Political Science Professor at Columbia University
History might show that the Tea Party Republican (TPR) victory launched the presidential career of Florida Senator-elect Marco Rubio. His personal characteristics — a strong family man, religious, an attorney, handsome, articulate and charismatic — plus the possibility that he will bring the Latino vote to the TRP tent, make him a most appealing candidate.
To become the TRP nominee, he must first win the Vice Presidential nominations in 2012, which he is likely to accomplish. That would situate him to secure the Presidential nomination in 2016 or 2020. If he delivers Latinos in 2012, it will be difficult to deny him the Presidential nomination. If he doesn’t, his presidential hopes will likely wither.
So, will it happen? To win the Presidency, Rubio will need to deliver Latino votes as well as the votes of non-Latino Independents and Democrats. Can Rubio win such widespread support? To answer this question, it is useful to examine how former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros was able to overcome similar challenges and attain national visibility.
Like Rubio, Cisneros was raised in a working class family. After graduating from Texas A&M, where he compiled an excellent record, he went on to Harvard and MIT and finished his doctorate in metropolitan administration at George Washington University. While there, he also served as a White House intern in the Nixon administration under Elliot Richardson who would later describe Cisneros as a “natural resource.”
Like Rubio, Cisneros began his career at the local level. Elected to the San Antonio City Council in 1975, Cisneros focused on the problems of San Antonio’s working class citizens, most of whom were Latinos. In 1977 he broke with his Anglo sponsors and voted to accept a Justice Department order to establish an election plan built around single-member districts that would give Mexicans a much greater voice in city affairs.
When he announced his candidacy for the Mayorship, he did so as an Independent. He became Mayor in 1981 and was reelected three times. He enjoyed substantial Anglo support in each of his elections, especially in 1983 when he received 93 percent of the total vote. His commitment to resolving the socioeconomic problems of the poor is evident in the $200 million his administrations invested in infrastructure improvements on the Latino west side alone. By 1984, his national stature was so high that he was considered as a vice-presidential candidate by Walter Mondale. His electoral career ended in the late 1980’s because of an extramarital affair. After that, he returned to public life by serving as Housing and Urban Development Secretary from 1993-1996 in the first Clinton administration.
Reviewing Cisneros’ records explicates three factors that contributed to his success that are absent from Rubio’s record. First, his ethnic constituency consisted primarily of Mexican Americans, who were 66 percent of the Latino population. Rubio’s ethnic base, Cuban Americans, include less than five percent of all Latinos.
Second, Rubio is a TRP with no history of directly attacking the issues of greatest concern to most Latinos and to the working class in general. Relatedly, his opposition to immigration reform may serve him well with Cuban constituents, but it pits him against the great majority of Latinos.
Third, nothing in his record suggests he can work well with Democrats and Independents. Cisneros, by contrast, enjoyed his greatest successes by bringing Republicans, Independents and Democrats together to find solutions to San Antonio’s problems. These achievements, it must be noted, were realized in an era when many whites in Texas and elsewhere were as reluctant to collaborate with Mexican American as Tea Party members appear to be to work with non-TPRs.
These differences, and especially Cisneros’ ability to build bridges compared to Rubio’s failure to do so, suggest Rubio may not be the dream candidate the TPR imagines him to be.
Rodolfo de la Garza, a Columbia University professor of Political Science, has studied immigration, political attitudes and voting for over 30 years. He directed the first national political survey of Latinos and has authored, co-authored and edited 18 books and more than 100 scholarly articles and reports on foreign policy, immigration and political attitudes and behavior.