Alfonso Aguilar shouts into the mike, gesticulating wildly to no one in particular on a recent Saturday morning. He is taping his radio show, which is recorded in the District and beamed into nine cities, including Houston, Chicago and Miami.
News has broken that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney blames his election loss in part on “gifts” President Obama gave Hispanics and other minorities.
Aguilar — “La Voz de Los Latinos” (the Latino Voice) — is incredulous.
“He thinks Latinos voted for entitlements,” he tells listeners in Spanish. “Mr. Romney, Latinos didn’t vote for President Obama because they liked Obamacare. No, they voted for Obama because of your stance on immigration. In the primary, you moved to the far right.”
Not the kind of talk you’d expect from a committed Republican, a guy who stumped for Romney and whose employer ponied up $400,000 in anti-Obama campaign ads that focused on the administration’s record deportation rates. It’s a set of curiosities not lost on a caller from Los Angeles.
“How could you have supported him at all?” Francisco wants to know.
“I’m a conservative,” Aguilar responds.
But not just any conservative. Aguilar is a 43-year-old Puerto Rican-born former official in the George W. Bush administration; an opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage; a supporter of free markets and limited government. But on immigration, he has differed sharply with his party’s orthodoxy, unapologetically embracing comprehensive reform, including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
With Obama promising to push immigration reform early in his second term, Aguilar is poised to be a driving force in the debate, helping to shape how Republicans respond to an issue of paramount importance to about 12.5 million Latino voters — a growing segment of the electorate that has continued to skew Democratic. In many ways, Aguilar already is a pivotal presence.
Jorge Ramos, a Univision anchor and the most influential Spanish-language journalist in the United States, sent a tweet to his 626,400 followers recently that could very well help define the next stage of Aguilar’s career. “Republicans you have to listen to for the immigration debate: Jeb Bush, [former commerce secretary] Carlos Gutierrez and Alfonso Aguilar.”
On the ego wall of his small K Street office, Aguilar has hung photos of himself with Pope John Paul II, former vice president Richard B. Cheney and a former governor of Puerto Rico, and a group shot of all the Hispanic political appointees in the Bush administration. Aguilar and the other Latino bureaucrats fill multiple rows, stretching along the entire facade of the White House.
The photos remind him of the Catholic faith that is his foundation and the fat years when conservative Hispanics were on the rise. Days when Ronald Reagan told his ad consultants to target Latinos because they are “already Republican. They just don’t know it.” Reagan won 37 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1984, according to an analysis of exit polls by the Pew Hispanic Center. Twenty years later, George W. Bush — who declared that “family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande” — pulled in even more Hispanics, winning 40 percent of their vote.
But the 2012 campaign, Aguilar says, was a return to failed “piñata politics” — salsa-and-chips parties, Norteña music at campaign events and “viva el candidato!” slogans with no compelling policy debate. Romney won over a disappointing 27 percent of Hispanics, the lowest level since 1996.
“Inclusion is when you have people at the table,” Aguilar says, jumping right into his diagnosis of the on-again-off-again relationship between the GOP and the Hispanic electorate. “This time I just don’t think we were being listened to.”
Aguilar is standing in front of his photo wall, slightly disheveled, no gel keeping his hair perfectly in place, sipping a hot drink. “Puerto Ricans love their coffee,” he says. What is he drinking? The freeze-dried coffee brewed in the office. “It’s awful,” he says, but he prefers it to paying top dollar at chain coffeehouses for espresso that “tastes horrible.” He keeps talking, nonstop, for almost 10 more caffeine-fueled minutes before inviting a visitor to a conference room to sit down to continue the conversation.
At home in Gaithersburg, Alfonso Gerardo Aguilar Sartori drinks Pilon, a brand of Cuban coffee. Born in San Juan to a Costa Rican father and an Italian mother, Aguilar is a devout Catholic and a divorced father of a 12-year-old son. He came to the U.S. mainland to attend Notre Dame, where he graduated with a degree in government and international studies. He earned a law degree from the University of Puerto Rico and worked for the governor of the island before returning to the continental United States and eventually landing the top slot in the Citizenship and Immigration Services office during the Bush administration.
Aguilar spends every other weekend in Puerto Rico, visiting his son, but when he’s at home he attends Saint Martin of Tours, a Catholic church that offers services in English and Spanish. “I know I’m worshipping there with undocumented immigrants,” he says. “It is just a great community. The parish is where there is a coming together and the church can have an incredible impact on that process.”
Aguilar said he thinks Hispanic entrepreneurs and evangelicals belong in the Republican Party. “They are the new Reagan Democrats,” he says, echoing his boss Frank Cannon, president of the American Principles Project.
He loves the diversity and cultural complexity of the Latino community, reflected every week in the different accents, nationalities and political views of his radio listeners. It’s the kind of thing that can’t necessarily be polled or surveyed, Aguilar likes to say.
In 2009, Aguilar joined the American Principles Project, a small nonprofit in Washington founded by conservative scholar Robert George of Princeton University, as executive director of its Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. This year, he launched the weekly show on Univision radio and has hosted conservative stalwarts such as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), former presidential candidate Herman Cain and former House speaker and presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich (Ga.). Aguilar, who once flirted with the idea of running for public office, interviews the non-Spanish-speaking politicians in English without an interpreter because “most Latinos understand English even if they are more comfortable in Spanish.” He also has been featured on cable news talk shows and written a stream of editorials for Spanish-language and English-language newspapers. A prominent conservative PR firm, Shirley & Banister, is working to further build his media profile.
“He has been a leading conservative on immigration issues, and he has been trying to map out a way for conservatives and the Republican Party to reclaim the immigration issue in a constructive way,” said Cesar Conda, Rubio’s chief of staff. “It is his moment.”
Frank Sharry of America’s Voice, a Washington lobbying group that shares Aguilar’s desire for an overhaul of immigration laws, offers a different critique. During the recent presidential election, “he unfortunately came across as a party-first guy rather than immigration reform first,” Sharry says, “and that’s going to hurt his credibility.”
And foes of relaxing the immigration laws are even more dismayed by Aguilar and his approach. “I don’t know how to change the Hispanic voting pattern, but I know it isn’t to say I will agree with an amnesty,” says Tom Tancredo, a former congressman from Colorado who pushed a hard line on immigration and helped make “amnesty” a political dirty word. “They will not then decide to switch allegiances and vote for Republicans. It is naive to think that is the panacea. . . . How will the massive immigration of people who are inclined to vote for bigger government benefit conservatism? It is a suicide plan for conservatism.”
In one important respect, the criticism reflects a question for Aguilar and those in his party who support an immigration overhaul: What does it mean to be a full-blooded Republican?
“Dealing with immigration is not being a weak Republican or a RINO,” he says, referring to a “Republican in name only.” “To be conservative is to be for immigration. To be restrictionist is not part of the free-market paradigm. . . . At the end of this, hopefully we will say 2006 to 2012 was the period of restrictionism in this new great wave of immigrants. Hopefully, this is the end and the voices of restrictionism will lose power.”