Al Cardenas is a “big tent” Republican: The first Hispanic chairman of the American Conservative Union. A strong proponent of minority outreach and immigration reform. A whistle-blower on conservatives who attack their compatriots.
“We are at war with liberals and moderates, but it now seems we have added fellow conservatives as the enemy,” he wrote in Human Events one week ago. “If we go down this road, we will destroy our ability to succeed.”
Yet Cardenas finds himself in the awkward position of defending ACU’s widely criticized decisions to exclude a gay Republican group, GOProud, and the popular Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, from its annual conference next month. It’s oversimplifying to blame the organization’s opposition to same-sex marriage or Christie’s recent apostasies on federal spending, but appearances matter at a time when Republican leaders are trying to project a more modern, inclusive image.
“Al shares with me the idea that building an ideological organization means not to restrict but to encourage people to come in, and ultimately I think that is what will what he will do, but he’s got to contend with these hot-button issues right now,” said David Keene, who served as ACU chairman for nearly three decades and personally recruited Cardenas to succeed him in 2011.
The dual dis-invitations from the largest gathering of conservative activists, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in March, are fueling conflicts within a Republican Party still reeling from electoral defeat. In a direct challenge to the House Republicans championing the federal law banning same-sex marriage, dozens of prominent Republicans have signed a legal brief filed with the Supreme Court opposing the Defense of Marriage Act. Two of the most powerful conservative advocacy groups in the country are publicly feuding, with the Club for Growth inciting primary challenges to insufficiently conservative members of Congress and Karl Rove's group American Crossroads declaring war on insufficiently electable potential rivals.
Enter Cardenas, a nattily dressed, jet-setting lawyer/lobbyist with a tanned complexion set off by coiffed silver hair and gleaming white incisors, one of the most influential referees in the current Republican family squabble. In an interview with National Journal on Thursday at the ACU headquarters in Washington, Cardenas gave his most detailed and candid explanation to date of the GOProud and Christie snubs.
Taking full responsibility for not inviting Christie, Cardenas acknowledged that he was offended by the governor’s effusive praise for President Obama’s response to superstorm Sandy in October and his nationally televised tirade earlier this year when House Republicans held up storm aid.
“Instead of siding with his fellow Republicans in Congress, he decided to side with the president,” Cardenas said. “He really stuck it to [House Speaker] John Boehner and the other Republicans…. I felt like it was not appropriate for a conservative to do that.”
While Cardenas insisted that his close relationship with former Republican nominee Mitt Romney did not affect his decision, he noted the timing of Christie’s outpouring of appreciation for the president. “I did not appreciate his comments at the time, a week or so before the general election,” Cardenas said.
When initially asked about Christie, Cardenas had faulted the governor for championing the pork-laced federal funding (which included aid to storm victims in his state) and accepting the new health care law’s expansion of Medicaid. “CPAC is like the all-star game for professional athletes--you get invited when you have had an outstanding year,” Cardenas said in a statement e-mailed to NJ on Tuesday. “This is a conservative conference, not a Republican Party event.”
GOProud is another story. The group had participated in the annual conference under Keene’s leadership, but some of the more socially conservative board members were uncomfortable with what they saw as in-your-face tactics. A handful of sympathetic participants threatened to boycott. GOProud leaders who had traded insults with board members confronted Cardenas immediately after his election in 2011. “They exhibited conduct unbecoming of a guest,” Cardenas said, admitting that he was one of the board members who voted against allowing GOProud to cosponsor the conference and host a booth. “Why would I bring it up again if I wasn’t in favor of them in the first place?”
The brush-off this year led to a reprimand from National Review's Daniel Foster and prompted two MSNBC commentators to decline speaking invitations. Cardenas conceded a growing libertarian streak in the conservative movement but added, “To be candid, I am not a libertarian.” The 65-year-old, Cuban-born father of five children and five grandchildren favors monogrammed shirts, cufflinks, and pocket squares. He balks at ladies picking up the check.