It would be hard to find a more potent example of the Latino success story than Helen Aguirre Ferre.
Her family, of Nicaraguan descent on her father’s side, started Miami’s earliest Spanish-language newspaper in the 1950s, easing the cultural transition for the waves of exiles who fled Cuba after Fidel Castro took control. Her Puerto Rico-born father-in-law served as the city’s first Latino mayor in the 1970s and 1980s, marking Miami as a multicultural capital.
Aguirre Ferre then carved her own path as a columnist, television host and radio personality in two languages. As the chairwoman of the nation’s largest community college, Miami Dade, she provided comfort, vigorous political support and financial aid for immigrants in the country illegally who were seeking a slice of American prosperity.
So it was more than a big leap, and nothing less than a shock to many who know her, when Aguirre Ferre cast aside her sharp criticism of Donald Trump to become his chief marketer to the nation’s Latino voters.
“The RNC is lucky to have someone of her competence, but they couldn’t pay me enough,” said Rudy Fernandez, a former RNC and George W. Bush official. Fernandez helped Bush make inroads with Latinos in his 2004 reelection and worked closely with Aguirre Ferre to build public support in 2013 for an immigration overhaul that Trump has condemned as amnesty.
Her predecessor at the RNC left in June, reportedly because of her discomfort about working to elect Trump. Other high-profile Latino Republicans, including members of Miami’s congressional delegation, its mayor and activists on the nominee’s own Latino advisory council, have renounced Trump, who has support from only about one in five Latinos nationwide.
In the three months since Aguirre Ferre took the job, she has been grilled on CNN for defending a man who’s “been kicking us like puppies,” been confronted by people who once called her an advocate, and subjected to a campaign seeking to oust her from her unpaid post at Miami Dade College.
Aguirre Ferre -- 58 and well-liked on both sides of the aisle -- didn’t seem to need the headache at this stage of her career.
“That’s a mistake that I would have expected a 25-year-old to make,” said Jose Dante Parra, a Democratic strategist who headed Latino outreach for Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and has frequently debated Aguirre Ferre on her radio show.
I wanted to have a voice. I wanted to be able to work for something that I truly believe in.
“I can’t for the life of me figure what her end game is. And she can’t be effective when she goes on Hispanic media,” he added, “she has to spend half the time defending her past very strong criticism of Donald Trump.”
“I wanted to have a voice,” Aguirre Ferre said, a few minutes into a recent interview. “I wanted to be able to work for something that I truly believe in.”
Asked what, exactly, that was, Aguirre Ferre did not initially mention Trump, instead falling back on the Republican Party and the need to reach communities that have, in her opinion, been pandered to by Democrats.
“I’m not marketing Donald Trump,” she insisted. “I’m talking about the Republican values and vision that we represent as a party.”
Only later, after prodding, did she clarify.
“I believe in Donald Trump. I’m going to vote for Donald Trump,” she said.
Trump, she said repeatedly, was far better than Hillary Clinton. It’s a unique time, and voters want a new approach, she added, ticking off a list of conventional Republican positions on financial regulations, healthcare and security.
And wasn’t President Obama the real “deporter in chief”?, she added, using a term coined by left-leaning immigration activists who have attacked Obama’s record number of deportations.
Even allowing for those arguments, the candidate clearly has put Aguirre Ferre in a difficult position.
Did she agree with him that Mexico was sending mostly rapists and drug dealers across the border? No.
Or when he declared that all Muslims should be banned from entering the country? No.
Or when he questioned the impartiality of an Indiana-born federal judge because of his Mexican heritage?
“I think that Mr. Trump, I can’t really comment,” she said, briefly breaking her calm smile. “The issue with the judge, I don’t agree with that.”
Some close to Aguirre Ferre believe she came to the RNC in hopes of softening Trump’s rhetoric and immigration policy, or at least protecting the GOP. In a brief statement, Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, whom Aguirre Ferre worked for in the primary, praised her friendship, conservative values and “commitment to the party.”
When her father-in-law, Maurice Ferre, the former mayor and a Democrat, asked her if she would be embarrassed to take the job helping Trump, she pointed to the party, he recalled.
“If you take people like Helen away from the Republican Party, then what you’re doing is giving it to the extreme right,” said the 81-year-old Ferre. “That’s the worst thing that could happen.”
Yet Aguirre Ferre’s ability to influence Trump is limited. Two days before Trump delivered his hard-line immigration speech in Phoenix, she said she had no role in crafting it. Nor did she know what Trump would say.
“I’m not sure what his immigration policy is going to be,” she said.
“He’s affable, a very gracious host,” she said. “When he asks a question, he’s very intent on listening. He loves hearing other people’s suggestions and conversations, takes it all in, and then formulates his own ideas.”
After Trump delivered the speech -- blaming immigrants in the country illegally for “countless” deaths and lost jobs, setting out a plan for millions of deportations, and calling for new limits on legal immigration – several of the Latino supporters who had been in meetings with Trump and Aguirre Ferre said they could no longer support him, with one prominent supporter calling the speech “nativist.” .
Aguirre Ferre said her own support has not wavered and that, even as two members of the advisory council had stepped down, more supporters would be added. She said that if Obama had pushed through an immigration bill when Democrats controlled Congress, the problem would have been solved.
For many in her home community, Aguirre Ferre’s transformation from a commentator on the edge of politics to full-time operative with an unpopular candidate has been too much.
Gaby Pacheco, a nationally known immigration activist, met Aguirre Ferre about a dozen years ago, when Pacheco was president of the Miami Dade College student body and an early activist for students in the country illegally in what would later become the Dreamer movement.
Pacheco had come to the United States from Ecuador on a tourist visa when she was 7. In 2006, Pacheco was awakened from a sound sleep to find the rest of her family being rounded up and taken in for deportation proceedings. Many of the college’s politically connected leaders stepped in to help the family, who believed the deportation proceeding was motivated by Pacheco’s activism.
Aguirre Ferre promised to help Pacheco with anything she needed, and over the years, the two have spoken regularly, often on Aguirre Ferre’s television or radio show.
“She’s probably been one of the strongest Latina spokespeople in the country,” said Pacheco. “When the college had undocumented students, she did everything she could to help figure out how to support them.”
After activists began circulating a petition demanding that Aguirre Ferre step down as chairwoman of the college, Pacheco called to urge her to stay on the board. If Aguirre Ferre left, Florida Gov. Rick Scott might appoint a replacement who would put the thousands of students at the college who are in the country illegally at risk, Pacheco reasoned.
But the call was not a happy one. Pacheco says she told Aguirre Ferre she felt sad for her.
“How in anyone’s mind can they be an apologist for this man, be his dictionary trying to explain for what he says when everyone can clearly see what he means?” Pacheco said.
“I told her I have high regard for her,” Pacheco recalled. “But just seeing her doing this was disappointing.”