Gaddi Vasquez on the Fast Track : The GOP's Great Latino Hope

Dave Lesher is a Times staff writer who covers Orange County politics.

BEHIND A BRASSY mariachi band playing in the Los Angeles Mexican Independence Day parade this summer, Democrat ic Mayor Tom Bradley waved from a big, white convertible to the thousands of Latino families watching from both curbs along Mednik Avenue. A group of Aztec dancers in shiny silver and gold robes followed, along with another Democrat in an open car, City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. High school bands, marching military units, colorful plastic floats and caballeros on horseback flowed by. And in the summer heat of election season, a stream of Democrats waved from convertibles to a community that has long been friendly to their politics. This was Democratic territory.

But NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, at the parade for an evening news story about the politics of the rapidly growing Latino community in California, questioned the Democrats' apparent grip on Latino voters. And to underscore his point, he interviewed a man recommended by the Bush presidential campaign--Gaddi H. Vasquez.

Vasquez, just 33, is a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. He is the highest-ranking elected Republican Latino in California. And because he could be an important aberration on the nation's political landscape, he's been probed and challenged by reporters trying to figure out whether he's some kind of a quirk or really part of a phenomenon. They've asked the same questions so many times that Vasquez's compilation of the interviews is almost comic.

Brokaw, his tie loosened during the interview behind the parade reviewing stand, was no exception. He, too, asked Vasquez about the traditional notion that the Democrats can count on strong support in the Latino community.

"I think people have a tendency to underestimate the depth of the Hispanic voter," Vasquez responded. "The Hispanic voter requires just as much in terms of issues, ideals and the criteria for leadership as any other community."

The interview done, Vasquez moved to the curb to watch the rest of the parade. Near the end, a lone Republican candidate passed on foot, zigzagging from curb to curb, shaking hands and declaring, "Viva los Estados Unidos." It was Sen. Pete Wilson.

One of the senator's advance men, carrying a walkie-talkie in one hand while scanning the scene for photo possibilities, hurriedly worked a few blocks ahead. He spotted Vasquez and stopped to enlist his help in showing Latino spectators that it's OK to be a Republican. Vasquez stepped to the side of the reviewing stand, hoping to join Wilson as he passed. But the parade pressed on, isolating the two very different Republicans in a sea of Democrats.

THE LATINO FACTOR

GADDI VASQUEZ is perfect for the Republican Party.

Party leaders know that the Latino community--the fastest-growing segment in America-- will be crucial to winning elections in the future. It is already being courted by politicians as never before. And in California during the next 30 years, it will double in size.

GOP image makers are aware of their reputation for being unsympathetic to minorities and the poor. But they see hints that Latino voters might be converted to the GOP: Brokaw's story, for instance, estimated that 37% of California's Latino voters are planning to support Bush, even though about 80% of the community is registered Democratic.

In walks Gaddi Vasquez. Bright, loyal and articulate, he is a bedrock conservative, not a politician who has adopted a transparent agenda to expedite his career. His beliefs, he says, are rooted in his own experience: He spent the first years of his life in a farm labor camp, then in the barrios of Orange County. And his political convictions go back to those days, when his family refused welfare because they were still able to work.

He believes that the poor in the barrios should be able to work their way out and that the role of government is not to provide welfare that leaves them dependent. Government, he says, should ensure that for those who do work, there are opportunities.

Vasquez is part of a small minority of conservative Republican Latinos. Publicly, Vasquez and his odd message are still just a curiosity. But at the highest levels of government, he is seen as a harbinger. Powerful people including Gov. George Deukmejian are working to see him succeed, possibly as a California governor or U.S. senator.

Last year, Deukmejian appointed him supervisor, and in June, Vasquez easily won his first election. Vasquez's victory in largely white, wealthy and conservative Orange County was closely watched by top political planners in Sacramento and Washington. It proved to doubters in the party that he could sell to mainstream Republicans: While some party officials and strategists had predicted openly that Vasquez would lose his first race, his win was so lopsided--with only one minor challenger--that it went almost unnoticed.

But the election made Vasquez a politician with a future, a contender in the state and national arena. Just days after his election, Vasquez was being considered for appointment as state treasurer. In July, the Bush campaign invited him to speak at the Republican National Convention, and on the August night that George Bush was nominated for president, Vasquez gave a rousing speech from the podium.

Vasquez is a gifted speaker who won national honors in high school competitions. But when he talks about his life and political convictions, he uses an emotionally stirring delivery straight from the religious tones of his father, an Apostolic minister.

"We were poverty-ridden and lacked material goods but abounded with love and hope that someday we would emerge from our plight and capture a part of the American Dream," Vasquez bellowed from the red-white-and-blue stage, arms chopping the air for emphasis.

One line in particular from that speech caught the ear of Bush campaign strategists planning television commercials. Vasquez spoke briefly in Spanish to Latino voters, urging them to support the Republican ticket. Then, switching to English and pointing at the audience with each syllable, he charged: "The Democratic candidate may speak Spanish, but he doesn't speak our language." Former President Richard M. Nixon sent Vasquez a letter calling the line "a classic" and continued, "I want you to know how impressed I was by what you said and the eloquence with which you said it."

Even as Vasquez spoke, from the corners of the Bush campaign, his name was being dropped as a possible member of the Republican Cabinet, to fulfill the vice president's promise to appoint a Latino.

THE CANDIDATE'S HANDLERS

ONE OF THE BEST measures of a candidate's strength is the kind of management team he or she can attract. Guns-for-hire will work for either party or any issue and be paid win or lose, but top managers won't waste their skills by signing on with a loser.

The team that helped Vasquez run his campaign for Orange County supervisor included Stuart K. Spencer, Ken Khachigian and Gary C. Lawrence. There are none better. Spencer and Khachigian managed Sen. Dan Quayle's vice presidential campaign, and their media work in Ronald Reagan's two elections changed forever the way a presidential race is run. Neither was paid for his help. Lawrence, a pollster, was hired to conduct an extensive survey of the district.

Their willingness to become involved in a local contest indicates the potential they see for Vasquez. And because their role as senior statesmen is to watch the political horizon, it also reveals how much the Republican Party wants Vasquez to succeed.

Spencer and Khachigian got to know Vasquez in 1985 and '86 when he worked as a Deukmejian aide. "There were a couple reasons we helped him with the campaign," Spencer says. "He was an appointee of the governor, so it was important that he be elected to serve again. Second, he has a great future in the party. The balance of power in the future of California politics is going to be with Hispanics. The more Hispanics the Republicans have in elected office, the better off we will be. The Democrats have (L.A. City Councilman Richard) Alatorre, (L.A. City Councilwoman Gloria) Molina. We need Hispanics on every level there is: city council, commissions, boards."

Running as an incumbent gave Vasquez an advantage, but he faced some daunting obstacles. He was still relatively unknown and had no money; his heritage was considered a negative, and he was going to share the ballot with an emotionally charged initiative on slow growth, which he opposed. There was barely a year to Election Day.

Vasquez is unwilling to discuss the advice he received from his political advisers during that race. But his performance in the year leading to the election showed deft maneuvering through a difficult field.

He became an activist supervisor. By the election, he says, he wanted his achievements to speak for themselves. He supported a policy requiring new housing developments to provide space for day-care centers, and he persuaded the board to create a Hazardous Waste Task Force. He also worked to implement an innovative slow-growth program, begun by his predecessor, requiring developers to pay the total cost--$240 million--for a network of new roads and highways in his district. And in a few highly charged meetings--packed with supporters of the slow-growth measure--Vasquez voted against some big-money developments. Still, he opposed the slow-growth ballot initiative, which he called "irresponsible because it could not be paid for down the line." But his work on slow-growth issues struck a balance that generally satisfied even the movement's leaders. One, Tom Rogers, said recently: "There are far more pluses than minuses with Gaddi. I consider him a friend."

Meanwhile, Vasquez was raising money from groups that had never participated in an Orange County supervisor's race: There was a special fund-raiser for young voters and another for Latinos, at which Vasquez's childhood friend, comedian Paul Rodriguez, performed. Tapping the mainstream, a Deukmejian fund-raiser for Vasquez in January raised more than $100,000, some of it from outside the county, including support from a few of Deukmejian's biggest contributors. Kevin Brett, spokesman for the governor, said it was the only fund-raiser Deukmejian did all year for a county-level official. By March, the filing deadline for candidates, Vasquez had about $400,000, more than any Orange County supervisor had ever raised for a primary. He had also maintained a schedule of speeches and office work that was so rigorous it hospitalized him briefly in the spring with a heart condition.

Despite the presence of Spencer and Khachigian, there was no television involved in his race, and, in fact, there was hardly any news coverage. Vasquez says he made all of the decisions in the campaign and in his job as supervisor. He describes his advisers as "sounding boards . . . on the pitfalls that could result in disaster."

Looking to the year 2000, Republican state chairman Robert Naylor recently called the Latino community a "must-win group" and "a can-win group." "The biggest thing we need is a role model, and that's why Gaddi is so important," Naylor says. "He is viewed nationally as a real resource. I don't think he would have gotten the kind of support he's gotten from just being Hispanic."

"I don't think he should stay a supervisor very long," Spencer adds. "There's a lot more for him to do."

MR. CLEAN

VASQUEZ LIVES IN a new section of Orange, just a few miles from the two-bedroom apartment where he spent his teen years. The comfortable house he shares with his wife, Elaine, and 9-year-old son, Jason, is indistinguishable from its weathered-wood neighbors in a middle-class, suburban development thickly landscaped with evergreens, ferns and narrow concrete streams.

One Sunday after church, Vasquez sits at his dining table and contemplates his political ascent. Eight years ago he was a rookie cop in Orange, going to night school to earn a bachelor's degree in public service administration. He left the police department, working in the Riverside city manager's office from 1979 to 1980. Then, in late 1980, he was appointed executive assistant to Orange County Supervisor Bruce Nestande, for whom he worked until 1984. Each job seemed better than the last, and three years ago, when he took a job as an area manager for governmental relations and public affairs at Southern California Edison, he thought he'd found a lifelong career. But four months later, the governor asked him to come to Sacramento.

He reflects on it all with surprise but not shock. He is a religious man, and he attributes much of what happens to God's will. "If it's meant to be, it's going to happen," he says. "I'm a realist, and the reality is that my political career will only endure as long as I am elected."

"Nothing surprises me anymore about Gaddi," Elaine Vasquez says with a smile. But, she adds, reflecting on the events that have begun to bring her husband broader recognition, "it's like his life is already planned. It just seems like he is at the right place at the right time. At first it was amazing; now it's just like, 'OK God, walk right in.' "

Vasquez's political peers are more likely to attribute this success to his strait-laced character: He is a Mr. Clean, the Latino version of a Steve Garvey or John Glenn. A devoted churchgoer, he doesn't smoke, drink or cuss. At his wedding, with hundreds of guests, there was no dancing or champagne. And he married the only woman he ever dated, whom he met when he was 7.

"We were raised in a very strict environment," Vasquez says. "My mother was a strict disciplinarian, and she made it clear to us that we were not going to be sequels to their lives. You talk about zero tolerance; there was no tolerance when it came to schoolwork and church and the family. There was no goofing off at all. So that contributed to my values."

In high school, during the rebellious late '60s, Vasquez went to class with starched clean shirts and razor-short hair. "He wasn't afraid to stand out," recalls his younger brother, Ben, whose hair in high school reached his shoulders. Vasquez had joined the Orange Police Department's Explorer Scouts unit at 13, and was spending much of his free time with policemen. Also shaping his perspective was an interest in debate. Vasquez's teachers say he spent more time with them practicing for speech contests than he did with classmates. "He was one of us," says Jack Fox, principal of the junior high school. Vasquez was also chosen twice to be the student representative on the Board of Education.

At 17, he was elected governor at the annual Boys State Convention in Sacramento, and he gave a speech in which he shared the podium with then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. By 19, he was hired as a full-time patrol officer, the youngest cop in the city's history and class valedictorian at the police academy.

He is the only Orange County supervisor who prohibits his staff from accepting any gifts or meals from business contacts, rather than simply declaring such gifts as county regulations require. That's not the stuff that would make colleagues think of him as a likely drinking buddy. But it does go a long way with superiors. Vasquez has always been able to impress his bosses--from high school to the police department to the governor. And he was always hungry enough that he had a reputation for doing more than he needed to get by.

Vasquez rolls his head back and laughs when he's asked why his family, friends and associates politely describe him as "mature." Sitting nearby on a sofa in the dining room, Elaine laughs, too. "He was 3 going on 30," she jokes.

Then, as if he's been discovered, he confesses: "Yes, I never was a child; yes, I sleep in my suits." Elaine can't stop laughing, as though his serious side has long been the target of family fun.

"I know some people say I take myself too seriously," Vasquez says finally. "I don't know; it's not a facade. I've always been that way, probably always will be. I don't let my hair down that much. My best friends will tell you that. They have tried to get past that thing that they think is a shell," he says, punching a fist into his open hand. "It has never been a disservice to me."

THE DEUKMEJIAN LINK

VASQUEZ TRACES HIS recent prominence to the two years he worked in Deukmejian's office. He was hired as the governor's liaison with the Latino community, and four months later he was promoted to be appointments secretary, not a job for a neophyte. In that position, he selected the candidates for boards and commissions that are filled by the governor. The job was risky: A political skeleton might be discovered after the selection, embarrassing the governor. (That never happened on Vasquez's watch, says Steven A. Merksamer, Deukmejian's chief of staff at the time.) And it required diplomacy, extensive researching and people skills, not the least of which was the ability to handle Deukmejian supporters who might not be qualified for jobs they seek. In 1986, after a year on the job, Vasquez was promoted to chief deputy appointments secretary, the second ranking decision-maker in Deukmejian's office. Then, four months later, his old boss, Orange County Supervisor Nestande, resigned. Deukmejian needed to appoint a replacement who wouldn't alienate the supporters lobbying for the job. Vasquez was barely known in the county, yet he knew the office well because of his experience in the supervisor's office. But he had never been elected; he ran once for the Orange City Council and lost. Still, Deukmejian chose him. "I recognized that, first of all, he was a very hard-working individual," the governor says. "He was very conscientious and very outgoing. So I was delighted when I had the opportunity to appoint him as supervisor."

A DIFFERENT BIRD

VASQUEZ INSISTS that the whole Latino community is changing, and he is just the pioneer. But the traits that set him apart from much of the Latino community can be glaringly obvious.

At confirmation hearings for controversial state treasurer nominee Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach) last February, for example, minority groups spent almost a whole day lashing at Lungren's affirmative-action record.

Only one Latino representative spoke in Lungren's behalf: Vasquez.

Vasquez dismisses those who charge that his testimony was politically motivated. "I think it's just a different perspective," he says. But Bea Molina, national president of the Mexican American Political Assn., says many people figured Vasquez was repaying a debt to the governor. "Gaddi was the perfect choice," she says. "They had to bring in a minority because so many minorities testified against (Lungren)."

Molina, a Democrat, doesn't criticize Vasquez for his sometimes strained relationships with the Latino community. Minority politicians, she says, have difficulties other officeholders don't: If they don't champion the social issues in their communities, they are criticized as puppets of the Establishment. If they run on their ethnicity, they are unattractive to the mainstream electorate.

That, she adds, divides minority politicians into two categories: those who campaign on the "grass-roots" issues of the ethnic community and those who run as members of the "traditional institute" of the political party.

"In my perception--and this is not a put-down--Gaddi does not fit in in grass roots. They'd kill him in East L.A.," she says. "He's already polished and mainstream. There are very few Hispanics who fit into that traditional role. If you ask a real grass-roots activist, they will say that (Vasquez) is a politician first and a Hispanic second."

It's an accurate description that Vasquez says he wears proudly. He has said often: "I do not want to be known as the Hispanic supervisor. I want to be the supervisor who happens to be Hispanic." Vasquez wants to run as a Latino, just as Michael Dukakis runs as a Greek. He recognizes his community, and it is important to him, but it doesn't flavor his politics.

A recent controversial vote on the Board of Supervisors pitted his district's interests against the need for a new elementary school in a Latino barrio in Santa Ana. Vasquez voted with the majority in a 3-2 decision against selling the county's property in Santa Ana to the school district. Some in the Santa Ana Latino community complained that Vasquez had turned on his own people, siding with a wealthy community in his district over the needs of poor Latino children.

The Santa Ana chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens--on stationery with the motto, "All for one, one for all"--said in a letter to Vasquez: "Gaddi, you should realize that our community has followed your career with much admiration . . . . (But) it was clear by last week's surprise decision . . . that we Hispanics have once again been led astray by tactics of politicians who may speak Spanish but do not speak our language."

Vasquez met with his critics and told them that they were wrong, that they did not see the bigger picture. "I want to make it real clear that I'm sensitive to the issues as they relate to the Hispanic community; but on a much bigger scale, my job is to represent all of my constituents," he says. "I keep a very, very neutral perspective or eye to any of the dynamics of an issue so I'm not blinded or obscured by the consequences to the Hispanic community."

Vasquez does work to help the Latino community, in his own way, he claims. He wants to create a Latino forum, similar to the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles, that would sponsor appearances by national and international Latino leaders. And he speaks frequently to groups of Latino professionals and students. "I spend hours and days going to campuses heavily used by Hispanics," he says. "I urge them to pursue their dreams like Gaddi did. That there is no limit to what they can do.

"I am amazed that people say that I've turned my back to my roots," Vasquez says when asked about the persistent criticisms. "I don't see the contradiction in me being a Republican. I am fluent in Spanish. It was the first language in my home, and it is my roots; it's important to me.

"I ask people who criticize where I have gone if they were raised in labor camps: Did they suffer like I did? Did they have this urge to get out and make it? The viewpoint that I have turned my back to my people is a strictly partisan viewpoint. No one party or people have cornered the market for building the solutions to the problems of the Latinos. I have experienced no backlash at all from my people. I am proud of my heritage--and they see that in me."

THE FUTURE

GADDI VASQUEZ isn't yet a household name in California. But, says the Republicans' Naylor, "he could be viable statewide by '94. Give him 10 years and I think Gaddi could be the first Hispanic governor of the state."

For the Vasquez scenario to work, he will have to make an enormous leap from the local level to become a known politician in California. But already, such attention-getting coups as being selected for the convention speech are giving him just the boost he needs.

Vasquez himself isn't talking. "How do I know what I want to be 10 years from now when 10 years ago I was driving a patrol car?" he says.

Still, he's clearly chewing on the thought. On a cable television talk show recently, he was asked about the rumor of a possible Cabinet appointment in a Bush Administration. He answered, "I'm a happy supervisor now." But it was a coded response. "Did you notice," he said with a smile as he walked to the studio's parking lot, "that I said I am a happy supervisor NOW?"

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