Union Tribune

October 7, 2002

Engineer pays 'debt of gratitude' by courting Hispanics for Bush


WASHINGTON 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 2004.

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 California.

"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 Democratic Party.

"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 campaign.


Productive volunteer

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.

The Houston 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 Latinos.

Bush's ability to connect with Hispanics often is likened to Clinton's affinity with blacks.

"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 culture."

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 me."


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, Gonzalez said.

"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 health care.

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 Party.

"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 Mexican."

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 laughed.


Education concerns

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 minority representation.

"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; jerry.kammer@copleydc.co

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