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Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and whether it’s okay to accuse a politician of being an ‘ethnic traitor’

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), right, accompanied by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), speaks on Capitol Hill in September 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Last week, The Washington Post's Mary Jordan reported that "liberal Hispanic groups have launched a campaign designed to turn Latino voters against the two Cuban American Republicans who have risen to the top tier of the GOP presidential field."

The ads, Jordan wrote, describe Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.) as men running for president on platforms that amount to ethnic treason. One of the ads that targets the senators can be found in the text below.

Now, mind you, that's not the language that the Latino Victory Project, one of the groups behind the ads, uses to describe them. No, representatives of the Latino Victory Fund, the organization's PAC, say that the group is simply trying to work within the political process to ensure that the political interests of the majority of Latinos are not ignored. But the term "traitor" has come up at at least one public event held by the Latino Victory Fund. And the organization is unquestionably planning to run a series of ads through the 2016 campaign in battleground states where Latino voters make up a substantial share of the electorate. Those states include Colorado, Florida and Nevada.

Founded in 2014, the Latino Victory Fund is, in some ways, the liberal answer to the much-written-about Libre Initiative, an effort funded by the Koch brothers that aims to register Latino voters and gain Latino support for Republican candidates and causes. The fund was built on political organizing and action models pioneered by groups such as Emily's List and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.

The Latino Victory Fund was created by wealthy Latino Democrats from Texas: businessman Henry Muñoz and the actress Eva Longoria. (Full disclosure: This member of the Fix team happened to go to high school with Longoria and knew the actress at that time.) Muñoz also serves as chairman of the Democratic National Party's finance committee. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Tex.), New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa rank among the the Latino Victory Fund's co-chairs.

Cristóbal Alex is president of the Latino Victory Project. The Fix reached out to Alex to discuss some of the issues raised by the ads and the concept of Rubio and Cruz being "traitors." The Washington Post certainly isn't the only information outlet asking this question.

THE FIX: Where did the idea for Latino Victory Fund ads aimed directly at Rubio and Cruz come from?

ALEX: I can't share a lot of information about our internal conversations with our board, our staff and our stakeholders. But what I can say is this: We are in the somewhat uncomfortable position. The work we want to do — which is try to get more Latinos elected to and appointed to public office, build the pipeline of candidates qualified to hold high-level office and a network of Latino donors, make sure that our voices and concerns are heard and are part of the national political process as well as push back against anti-immigrant rhetoric — it has put us in a somewhat uncomfortable position where we have to push back and call out members of our own community.

We truly want to see Latinos succeed at the highest levels, and we know that [Latino candidates'] stories are often uplifting — especially Rubio's. When he talks about his life and how he got to where he is now, that is the American dream. But the problem is that we happen to have two Latinos running for the White House, Rubio included, who have turned their backs on our community. We feel that the Latino Victory Fund has to make that clear.

THE FIX: That's pretty strong language. Both men are Republicans and seem to take positions on a number of issues that are consistent with their party. So what exactly do you mean?

ALEX: Yes, that's true, but on a number of issues that we know that Latinos care deeply about things that are central to our community and its political interests, these two men have taken positions that are not just quite different than the majority of Latinos [according to a series of recent public opinion polls], but that sit at the far right extreme when compared to other Republicans.

Listen, we are not and do not want to pretend to speak for all Latinos or to generalize here. But the polls tell us that the economy, the climate -- nine out of 10 Latinos want action to curb climate change -- things like the minimum wage and, finally, immigration and health care are central in our community. And most Latino voters want actions that are very different than what these two men have proposed. When I say that these candidates, somewhat embarrassingly, have turned their backs on the Latino community, I'm referring to these things.

Simply boosting the minimum wage would lift 11 million Latinos out of poverty. These candidates don't support that. They don't believe in climate change or climate action, and we heard from them [during Tuesday night's debate] that neither of them are going to be advocates for immigration reform and believe that folks are here who are DREAMERS should be deported.

[Note: This is the term for people brought to the United States illegally as children who have grown up in and lived in the United States for some time. The Obama administration has extended temporary legal status to some of these young adults via an executive action after several immigration reform measures died in Congress.]

THE FIX: I've read some things where Rubio and Cruz have been referred to a traitors. That's very, very strong language. 

ALEX: Well, first, to be clear that is not a word that anyone — any representative of the Latino Victory Fund — has used. We did hold a roundtable event to talk about these issues publicly before the [Tuesday night] debate. And several people who attended that event — activists, voters, organizers who share our goals — and several folks used the word "traitor" there. That's not to say that a lot of people don't feel that way, that people disagree. But that is not language that we have used.

THE FIX: What do you say to people who argue that neither the Latino Victory Fund nor anyone else has the right to proscribe a set of "appropriate" politics based on ethnicity? 

ALEX: Look, after the 2012 election, the Republican Party issued a report — the so-called election autopsy — which we thought was great. It basically said that the party needed to attract more Latino voters and needed to adopt more moderate positions on issues like immigration in order to remain competitive long term. That is an open acknowledgement that Latinos are and can be a political force and competition for our votes can, in that sense, be a good thing for the country.

Now, regarding the pushback or anyone who feels that what we are doing amount to expecting a Latino candidate to act a certain way or support specific ideas because they are Latino — I don't buy into that at all. We [Latinos] are 55 million people, 17 percent of the population, and there is a great deal of diversity and various political opinions across the spectrum, on the right and the left, in a group that size. And we do not profess to speak for all Latinos.

But what we are saying is that if you expect to be the leader of a nation which includes 55 million Latinos, you should reflect the values of the nation which includes the Latino community. You should treat their political interests and goals and needs with the same respect that you do those of other voters.

And if you are out of step with the majority of those voters, there will be political consequences for that. And if you happen to be [a Latino candidate], you should and will be expected to do the same. That's the standard for all candidates who want to win Latino votes. These candidates — Rubio and Cruz — seem to be following Trump down the anti-immigrant rabbit hole.

THE FIX: What do you mean by anti-immigrant rabbit hole?

ALEX: [Donald] Trump started his campaign day one attacking Latinos — and Mexicans in particular. And then he went after women, then African Americans and now it’s Muslims, and these two Latino candidates remained silent. In fact, what they have done is adopt some of his ideas. Neither are as flamboyant at Trump, but you do hear them talking about further militarizing the border, deporting and breaking apart families with real fervor.

It's not just immigration, though. These two men — Rubio and Cruz — are just as bad on other core issues that Latinos care about. They are working and promising to work on policies that are the opposite of what polls tell us a majority of Latino voters want.

THE FIX: Okay, but some of this is where the Republican Party and most of its candidates stand. So, there are critics who might say that you are essentially attacking Rubio and Cruz for being Latino Republicans.

ALEX: Like I said, this is at times uncomfortable work. I don’t claim — we don't claim to speak for Latinos. No one can do that. But we know, without a doubt, that these are core issues that Latinos care about.

Let's just use the [Affordable Care Act, often referred to as Obamacare] and the minimum wage. It's easy for others to attack them. To say the ACA has to go that we don't need a minimum wage increase. But that doesn't fly within our community. Latino children are disproportionately affected by high rates of asthma and other illnesses [that can be caused by pollution]. Climate change effects us in disproportionate and serious ways. You can't say to 55 million Latinos that climate change doesn't exist when so many of us are suffering from the very real effects. You can't say the ACA is a total failure, a problem, when Latinos have benefited a great deal, millions of people who didn't have health insurance are now covered.

Those are really the points we are trying to make with these ads. We have tried to avoid [party] labels. We also know that young Latinos, in particular, are not connected to broad labels whether its party affiliation or ideology. So that's the prism through which we look at this race and all of our candidates.

I do think that there are candidates on the Republican side who are just plain better on these issues than Rubio and Cruz. It's not necessarily party affiliation that's the problem but this extreme shift to the right that these candidates have adopted. It's buying into the demagoguery of Donald Trump.

THE FIX: There's another, somewhat awkward issue we haven't addressed. Historically, there are some tensions that have existed between people of Cuban origin and people of Mexican origin in the United States — in part because Cuban nationals have a very different set of immigration options and a risky but relatively speedy way to legalization. What would you say to claims that the Latino Victory Fund might be stoking those tensions or leaning on them since both Rubio and Cruz are Cuban American?

ALEX: Of course there are always discussions about these issues and we have talked about that internally. But, the Latino Victory Fund — we have board members, stakeholders and close associates that are Cuban or Cuban American. So those discussions have been had. And we've talked a lot about why we are running these ads, what are our goals. And those goals, these ads, they have nothing at all to do whatsoever with that. It’s just true that we have two folks who are Hispanic who are at the close to the top of the polls who happen to be Cuban.

THE FIX: Who are the ads aimed at? Are they aimed at discouraging Latino voters from supporting Rubio or Cruz or, are they aimed at the mostly white members of the Republican Party or the party's insiders and leadership? I've seen Republican political consultants on cable TV imply that if either man were the GOP nominee, the party would have a solid chance at claiming a far bigger share of the Latino electorate than it did in 2012.  

One of the ads is really focused on the urgency of the moment. Right now we have a presidential race where one of the visions for the future of the country is one that doesn't reflect Latinos' vision for the country, or one that a majority of Latinos share. Rubio and Cruz have climbed to the top of the ladder, and it's a beautiful story about the American dream. But unfortunately, the things that they support, their policy ideas effectively kick down the ladder [Rubio and Cruz] climbed. That will stop the rest of our community from reaching those same milestones.

We honestly feel like this is a Proposition 187 moment. That was an [late 1980s-era] anti-immigrant initiative that changed politics in California forever [Note: A Republican has not won a Senate or presidential election in California since the measure passed.] We think that what we have a here is a chance — no, an obligation, really — to highlight that anger and fear are driving policy again in a way that if Rubio or Cruz were elected would not be good for a lot of our community. We don't want or need to go backward to a time when something like Japanese internment happened. But those are the kind of ideas that are being tossed around.