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As Republicans build their farm team, Latinos are in demand

TAMPA, Fla. -- Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., will have a starring role at the Republican convention in Tampa Thursday night when he introduces Mitt Romney to accept the party’s presidential nomination.

Like many politicians who ascend to high positions, including President Obama, Rubio did a stint early in his political career as a state legislator.

Republican candidate Hector Revoron, running for State Senate in East Hartford, Connecticut.
Republican candidate Hector Revoron, running for State Senate in East Hartford, Connecticut.John Brecher / NBC News

Not unlike a professional baseball team, a political party’s success in developing its future leaders in Washington hinges partly on how good a farm team it builds in state legislatures.

And with the Census Bureau projecting that Latinos will be 30 percent of the U.S. population less than 40 years from now, up from about 17 percent of the population today, Republicans were eager to introduce some of their Latino state legislative candidates at the GOP convention this week in Tampa.

Republican candidate Martha Flores Gibson of Long Beach, Calif.
Republican candidate Martha Flores Gibson of Long Beach, Calif.John Brecher / NBC News

There are only 44 Latino Republican state legislators out of 3,975 GOP legislators nationwide.

The Republican State Leadership Committee is trying to change that arithmetic with its $3 million Future Majority Project which it launched last year with the goal of finding and financing at least 100 new Latino legislative candidates.

In Indianapolis, Ind., one of them, AJ Feeney-Ruiz, is making a bid for an open state House seat that has been held by a Democrat. Indiana’s Republican-controlled legislature used redistricting to make the district friendlier to a Republican candidate. It also has the highest percentage of Latinos of any state legislative district in the state.

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Feeney-Ruiz is part owner of a technology firm that helps connect nonprofit businesses and volunteers and he also works as a media and public advocacy consultant. He used to work as a spokesman for Todd Rokita, the former Indiana Secretary of State who’s now a House member.

In an interview at the GOP convention, Feeney-Ruiz said, “Because of the gridlock you see in the federal government, you see all the action happening at the state level: you see budgets being balanced, you see great educational reforms going through -- especially in Indiana: We’ve just been going gangbusters, setting the stage for future success for Indiana.”

He said, “So when you’re talking about the ‘farm team,’ you’re talking about a lot of folks who are very passionate, engaged at the local level, creating these laws that should be models for the federal government – if they ever get over the gridlock.”

Feeney Ruiz is member of a party that includes Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed a law tightening enforcement against illegal immigrants, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who wants more deportations of illegal immigrants – some of whom are the cousins, nephews and nieces of Latino voters.

In June, President Barack Obama made an election-year appeal to those same Latino voters by announcing that his administration won’t deport illegal immigrants under age 30 who came to the United States, or were brought to the United States before reaching age 16. “That’s not a uniquely Obama idea – that was originally a Republican idea that was proposed by President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain,” Feeney-Ruiz said. “It’s unfortunate how the president went about it, but I think it’s an idea that’s been developing over years that the Republican Party has been trying to figure out and get its hands around it, how best to execute that in the most efficient and fairest way possible.” 

Asked about GOP leaders such as Brewer, Feeney-Ruiz diplomatically said, “I think there’s a learning process on both sides. I think Republicans need to understand that this is something that happened in the 1970s” – the influx of illegal immigrants and their children. “You don’t ever want people to live in the shadows. You don’t want to have a society that lives outside of mainstream society. From a fiscal point of view, you want to be able to collect that income tax (on the income earned by illegal immigrant workers) sufficiently; you want to be able to educate the children…”

Another Future Majority Project hopeful, Hector Reveron, is running for a state Senate seat in East Hartford, Conn. Reveron works as a technician for jet engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney.

If Reveron wins, he will be the first Latino of either party to serve in the Connecticut State Senate.

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But why be a Republican in such a heavily Democratic state? “My moral values and my views on economic policy are more represented by the Republican Party,” he replied. “If the Democrat Party was more centered in Connecticut than they are now – they are so far left that the only thing they believe in is taxing us for any type of revenue that they can get. And it’s driving our companies out of the state. That’s what’s really hurting us, so I cannot be with a group that continues to push that kind of philosophy.”

Another Northeastern Latino who’s part of the Future Majority Project is Peterson Vazquez, running in a New York state Assembly district representing part of the city of Rochester and the towns of Henrietta and Chili. The seat is held now by Democrat Harry Bronson. Roughly 40 percent of the voters in the district are Latino.

Vazquez, an Army veteran, founder of a firm called Simply Served Process Servers, Inc., and a former Internal Revenue Service revenue agent, left the IRS to run for office. His wife is an attorney.

Vazquez explained his run for office by saying, “I grew up in the neighborhood that I’m trying to represent. And when I got out of the Army in 2003, I was a single father, I bought the house I grew up in, I was excited to put my kid in the same school I went to – but then when I got there and I started getting my kid registered and looking around the community, I realized that the community go worse. And the representation just wasn’t been there and hadn’t been there.”

He said as he goes door-to-door to meet voters, “A lot of people say to me, ‘If I elect you, you’re a Republican and we’re going to end up losing entitlements, we’re going to end up losing some of the benefits we have,’ and then it reverts back to the national politics and the people running on the Democrat side where a lot of promises are being made. And I remind them of one thing: I tell them, ‘I grew up where you are today.’ I try to do everything I can to make them understand that the control of their future, their success -- where they go and where their kids go -- is in their hands. What the Republican Party tries to do is remind them that it takes hard work to achieve goals. It’s not so much taking away entitlements; it’s using entitlements as a hand-me-up so that they can better themselves and the future of their children.”

If the Republican State Leadership Committee’s investment in candidates such as Vazquez pays off, perhaps at some future GOP convention, Vazquez will be standing where Rubio stands Thursday night.