I have a confession to make. In my early twenties, I was marginally interested in politics and sometimes found myself in the voting booth with scant grasp of the candidates or issues. I would scan the ballot for a candidate with a Hispanic surname and blindly vote for them. I used to reason to myself that I was supporting “one of us,” someone from the Latino community.
Thankfully, those days are over.
Not only am I a more informed voter, it is no longer a novelty to see Latino names on a ballot. So I am baffled by the hoopla over Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is being touted as the GOP’s Great Hispanic Hope. Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and top Republican strategists all speak of Senator Rubio as a top contender for vice president.
These Republicans see Mr. Rubio as their bridge to Latinos, who have deserted the GOP because of its hardline immigration rhetoric. But trust me, a former ethnic voter: Rubio has limited appeal to Hispanics, and a whole lot of baggage.
An October poll by Latino Decisions found that immigration reform continues to be the top issue among Hispanics. Yet Rubio supports Arizona’s infamous “papers, please” law. He is against the Dream Act, which would allow undocumented youth who were brought here as children to become citizens if they serve in the military or attend college.
Though Rubio is popular among Cuban-Americans, they constitute only 3.5 percent of Hispanics. His conservative immigration positions will be a hard sell among Mexican-Americans, by far the country’s largest Hispanic population.
When I look at Rubio, I see a charismatic speaker whose actions contradict his words. He supports English-only legislation even as he campaigns in Spanish. He champions limited government, yet supports reauthorizing E-Verify, which would require employers to clear, through a national database, every person who applies for a job.
And although Rubio says that Americans need to live within their means, he has had trouble doing so. Last year, The Wall Street Journal inferred that his financial troubles are “epic,” and he nearly lost one of his homes to foreclosure. He is hardly the best spokesman for the Republican message of fiscal discipline.
Rubio has been compared to President Obama, another relatively young politician who quickly became a rising star within his party. Unlike “No Drama Obama,” however, Rubio seems to attract controversy.
As speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, he was dogged by allegations that he used his GOP credit card for personal expenses. In August, he spoke at the Reagan Library and set off a firestorm of criticism when he said that programs like Social Security “weakened us as a people.”
He is feuding with Univision, the country’s largest Spanish-language television network, because he claims they pressed him for an exclusive interview – in exchange for dropping a story about his brother-in-law’s 1987 drug arrest. The network flatly denies it offered a quid-pro-quo. Rubio never appeared; the story about his brother-in-law was aired.
More recently, The Washington Post reported that Rubio’s family history is not what he has asserted as a politician. Although he has presented himself as the son of exiles who fled Castro, documents show that Rubio’s parents left Cuba nearly three years before the dictator came to power. Rubio maintains he was simply repeating family lore.
I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but he has an awful lot of scandals for a newcomer to the national political scene. If I were a GOP bigwig, I would be worried about other skeletons that might emerge from the Rubio closet during a presidential campaign.
Amid the talk of Rubio as a vice presidential candidate, I cannot help but recall the 2009 nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. This was a historic occasion that united nearly all Latinos, regardless of political affiliation. Nonetheless, Rubio penned an op-ed in Politico explaining that he could not support her nomination, explaining that a vote against her was not anti-Hispanic.
“Those of us of Hispanic descent don’t expect special treatment,” he wrote, “only the same treatment and same opportunities afforded to all Americans.”
I couldn’t agree more. Despite the hype, once we factor out Rubio’s ethnicity, he is simply a junior senator from Florida. The GOP contenders would be wise to select a more qualified running mate, because Rubio will not win over Hispanics by virtue of being “one of us.”
Nowadays, Latinos do not vote ethnicity, we vote policy – and the GOP ignores this reality at its own peril.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City.