The Power of the Advisory Council

In the last two weeks, both The Washington Post and The New York Times reported that the question of the Latino vote had been answered -- Latinos are going for Obama, two to one. But, as recently as September, Arturo Vargas, campaign insider and head of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said at a Council on Foreign Relations symposium: "[Obama and McCain] are in somewhat of a conundrum because they're trying to figure out how do they reach Latino voters -- how do they communicate to them, message to them?"

But the truth is, despite their attempts, the campaigns haven't answered Vargas' question. Latinos differ in religion, ethnicity, country of origin, income, education levels, and age -- they are difficult to hit with a traditional, demographically focused outreach. They claim decidedly non-niche issues like health care and the economy as their own.

One strategy, common since Nixon's 1972 reelection campaign, has been to engage a Latino advisory board or committee, which consists of political, faith, labor, and business leaders who facilitate outreach through advice and stumping. These councils reflect the organizations and regions that each candidate pursues in their respective efforts to court Latino support.

The announcement of each candidate's advisory council this year did not make a media splash, so don't worry if you've never heard of them. Even Dr. Luis Fraga, a University of Washington expert on Latino outreach in presidential elections, had a hard time when he Googled them before our conversation. "I typed in 'latino advisory council' generally, and then tried 'national advisory council Hispanic' ...," he trailed off, "I couldn't find either one."

But we found them. The biggest difference between McCain and Obama's committees is diversity: Nearly every one of Obama's 15 council members represents a different geographic or issue area, while 34 of McCain's 55 board members come from Arizona, Florida, and Texas alone. Otherwise, labor sets them apart: Obama has two labor leaders on his board, while McCain has none. They both have evangelical and business-sector representation, but neither has any Catholic religious leaders. Here's a snapshot of each of their committees.

McCain's top evangelical advisor is Reverend Mark Gonzales of Dallas, connected to 30,000 churches across the country. "I'm the chair," he said, until I mentioned the official list of ten chairs and 45 co-chairs in my hand. "I've only seen that thing once," he laughed. "I don't know what's become of it now." Pastor Mark -- as he's more commonly known -- is president of the Hispanic Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, public policy liaison for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, founder of Standing for Truth, and has "been on quite a few boards across the nation," he said. About McCain's advisory council, he said, "people use that title to help influence their circle of influence."

Not everyone needs the title: Many members of McCain's council represent support he and the GOP have enjoyed for years. Brothers and Republican congressmen Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, together with Mayor Carlos Alvarez of Miami, and Republican Congresswoman Illeana Ros-Lehtinen represent his preexisting support in South Florida. "The Diaz-Balart brothers were early and prominent backers of Senator McCain and had a lot to do with him winning the Cuban vote in the primary -- the clinching contest for [him] -- really in winning the Republican nomination," Fernand Amandi, vice president of the Miami-based polling group Bendixen and Associates, told the Prospect.

Some, like Solomon D. Trujillo, don't seem to use their board-member title at all. Trujillo is a telecom magnate who represents the more inactive side of McCain's advisory council. He's the CEO of the Australian Telstra company, but was born in Wyoming and worked for years in Colorado as "Baby Bell" company U.S. West's CEO. He donated to McCain the maximum amount an individual can give to a campaign, $4,600, which pales against the $12 million he pulled in last year. Outside of that, there's no public evidence he's campaigned at all on McCain's behalf.

Obama's business sector representative, on the other hand, is also a politician: Federico Peña, a venture capitalist, was the first Latino mayor of Denver (1983-1991), and was Secretary of Transportation and Energy under Clinton. In addition to chairing Obama's National Latino Advisory Council, he is one of Obama's national campaign co-chairs and founded Nevada Latinos for Obama. He endorsed Obama a year ago, going against Clinton ties and reentering politics after eight years away.

Not all of Obama's key Latino supporters are so longstanding. Obama absorbed some members of Hillary Clinton's massive, 137-member National Hispanic Leadership Council. New York Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, former Clinton HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, and former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States Luis Lauredo all come from hers. "Most on the boards tend to be political pros," Ruben Navarrette, syndicated columnist, told the Prospect. "Henry Cisneros had to turn on a dime, had to say 'I'm with Obama now.' If you are the Latino who's waiting to make up your decision, the theory must be that Latinos are waiting to see what Henry does; 'Oh, Henry flipped to Obama, we're good for Obama.'"

Eliseo Medina, a Mexican American and international executive vice president of the SEIU, has been with Obama all along. He "is the American Dream," according to Poder magazine last January, which also ranked him the eighth most powerful Latino leader. With roots in the United Food Workers (UFW), Medina is the closest Obama can get to what UFW founder Dolores Huerta brought to Hillary's Latino council. Though the SEIU isn't as traditionally powerful in the Latino community as the UFW, it is the fastest growing Union in the country, with more than two million members across the country today. No doubt Obama hopes to take all of those votes.

But as Dr. Fraga explained in an email, "candidates and their campaigns have such committees largely to be able to claim interest in and sensitivity to respective constituencies ... the direction of causality has its origins in the constituency, rather than the leader." Both McCain and Obama's press releases for these advisory boards stress their development as a representation of continued Latino support, rather than as a new plan of attack.

Real action is left up to Latino outreach directors Juan Hernandez (for McCain) and Temo Figueroa (for Obama). Andres Ramirez from progressive group NDN told the Prospect the key to tapping the Latino vote is, "about how you communicate with them. It's a lack of the ability to communicate that's holding people back." Dr. Fraga noted research that shows personal appeals by someone of the same ethnicity (called co-ethnic recruiting) are far more effective than direct mail, a TV ad, or even direct contact by someone of a different ethnicity. But according to a March 2007 study by Indiana University, co-ethnic recruiting does more for the GOP, the party Latinos are less likely to support, than for the Democrats, who are already supported by 65 percent of Latino voters, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

In theory, the advisory committees could have done this kind of specific outreach for the campaigns, but as Navarrette put it to the Prospect, "the advisory committees are largely worthless." Fraga said the same thing, more academically: "In general, these groups are largely symbolic and are designed to establish legitimacy and credibility with particular constituencies." In hindsight, these groups -- though they don't accomplish anything -- show the candidates relative strengths, and weaknesses, in the Latino community.