Houston engineer Raul Romero didn't know much
about the businessman who approached him in
1993, looking for help with his fledgling
campaign to become governor of Texas.
But Romero, an immigrant from Panama,
immediately said yes to George W. Bush, saying
he owed him one – for family reasons.
Many of Romero's relatives were forced into
exile during the reign of Panamanian strongman
Manuel Noriega, including Romero's sister, who
had married into the family of a prominent
Noriega foe. The extended family returned home
only after the United States invaded Panama in
1989 under the direction of then-President
George H.W. Bush.
"I told him I had a big debt of
gratitude to his dad," Romero said.
Since that first meeting, Romero has helped
Bush reach out to Latinos not only in two
successful races for governor, but also in his
2000 race for the White House.
Now, as Bush's point man and talent scout
among the nation's Latinos, Romero, an
unassuming 49-year-old bachelor, is a key figure
in Bush's strategy to retain the White House in
Since 1990, the nation's Hispanic population
has surged 79 percent, reaching 39 million and
replacing blacks as the largest minority.
Perhaps more important, Latinos are concentrated
in the six states – California, Texas,
Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois –
that cast two-thirds of the 270 electoral votes
required to capture the White House.
Karl Rove, the political strategist who is
mapping Bush's re-election strategy, has
concluded Bush will need 40 percent of the
Latino vote to win a second term, up from the 35
percent in 2000 that was regarded as something
of a Republican coup.
That means Bush needs Romero.
More than anyone else, Romero is responsible
for Bush's record of appointing Latinos to top
government positions, including U.S. Treasurer
Rosario Marin and Surgeon General Richard
Carmona. The White House expects the
appointments to give Bush a boost among
Hispanics in the 2004 election.
"It is my understanding that when Raul
talks, everybody at the White House
listens," said Marin, whom Romero spotted
when she was mayor of Huntington Park in
"In the Hispanic community, he is known
as the kingmaker," said Armand
Peschard-Sverdrup, who monitors Latino politics
as director of the Mexico project at the Center
for Strategic and International Studies.
Romero, who said he prefers being in the
background, chafes at the "kingmaker"
designation. He said he enjoys helping to build
Latino political influence and wooing Hispanics
away from their traditional home in the
"If we are making role models that are
good for the Hispanic community, then so be
it," he said. "But that doesn't mean I
am making kings. I'm just trying to make sure
(the party has) the talent."
While President Clinton appointed more
Latinos to top posts than any previous
president, Romero takes pride that Bush is
appointing even more.
"The prior administration never got over
7 percent of Hispanics" in positions high
enough to require Senate approval, he said.
"We are close to 10 percent."
Romero's nationwide contacts have helped him
develop another much-appreciated political
talent: He is a potent fund-raiser. In the 2000
campaign he was one of Bush's Pioneers, a group
whose members, including former Cowboys
quarterback Roger Staubach and Enron's Kenneth
Lay, each raised at least $100,000 for the
Romero's work for the White House is voluntary
and part time. In his day job, he is president
and CEO of S&B Infrastructure, a
Houston-based engineering and construction
company that designs everything from highways to
airports to waste-water facilities.
His political work brings no payoff in terms
of government contracts, he said.
But S&B, like many other U.S. companies
that need to cultivate good political relations,
is a big campaign contributor.
Chronicle reported in August that Texas
Gov. Rick Perry, who is running for re-election,
received $30,000 from S&B and
California-based FluorCorp. The contribution
came five days before the companies signed a
$1.5 highway contract with the state.
Romero's constant business travels allow him
to scour the country for Latino talent. He sees
top governmental jobs as an important element in
the political enfranchisement of Hispanics, and
he insists that Bush's determination to bring
Latinos into his administration is based on more
than raw political calculation.
"The president wants Hispanics to be a
thriving part of the American dream,"
Romero said, echoing a theme of the
Spanish-language television ads Bush used in his
gubernatorial and presidential campaigns.
Created by San Antonio advertising guru
Lionel Sosa, the ads bathed Bush in warm light
and surrounded him with adoring crowds of
Bush's ability to connect with Hispanics
often is likened to Clinton's affinity with
"They say Clinton was the first black
president," Romero said. "I'd say Bush
is the first Hispanic president."
Romero first saw Bush wow an Hispanic
audience at a business gathering Romero arranged
during Bush's 1994 campaign for governor.
"He took the room by storm," Romero
said. "He was talking about Hispanics being
part of his roots growing up. We were impressed
by how much he understood about our
During Bush's years as governor, Romero
performed the same talent scout function he now
performs on a national level. The two men
developed a friendship, and Bush appointed
Romero to one of the state's most prestigious
positions: a seat on the University of Texas
Board of Regents.
"He is a good friend," Romero said
of Bush as he sat in an office adorned with
several pictures of himself with the president
and first lady Laura Bush. "But it's not
like he decides to go jogging and he calls
Long way to go
Larry Gonzalez, director of the Washington
office of the National Association of Latino
Elected Officials, lays out some numbers that
make it clear how far the GOP has to go with
Hispanic voters. Gonzalez reports that the 1,520
Latino Democrats in elective office across the
country outnumber their Republican counterparts
13 to 1.
The administration's track record with
Hispanic appointments will be a big help,
"It underscores your message when
Latinos see you are making an effort to hire
people who have had experiences like them,
people they can relate to," Gonzalez said.
Still, Democratic leaders predict that the
GOP's recruitment of Hispanics will fail because
the vast majority embrace Democratic approaches
to such issues as wages, working conditions and
Republican leaders counter that as Latinos
become more established economically, their
Catholic values and work ethic will nudge them
to the GOP.
Romero said he hopes his work for the
Republicans will help correct what he sees as
Latinos' exaggerated presence in the Democratic
"The Hispanic community needs to be
heard on both sides of the aisle," he said.
"If any party takes a certain constituency
for granted, that's not good for that community.
So I think I am helping my community."
Sosa, the advertising strategist, said the
affable, easygoing Romero has a talent for
working with all parts of the diverse and
sometimes fractious Hispanic culture. His
Central American background helps, too.
"Being a Panamanian is a terrific
plus," Sosa said. "No one sees him as
having a special interest in any one group. So
he can identify as easily with a Cuban as with a
Romero said Bush once asked about his ability
to bring different Hispanic groups together.
"I said I'm Panamanian and there's not
enough of us to threaten anyone," he
While Romero moves easily within the circles of
the wealthy and powerful, he also has kept a
concerned eye on the millions of Hispanic
immigrants who are struggling to get a foothold
in American society. He is especially concerned
with the high dropout rate among Hispanic youth.
Romero began working on the problem in Texas
in the late 1990s as a member of the University
of Texas Board of Regents when he marshaled
university resources to get more advanced
placement courses in low-achieving high schools.
"I felt strongly that kids needed to
dream that they could go to the best schools in
the state," he said.
Now Romero is looking for ways to nurture
young Latino political talent.
"It's a generational process," he
said. "It will take time."
But he also is looking for some short-term
results, hoping that the next Republican
National Convention – unlike the one in
Philadelphia in 2000 – will not be so short on
"The press was asking us how come the
room was so white," Romero said. "I
said, 'Judge us in four years. Then we'll see
how far we've come.' "
Jerry Kammer: (202) 737-7681; email@example.com