Candidates run Hispanic media gauntlet in Miami
The leading GOP presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, walked into the lion’s den today when they agreed – after much back and forth – to participate separately in a ‘Meet the Candidates’ event co-hosted by Univision Network, the nation’s largest Spanish-language broadcast news outfit.
Univision is considered Public Enemy No. 1 by many in the GOP for its strong pro-immigrant advocacy on issues such as the DREAM Act and the deportation of undocumented immigrants.
The network is owned by a consortium led by Haim Saban, the billionaire head of New York private equity firm Saban Capital Group, who is reportedly a close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton and a major Democratic Party donor. GOP strategists describe him as the liberal media’s answer to Wall Street Journal owner and fellow billionaire Rupert Murdoch.
The candidates had agreed to boycott the network early in the campaign after Univision News ran an embarrassing story last summer about the past misdeeds of the brother-in-law of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a rising star in the GOP who is a Miami Cuban.
Rubio’s staff did not question the accuracy of the story, which detailed how his brother-in-law, Orlando Cicilia, was sentenced in 1989 to 25 years in prison for cocaine trafficking and released early, in 2000. The senator, who was only a teen at the time, was not implicated in the case.
But Rubio’s staff say the story was an inappropriate and irrelevant intrusion into the senator’s personal life, accusing the network of dredging it up for political purposes. The network responded that the story was legitimate given that Cicilia remains close to the Rubio family and has been invited to accompany the senator at public events.
Rubio’s camp took it one stage further, accusing Univision of trying to “extort” the senator by offering to soften or kill the story if the senator appeared on the network’s top Sunday news program.
Rubio’s allies, led by his close friend and fellow Cuban-American member of Congress, David Rivera, called on all the Republican presidential contenders to boycott a planned GOP debate on the network on Jan. 29, two days before the Florida primary vote.
The candidates quickly agreed to join the boycott, perhaps more than happy to dodge a debate in which they would likely be grilled about the GOP’s hard line on immigration enforcement by the network’s Mexican-born anchor, Jorge Ramos, who has a huge following among Hispanics nationwide.
For its part Univision adamantly denied the accusation of extortion, and the network was largely exonerated by lengthy articles in The New Yorker and the Columbia Journalism Review, which found no basis for the accusation. The network privately suspects that the whole incident was deliberately trumped up by GOP strategists in a misguided attempt to scrap the debate and teach Univision a lesson, network insiders say.
The candidates later agreed to a debate on Jan. 26 hosted by CNN’s Spanish channel, CNN en Espanol, which has a much smaller audience and a less strident position on immigration.
However, the boycott began to crumble when some in the GOP questioned the wisdom of ignoring Hispanic voters. It is widely believed by pollsters that the GOP needs to win at least 35-40 percent of the fast-growing Hispanic vote in order to win the general election.
As the polls narrowed over the last two weeks, the candidates began to waver. In stepped the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which represents nearly 3 million business owners nationwide, and last weekend, after a flurry of phone calls, Romney and Gingrich agreed to sit down with Ramos.
Gingrich, in his appearance, seemed relaxed and even tried out a few words in Spanish, saying that he was taking classes. “You’re tough,” he joked with Ramos. “I like softer questions.”
Romney’s separate encounter with Ramos ended up being equally friendly. Romney found he had to defend himself more from attacks by Gingrich, who has called him “anti-immigrant,” than by Ramos. Romney responded, saying, “I like immigration,” and stressed he was in favor of “more legal immigration.” While he sympathized with the plight of DREAM Act students, he said he didn’t see why they deserved the right to in-state tuition. If they couldn’t afford expensive universities, they should settle for a community college.
He also got some laughs when he answered a question about whether he considered himself Mexican American because his father was born in Mexico. “I would love to be able to convince people of that, particularly in a Florida primary,” he said. “I don’t think people would think I was being honest with them.”
Photo credit: Mitt Romney looks on as Newt Gingrich speaks during the Republican Party presidential candidates debate in Sioux City, Iowa, December 15, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Young