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Fox Turns to Texas PR Firm to Shape Mexico’s Image in U.S.

Times Staff Writer

President Vicente Fox has rehired the Texas PR man and political consultant who quietly helped engineer his election victory in 2000. This time, though, he wants Rob Allyn & Co. to put the brakes on what many Mexicans see as growing anti-immigration, anti-Mexican sentiment in the United States.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill that would add 700 miles of border fencing and make illegal immigration a felony.

Fox denounced the measure as shameful. His foreign minister called it stupid and underhanded.

“How many of us don’t have a relative in the United States, working and trying to make a living?” said Rodrigo Ivan Cortes Jimenez, an elected deputy in Mexico’s lower house and a member of its commission on foreign affairs.

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“It’s about image, and they have a distorted image,” he said of U.S. lawmakers. “The contributions of Mexicans in the United States, who are making their best effort, generating lots of wealth, are not known.”

The immigration bill, which is expected to reach the Senate in February, has no provision for allowing temporary Mexican workers -- a further slap, in Fox’s view. He and President Bush agree on the need for a so-called guest worker program.

Fox cannot seek reelection next year, and his legacy may rest in part on his pledges to secure an agreement with the United States to grant legal status to the millions of Mexicans now living and working north of the border illegally.

So last week he turned to the political operative who helped him topple Mexico’s longtime ruling party to win the presidency.

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Rob Allyn helped George W. Bush defeat Ann Richards for the governorship of Texas in 1994. Three years later, he saw another potential winner in Fox, then governor of Guanajuato state.

Allyn agreed to join Fox’s fledgling presidential campaign, but only in secret.

For three years, Allyn worked clandestinely, helping craft Fox’s message of change, as well as his TV commercials, his polling and his wardrobe. The publicist made dozens of trips to Mexico, traveling under three pseudonyms.

Fox, of the National Action Party, or PAN, came from behind to defeat Francisco Labastida of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had ruled Mexico for seven decades.

During Mexico’s official campaign season in the first six months of 2000, Allyn worked with Penn, Schoen & Berland, a polling and political consulting firm. They operated Democracy Watch, a nonpartisan group hired by Mexicans to conduct national exit polls as a hedge against election fraud.

Their secret role in the Fox campaign was revealed a week after the July 2 election by the Dallas Morning News. Allyn told the newspaper he hid his work for Fox because he didn’t want to be a political liability. Mexicans are sensitive to foreign interference, especially involving the United States.

“Basically, for three years I’d go home from my real job to a secret job,” he told the paper. “I led a second life for that period.”

Allyn, who also worked on Bush’s presidential campaigns, now faces a bigger challenge with the migration issue.

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Demands for stemming illegal immigration are growing louder in the United States as Mexican and Central American workers spread across the country. Debate in states such as Minnesota, South Carolina and Virginia echoes arguments heard in California before voters in 1994 passed Proposition 187, which barred illegal immigrants from most public services, including schooling. That law was overturned by a federal court.

“Our focus is on public opinion, which influences policy outcomes in Congress,” said Allyn, 46, who grew up in Huntington Beach and moved to Texas when he was in high school. “There is a huge misperception among the U.S. public about Mexico.”

Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez said Allyn’s message should be that Mexicans have sunk deep roots in their U.S. neighborhoods and that they contribute more to society through their work, taxes and families than they take away in public services.

Allyn, whose firm is now owned by Fleishman-Hillard, said he’d like to talk about the two countries’ trade ties and the importance of Mexican labor to the U.S. economy. He’d also like to survey Americans’ attitudes on Mexico and Mexicans.

“We’re not going to be their Washington lobbyists,” he said, “but I want to be honest about the point of influencing public opinion to help change attitudes about Mexico, about immigration, about border security.”

Fox’s former foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda, said such a task would require more than a public relations firm.

“Allyn is perfectly competent,” Castaneda said. The two men worked together during the Fox campaign. “But the Mexican government has to use the embassy, the 45 consulates, and they all need to be speaking with the media, debating these issues and taking the case to the American people.”

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Times researchers Carlos Martinez and Cecilia Sanchez contributed to this report.


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