July 19, 2008
A tug of war is in progress within the Barack Obama campaign to influence the direction of his Hispanic and Latin American agenda.
There is a fierce behind-the-scenes battle for influence over presumptive Democratic candidate Barack Obama's Hispanic and Latin American agenda, and some Democratic strategists say that its outcome could determine the result of the November elections.
Some Obama backers in South Florida, in particular, are especially miffed at what they see as excessive power by labor-union-tied, left-leaning Mexican-American leaders at Obama's Chicago headquarters over the campaign's nationwide Hispanic and Latin American policy strategies.
In a confidential July 4 memo sent to 25 prominent South Florida Hispanics, former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre -- well respected in nationwide Democratic circles -- called for creation of a ''South Florida Hispanic policy advisory group'' to counterbalance what he perceives as excessive micro-management of state campaigns by Obama's Chicago headquarters.
In an interview with The Miami Herald, Ferre stated that in an effort to win Florida -- which may be the key swing state in which Hispanics may decide the election -- his group would also try to steer the Obama campaign away from criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico, and the pending free-trade deal with Colombia.
Obama's stands against NAFTA and the free-trade deal with Colombia have been applauded in some Midwestern industrialized states that have lost factories to Mexico, but are supported by Florida's business community and many of the state's Hispanics.
Similarly, Obama's support for farm subsidies has been welcomed in U.S. farm states but is decried as unfair by virtually all Latin American countries and many U.S. Latinos.
Ferre's memo was written shortly after the Obama campaign appointed Cuauhtemoc ''Temo'' Figueroa, a Mexican American with a labor-union background, as head of its national Hispanic vote-getting effort in Obama's Chicago headquarters. Figueroa, whose parents were farm-worker organizers, was a top official of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
''In the inner circle of candidate Obama's campaign there is no one who has deep knowledge or shown interest in Latin America or Hispanics in the United States,'' Ferre wrote in his memo.
Senior Obama foreign-policy advisor Tony Lake ''has never shown major knowledge or interest in Latin America,'' he wrote.
ACCESS TO OBAMA
He stated that while top Latino leaders such as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former Clinton Transportation Secretary Federico Peña and U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., have direct access to Obama, ``that is very different than BEING in the inner circle of the Obama campaign.''
''My experience with how the Obama campaign handled the delegate vote on June 1 in Puerto Rico was disastrous,'' Ferre wrote. ``The principal decision makers, operatives and advertisements were all made in or through Chicago. The result is that [Sen. Hillary] Clinton got almost 70 percent of the vote in Puerto Rico.''
Simon Ferro, a former Florida Democratic Party chairman and U.S. ambassador to Panama who was one the recipients of Ferre's memo, said he agrees that the Obama campaign should give a greater role to South Florida Democrats.
''They have to empower more local Democrats and give them more ownership of the campaign,'' Ferro said. ``You want to make the local people know that they are involved in a material way. I'm sure it will happen, but I haven't seen it yet.''
Spokesmen for the Obama campaign readily concede that the campaign will focus on four key swing states that happen to have huge Hispanic populations -- New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Florida. And of the four, Florida carries the largest number of electoral votes and may decide the general election, they say.
But Obama spokesmen caution that the Latino vote outreach team led by Figueroa has no connection with the campaign's Latin America policy team, which is led by foreign-policy experts such as Washington-based Dan Restrepo and Florida resident Frank Sanchez.
''Temo'' Figueroa does not participate in Latin America policy meetings, Sanchez said. In addition, the campaign has appointed a Cuban American from Miami, Carlos Odio, as his deputy, he said.
The Obama campaign is just starting to build its Florida organization. Unlike the situation in most other states, it had not done so previously because -- under a rule from the Democratic National Committee that punished the state for trying to anticipate the vote -- there had not been a primary election in the state.
''We just opened our office in Tampa three days ago,'' Sanchez said Friday. ``In terms of staff, we are still putting that together, but we hope to have that in place within the next two weeks. Admittedly, we are playing catch-up, but you are going to see a Latino outreach the likes of which no presidential campaign has ever seen.''
Over the next two weeks, the Obama campaign will hire 300 paid staffers in Florida and enlist hundreds of volunteers, campaign officials say. Among the newly enlisted, well-known South Florida Democrats are pollster Sergio Bendixen, who will be a senior Hispanic strategist for Obama's national Hispanic campaign, and former U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States Luis Lauredo, who will join the group of campaign spokesmen on Latin American issues.
Comparatively, Republicans for several months have had a national network of informal Latin American advisors, most of them Floridians.
Asked in a recent interview about his top Latin American advisor, likely Republican candidate Sen. John McCain cited his top foreign-policy aide, Randy Scheunemann.
Asked in an interview last week whom he relies on for advice on Latin American issues, Scheunemann mentioned Florida legislators Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Sen. Mel Martinez, former State Department Latin American chief Otto Reich and former congressional staffer Stephen Vermillion.
''My fear was that, as in previous Democratic campaigns, we would have a pan-Hispanic message that would be essentially aimed at Mexican Americans,'' said Freddy Balsera, an Obama campaign spokesman in Miami. ``But the Florida Hispanic message will be specific to Florida Hispanics, based on issues, experience and motivations that move Hispanics in this state.''
Told about the Obama campaign plans for Florida, Ferre said he is not ruling out a quick correction: ``They are very intelligent people. They may have realized that they don't have a handle of the Latin community, and that the only way to do it is at the local level.''
My opinion: Don't be surprised if, in coming weeks, you see a shift to the center in theObama campaign's Latin American rhetoric, including a less strident opposition to the Mexico and Colombia free trade agreements, and a more persistent criticism of Cuba and Venezuela's authoritarian regimes. Suddenly, Florida is at the center of the Obama campaign's strategy to win the White House, and will play a key role in it.