When President Obama told students in Mexico that without the support of U.S. Latinos he would not be president, he wasn't talking about the GOP's Ruben Barrales. But Barrales gets the message. He is the son of immigrants, and San Mateo County's first Latino supervisor. Mexico gave him its Ohtli medal, for his work on behalf of Mexican Americans. Once a Democrat, he went to work in the George W. Bush White House and ran San Diego's regional chamber of commerce. His principal task now, as head of GROW Elect, is cultivating Latino Republican elected officials in California, not exactly fertile soil for the GOP of late. He has his ideas why, and what to do about it.
This year, Latinos will become the majority in California. How can you get more of them into your party and elected?
The joke is, I'm representing a minority within a minority: Latino Republicans. We can probably have our convention right here in your office.
GROW Elect is going to add what I hope will be real competition for the Latino vote, because right now, one party is taking the Latino community for granted and the other has really not done anything. To Latinos who happen to be Republican, [I] say, "You care about fiscal responsibility or education reform or doing something different in your community? Then I want to provide a support network." Democrats have had a stronger message. They've been more inclusive in the ethnic communities.
You concentrate on California candidates and local politics, nonpartisan and not.
I've seen a lot of outreach models; I'm done with outreach. The GROW Elect model is inclusion. How do you change a party? How do you reflect the community? You help get them elected. Then they are the party. In a few years I want to be able to point to Latinos and Latinas who are standing up for free enterprise and budget reform and pension reform.
As of March 5, we've helped to elect or reelect 33 Latinos to office. I'm looking to raise that to hundreds. And I'm not just interested in winning elections. That's just politics. I'm interested in a network that gives Latinos an opportunity to be on school boards or city councils and make a difference. I want to see both parties there competing for the vote. Show us what you got! Bring it on!
California Republicans dug themselves a hole long ago with Propositions 187 and 209. In 1998, when you ran for state controller, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson wouldn't meet with you.
Let's just say I was honored to have the support of [then-Texas ] Gov. Bush; Jack Kemp, one of my political heroes; John McCain; and other national Republicans. They understood we need to represent everybody.
Bush got 44% of the Latino vote in 2004 compared with Mitt Romney's 27% in 2012.
I was drawn to Bush because of immigration reform. He talked about immigration as a positive thing for the U.S., which I believe it has always been, although it's been polarizing at times. And he talked about education reform, helping black kids and Hispanic kids and poor kids. To me that was appealing, for a Republican to talk like that.
Tone matters. Latinos have this impression that the Republican Party doesn't care about them. One way to bridge the gap is Latinos who are elected officials, who can communicate with the Latino community.
I was working for President Bush when my mom came to visit. We were in front of the Vietnam Memorial, and she's saying, "Hijo, look at all the Latino names on the wall." [The numbers] really struck me.
It's an analogy to what we're trying to do. We want Latinos represented in the party, to be able to see themselves in the party, so the party can represent them more.
What kind of immigration reform do you embrace?
The spectrum: H1B visas — if you come here and study or come with a special expertise to help our high-tech innovation economy; all the way to temporary workers — if you're willing to work hard in jobs quite frankly that a lot of Americans won't take, in agriculture and other work, and you want to go back to your home country. Let's develop a program that lets you do that. That was part of the bracero program.
Does immigration reform mean citizenship?
Maybe for some, but I don't think for all. I know this is a big debate. I know for some that's important; for others, they just want legal status — they still want to be citizens of their home country. I'd like to see a path to citizenship, and definitely to legalization. Not amnesty, but something to become eligible to become a citizen.
What about the Dream Act?
GROW Elect doesn't take positions on policies, [but] personally I think it's important to allow these dreamers the opportunity to become productive citizens here. I was at an event with some of these kids — some of them are so inspirational, so driven, so intelligent, and they just want an opportunity. We're going to be in a position where we need to bring more immigrants in to bring our workforce to a level that's growing our economy.
Didn't your father come to the U.S. as a temporary worker?
He came initially in the 1940s, during the bracero program. He fell in love with this country, loved our economic system, democracy. He married my mom, then they came back and settled in the Bay Area. He's my American hero because he believed in what this country was all about.
You worked in his roofing business.
I'm the first in my family to go to university, UC Riverside, and I went home the best-educated roofer on the San Francisco peninsula. I didn't appreciate then as I do know what it's like to earn your living with your hands.
I don't think one side has a monopoly on what's best for folks like that. I want a society [where] you can grow up as a roofer's son and have opportunities, so you don't say, "This is your station in life, so we're going to have to give you more, and going to have to tax these [other] people to pay for services for you." I want a society where you can come from a very poor background and build something through entrepreneurial spirit and hard work.
Your father was paralyzed in a roofing accident. You didn't speak English when you began school. I'm thinking of workers' comp, of bilingual education. Did programs like that lead you to become a Democrat at first?
I was young! A lot of the Democrat platform, progressivism, it's really appealing. But by the time I became a supervisor [in San Mateo County], my neighborhood was 90% Latino. Crime was an issue, the streets, the services, and I thought, if the folks in charge are all Democrats, then I want to try to change management, or at least influence management.
Yet issues like abortion and gay marriage seem to rally the GOP.
There's an important base of the Republican Party for whom those are important, but not everyone has to fit the same mold. I think there's more pragmatism within the Republican Party.
You announced your candidacy for San Mateo supervisor at the fabled Palo Alto garage where Hewlett-Packard was founded. Why?
To me Hewlett and Packard were like the epitome of America, two guys in a garage who came up with an idea and built this fabulous company. It may be stretching it a bit, [but] my dad started out our little roofing company in our garage — different net outcomes, but that same spirit of entrepreneurship. I want people to have drive. I don't want to see us become a country where taxes are too high or regulations are too onerous, so instead of starting my own small business, I'm just going to get a job. That undercuts the American spirit.
Why aren't there more Latinos in high places in Silicon Valley?
I'm not blaming anybody, but I don't think our public education system is running on all cylinders. Poor kids, Latino kids, African American kids, kids with special needs, they all need different attention and resources.
In the West, we say Latino. In the East, they say Hispanic. Which do you prefer?
I feel more comfortable saying Latino; I don't really have a preference.
What is it about the frictions between California and Mexico?
I'm oversimplifying, but Californians have kind of turned their backs on the border. Only folks south of Interstate 8 really recognize the border for what it is, a real asset. It's a binational region. People are afraid of it or prefer not to think of it.
It's a broad statement, but Florida people understand the connection there with Latin America; in Texas, not everyone, but there's an appreciation for the border and the economy. I'd like to see more of an appreciation of the economic opportunity for Californians with Mexico. [It's] tremendous.
Latinos are diverse, but do people look at you and say you're not Latino?
All the time! [Sometimes] Latinos don't realize Spanish is my first language, and on the other side, people don't realize I am Latino and may say derogatory things.
You must have cringed when Don Young (R-Alaska) referred to "wetbacks."
It was very poor judgment. We've got to be conscious of the language we use. Put yourself in the shoes of the Latino community and use some common sense. If you inadvertently offend people just by the words you use, it makes it difficult to win the argument.
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This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.