mexican state of Guanajuato, like Hernandez’s father. Bush and Hernandez met in 2004 when they both worked on George W.’s re-election, trying to secure the Hispanic vote. Many Republicans, including Hernandez, expect that George P. Bush, because of his Mexican ancestry and Bush heritage, will be an important player in Republican politics. For now, Bush says, he is content working behind the scenes with HRT. “I’d like to stick closer to home for a while and have kids first,” he says. Bush moved to Texas in 2004 and, like Hernandez, lives in Fort Worth. “Texas is eternally important to the GOP, not only because of its historic importance, but because of the Hispanic growth story, which is already happening here,” he says. “Hispanics will be the majority here in less than 10 years.”

Bush and Hernandez kept in touch over the years, and they collaborated on a couple of projects for the McCain campaign. “He’s completely bicultural, and he’s a celebrity in the Hispanic community,” Bush says of Hernandez. “He’s been a staunch advocate for immigrant rights, and he’s recognized throughout the hemisphere for his work on that issue.”

But had his advocacy for immigrants made him controversial among some of the Republican base? “It’s a difficult road to walk,” Bush says, choosing his words carefully. “The controversy around him is more about the larger controversy that goes on within the party over immigration reform.”

His father and his uncle always brought the Hispanic community to the table, Bush says, but “the party has to do more than just show up for the diez y seis parade in the neighborhood right before election day. It’s got to be an ongoing commitment. Otherwise it’s just not going to work.

“I love working with Juan on HRT right now,” he adds. “I like to think that with the team we’ve assembled, we can demonstrate some tangible results. Hispanics are not a monolithic group of voters. You have to have pinpointed messages all the way from the undocumented to the third-generation Hispanic who doesn’t know a word of Spanish.”

 

Hurtling through downtown Guatemala City in an armored SUV surrounded by stone-faced bodyguards in tinted sunglasses, Hernandez is upbeat as usual. He texts on two smartphones—one for Guatemala, the other for the United States. The driver and two bodyguards are tense and watchful. Guns bulge from their waistbands under their black blazers. In Guatemala, one of Latin America’s most violent countries, political assassinations are common. Hernandez, who clearly relishes being in the heat of a campaign again, doesn’t appear to be bothered by the bodyguards’ pistols.

Hernandez says we’ll have to use code names when talking about people in the campaign, because the government and other candidates spy on one another. This is common all over Latin America, he says. “One time on the Fox campaign, I had my cell phone swept for bugs, and security told me there were five different people listening in on my conversations,” he says. In Guatemala, he will be called “Tocayo,” and Dick Morris, his consulting partner, will be the “Author.”

Hernandez is meeting Morris and their client, long-shot presidential candidate Juan Gutierrez, at the campaign’s headquarters in downtown Guatemala City. Gutierrez’s wealthy family is often referred to as the “chicken kings of Guatemala” because they founded a popular fried chicken chain called Pollo Campero. Gutierrez fled to Canada in the 1980s after being kidnapped. Now he’s in his mid-50s, balding and with blue eyes, running for president under the banner “Gutierrez is employment.”

In the United States, Gutierrez would be a conservative Republican. In Guatemala, he seems liberal compared with the retired army general leading in the polls with the campaign slogan “mano dura,” or “strong hand.” Hernandez and Morris have conducted focus groups and had volunteers walking door-to-door conducting surveys to see what’s on voters’ minds. And they’ve created a social media campaign to appeal to younger voters—one of the first in a Guatemalan presidential race. 

Morris arrives 30 minutes late at campaign headquarters, a former bungalow in a residential district. Bleary-eyed after a delayed connection in Miami, Morris sports a crumpled black suit and red tie. A fuel tank exploded at the Miami airport, he says. “It was an accident, not a terrorist attack,” he says, deadpan, then asks for a Diet Coke—the first of many.

Hernandez considers Morris a mentor. Once, when he was tempted to run for office, Morris advised against it. “I believe that running for office is a violation of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution—the one that prohibits slavery,” Morris says. “Basically, you hand over control of your life, and Juan has a tremendous ability to relate to people on both sides of the border, and there are very few people who are positioned that way. I think to throw that away to be one of 435 votes [in Congress] would be downright silly.”

Hernandez can do more for Republicans behind the scenes, Morris says. “In one twinkle of an eye, Texas will become a solid blue state if Texas Republicans don’t warm up to Latinos,” he says. “HRT is absolutely crucial.” There are signs already that the party is coming around, Morris says. “I think it’s a tremendously positive sign when a guy like [Sen. Marco] Rubio in Florida defeats an Anglo incumbent Republican governor in a Republican primary,” he says. “It shows that the Republican electorate is not racist and it’s not anti-Latino.”

Earlier that day, in a contemplative mood in a hotel courtyard in Guatemala City, Hernandez says he has even bigger plans for HRT than securing Texas for the GOP. He hopes to build a similar candidate incubator in Latin America, maybe Mexico, where he can facilitate an exchange of ideas, bringing Latin American conservatives to the United States and U.S. Republicans to Latin America.

In a time when Republicans across the country are filing English-only bills and plotting to take away U.S. citizenship from babies born to undocumented Latinas, it sounds a little far-fetched. Hernandez shakes his head. His younger brother often chastises him for being such a dreamer, he says. But he’s come this far on the journey by dreaming big. Three years ago, he was frozen out of the McCain campaign, and nobody listened to him. Now he’s one of the Texas Republican Party’s great hopes. “I don’t even know if I’m good at this,” he says, “but I’m passionate about it. And if not now, when?”

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. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.