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Chuck Rocha reveals secrets to winning Latino voters in 'Tío Bernie' Sanders book

"I explained exactly how we did it with Bernie, so Joe Biden and everyone else can copy what we did," Rocha says. "It’s my do everything to defeat this president.”
Image: Tio Bernie
A cover of the book, "Tío Bernie: The Inside Story of How Bernie Sanders Brought Latinos into The Political Revolution," by Sanders senior adviser and Democratic strategist Chuck Rocha. Strong Arm Press

In July 2019, a Bernie Sanders campaign telephone survey showed the Vermont senator about even with Joe Biden in support from Latinos in Nevada. Nine months later, Bernie Sanders had won 70 percent of the Latino vote and state's caucuses.

The man who orchestrated much of Sanders’ 2020 campaign Latino vote strategies, former Sanders senior adviser Chuck Rocha, released on Wednesday his accounting of the campaign with his book "Tío Bernie: The Inside Story of How Bernie Sanders Brought Latinos into The Political Revolution."

The book spells out what it took to dominate Latino voters and the caucuses of Nevada — “our crown jewel”.

"I explained exactly how we did it with Bernie, so Joe Biden and everyone else can copy what we did, because I just want people to spend money to get our people out," Rocha told NBC News.

Rocha, founder of Solidarity Strategies political consulting firm, revealed in the book how he outmaneuvered the powerful Nevada Culinary Workers Union and how Latina hotel housekeepers played a role in shaping his strategies.

He explains the value of Spanish language newspapers and shows why other campaigns should follow his lead of investing in Latino voters, even if Sanders ultimately lost the primary race to Biden, who is scheduled to accept the party's nomination Thursday night.

The book, too, is Rocha’s personal story of how a “red neck farm boy from East Texas” who largely grew up without his father went from a goal in his 20s of landing a job that would provide health care for his son to becoming a union activist to having a felony in his record over what he describes as a $485 expense account mistake. He then worked political campaigns and ultimately became a senior adviser to a major party presidential candidate.

Rocha and his signature cowboy hat that he often wears for television interviews is prominently featured on the book’s cover, drawn by nationally syndicated political cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz.

Image: Chuck Rocha
Chuck Rocha, former senior adviser to Bernie Sanders for his 2020 presidential campaign, discusses how he mobilized the Latino vote that helped Sanders win some key primaries. Courtesy Chuck Rocha

In the cover artwork, Rocha flanks a jacket-less, sleeves-rolled-up Bernie on one side, while Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, D-New York, stands on the other before a crowd at a rally.

The faces in the crowd include some of Rocha’s family members and a few may be recognizable to readers. Alcaraz drew them from photos of actual people who attended Sanders rallies, Rocha said. The book was published by Strong Arm Press.

A historic place in national political campaigns

Rocha’s place in the 2020 campaigns is historic, as is his book. Few, if any other campaign insiders have focused on Latino voters in post-campaign books and the numbers of Latinos in high-level campaign positions are still small.

Other Latinos have worked presidential campaigns for years, but Sanders’ full-throttle pursuit of Latino votes, with money behind it, was precedent setting. His campaign hired more Latino staffers than the other campaigns, more than 200 by the end of the campaign and put many in senior positions that went beyond capturing Latino voters.

Sanders also drew more political contributions from Latinos than any other campaign. An analysis by Plus Three, a technology company that does political and other analysis, found Latinos contributed $23.7 million in 2019 alone and Sanders got the lion’s share despite the crowded Democratic primary field.

Rocha described in his book the moment he got to hold court with Sanders on making Latino outreach a key part of the campaign. He recounted a conversation the two had on the road from Nogales to Tucson, Ariz. Not too long before, while others were getting their meals at a Mexican restaurant, Sanders took an impromptu walk through a Latino neighborhood, greeting and chatting with people who recognized him or came out to meet him.

“‘Why do people always say Latinos don’t vote?’” Bernie asked me … As we rolled down the interstate, we talked for an hour about engaging and investing in the Latino community in a serious way.”

AOC's pivotal role in Sanders' campaign

Rocha shares how the campaign was essentially over when Sanders had his heart attack and should have died that day. But Sanders recovered after blockages in his heart were cleared and Ocasio-Cortez breathed new life into the campaign with her endorsement of the U.S. Senator.

“She was such a pivotal part of the campaign and people won’t realize until they read my book the direct impact she had bringing this campaign back to life after the scariest time that we all witnessed," Rocha said.

Rocha’s book comes amid angst about how Biden will perform with Latino voters. Recent polls have shown he is behind Hillary Clinton who lagged behind Barack Obama with Latino voters. Many have pointed out that the Democratic convention did not include Julián Castro, the only Latino Democratic presidential candidate, in a speaking role. Democratic powerhouse Ocasio-Cortez spoke briefly to second the nomination of Sanders, I-Vermont, in accordance with party rules.

Neither Obama nor Clinton had to deal with campaigning during a pandemic, but Biden was slow to launch a hefty Latino outreach program. The campaign has been ratcheting up Latino outreach recently as more money has rolled in. An August poll showed about 24 percent of the poll's Latino respondents were voting or likely to vote for Trump.

Some of Rocha's critics have said he did a disservice to Latinos because his candidate did not ultimately win the nomination. After Nevada, Sanders went on to win California on Super Tuesday and he won the Latino vote in Rocha's home state of Texas. But he didn't win the state and suffered another loss in South Carolina, where black voters helped revive Biden's campaign.

Rocha said the campaign's internal polling was showing Sanders coming out of Super Tuesday as the nominee, but when several Democratic candidates dropped out before Super Tuesday and backed Biden, it stopped Sanders' momentum.

"Making sure that Joe Biden wins the Latino vote"

Despite Sanders' loss, Rocha hasn't ended his work turning out Latinos this election. He started Nuestro PAC, a political action committee, with other Sanders staffers after the primaries. The PAC has spent more than $4 million targeting Latinos to vote for Biden, with more to come.

Two weeks before the Democratic party snagged Kristina Urquiza to tell the story of the death of her father, a Trump supporter, from COVID-19 at the Democratic convention, Rocha had made a television ad featuring her. It was to be released after the convention, but Rocha moved it up after her convention appearance. The PAC plans to spend six figures delivering the digital ad to Latinos in Arizona and North Carolina, getting the ad beyond the convention audience.

“Me and the Bernie Sanders team are going to make sure that Joe Biden wins the Latino vote,” Rocha said.

“We proved that Latinos will vote during the Bernie Sanders campaign and Nuestro PAC was the way to complete this work if Joe Biden wasn’t going to hire us,” Rocha told NBC News. “Latinos in America have too much at stake to sit this one out. It’s my job, as Bernie Sanders said, to do everything to defeat this president.”

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