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.
He also balks at the idea that he’s antigay. Cardenas opposes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and favors visitation rights for same-sex couples, but “if strongly held religious beliefs mean you’re in favor of traditional marriage, then you’re antigay?” he asked. “I, like many Americans, have gay members in my family and people in my workplace with that sexual preference.”
Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, the only ACU board member who also sits on the GOProud board, said he was disappointed the conflict hadn’t been resolved. “GOProud is a conservative group that’s part of the conservative movement,” he said. “CPAC is a broad tent with big shoulders. Everyone needs to play well together.”
Republican consultant Alex Castellanos, who is scheduled to introduce former Gov. Jeb Bush at CPAC, was one of the prominent Republicans who signed the Supreme Court brief in favor of gay marriage. He declined to directly criticize the exclusion of GOProud, saying “There’s debate going on in the Republican Party about marriage equality and you’re seeing a lot of conservatives struggle their way through and you’re seeing that reflected at CPAC.”
He added, “Al Cardenas is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met in politics. If I were running a presidential campaign, he’s one of handful people I’d want around the table.”
By most measures, Cardenas’s tenure at ACU has been a huge success. The well-connected fundraiser and lobbyist with dozens of clients in Miami, Tallahassee, and Washington has doubled the organization’s budget from $3 million to $6 million. Registration for the March 14-16 conference, which usually dips after a presidential election, is running even higher than last year, forcing ACU to trade its Washington haunts for a larger hotel in Maryland. In an effort to branch out beyond the Beltway, the group held its first regional conferences last year in Orlando, Chicago, and Denver. ACU is also expanding its longtime ratings of members of Congress to include state lawmakers.
“He’s applied sound business-management principles to running ACU and gotten engaged more with social media and that’s paid off big dividends,” said Republican consultant Van Hipp, an ACU board member. “He’s looking to the future.”
Once again the conference will feature a star-studded cast of possible presidential contenders, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Some CPAC veterans say the exclusion of GOProud and Christie is typical of what has grown into a slick, mega-production that serves more as a Republican cattle call than a conservative colloquy.
“I don’t think CPAC has the insurgent feel it used to have,’’ said Reagan biographer Craig Shirley, who has been to dozens of conferences. “In the old days we all felt like revolutionaries, and there was a joy in that. It felt separate and apart from the Republican Party, and I’m not sure you can say that anymore.”
Cardenas also remembers the old days. When he went to his first presidential convention in 1976, he was so broke he had to borrow gas money to drive home to Miami from Kansas City.
He got into politics as a law student at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. In 1972, just a few years after Bill Buckley and other founders had launched ACU in the aftermath of “Mister Conservative” Barry Goldwater’s defeat, Cardenas attended a mock presidential debate on campus. Nixon’s surrogate didn’t show.
In 1978 Cardenas made his first and only bid for political office, challenging the popular Democratic Rep. Claude Pepper. He lost, but the experience proved fateful. During the campaign he went to a candidate training school and bunked with a political rookie from Texas named George W. Bush. “We were two single guys in our 20s,” recalled Cardenas with a grin.
The relationship with the Bush family eventually led to him serving as chairman of the Florida Republican Party under Jeb Bush. Under Cardenas’s leadership in 2002, the party locked down state government by reelecting Bush to the governorship, expanding its majorities in the state Legislature, and taking all Cabinet seats.
“During his tenure, the GOP reached its apex in Florida,” Bush said in an e-mail to National Journal. “He is smart, principled, and has made a big difference in making the Republican Party the majority party in the Florida. And he is my friend.”