OPED: Marco Rubio, meet 'Boxcar Ben'

Geraldo L. Cadava
Tribune News Service

One year before the 1980 general election, in November 1979, 10 Republicans competed for their party's nomination. Most held the usual credentials -congressman, senator, governor - and famous last names, such as Reagan, Bush and Dole. But among them also stood a man from Southern California named Benjamin "Boxcar Ben" Fernandez, a 53-year-old Mexican American born in 1925 in the rail yards of Kansas City, Kan. His parents were undocumented immigrants from Mexico and were so poor they lived in a converted railroad boxcar, where Fernandez was born. Hence his nickname.

As a child, Fernandez worked with his family picking sugar beets in the Midwest. He later became the first Latino Republican ever to run for president of the United States. (Marco Rubio is late to the party.) Fernandez was unknown nationally, but he was well regarded by the Republican establishment as a leader of grass-roots campaigns to organize Latinos in California, a fundraiser for Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign and a founder of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.

He was the most famous Latino conservative of his generation and paved the way for Latino conservatives today.

Boxcar Ben had the kind of up-by-the-bootstraps history that appealed to many Americans, making him an attractive presidential candidate. He was an agricultural worker and served in World War II. He enrolled in the University of Redlands and received an undergraduate degree in economics, paying for his education with his GI benefits. He worked for General Electric in New York while earning an MBA from NYU, and eventually returned to California to found the National Economic Development Association, a nonprofit that lent money to would-be Latino business owners when other lenders would not. He also helped establish several banks in Southern California.

The narrative that Fernandez told of his rise from poverty fit the worldview of many conservatives, including Latinos. His wealth was the result of hard work and individual initiative. When a friend told Fernandez that the Republican Party was for rich people, he responded, "Sign me up! I've had enough of poverty." He cited his "own rise from poverty as an example of what the free enterprise system can do for any hardworking American."

For Fernandez, the rhetoric of free enterprise also related to his vision for U.S.-Latin American relations. As a candidate in a period when leftist governments were on the rise in many Latin American nations, Fernandez said, "It is apparent to the whole world that the United States is surrounded by a positive communist movement across our soft underbelly." The only solution, he believed, was to root out communism and install capitalist democracies, often through financial and military backing of opposition groups in the countries taken over by leftists.

Boxcar Ben's positions on the economy and U.S. interventions in Latin America put him at odds with many Latinos. They wanted to succeed as well, of course, but they thought the government should play an important role in their upward mobility, helping to prevent discrimination against them, securing a fair wage and acceptable working conditions, and otherwise protecting their civil rights. And while many saw America as a refuge from the civil wars that afflicted their Latin American homelands, they also saw the role of the U.S. in these civil wars as imperialist and self-interested. They believed that U.S. support for right-wing strongmen was at least partially responsible for the violence they had fled.

Despite his differences with other Latinos, Fernandez claimed that his base would be the millions of Latinos who lived in the United States, and he developed an electoral strategy with them in mind. Puerto Ricans could vote in primary but not general elections as residents of an American territory. Fernandez therefore poured most of his resources into winning Puerto Rico's 14 delegates, who cast their ballots before primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. As a fellow Spanish speaker, Fernandez predicted that he would win Puerto Rico "by a landslide." Victory there would put him on the map nationally.

As it turned out, he finished fourth in Puerto Rico. George H.W. Bush came in first, winning 60 percent of the Republican primary vote.

If he had to do it again, Fernandez said, he would have followed the more traditional path of seeking support in Iowa and New Hampshire. In March 1980, down but not out, Fernandez ruminated about his lack of support among Latinos. "It's been a crushing experience for the campaign, our not being able to fire up the (Latino) community," he said. "Frankly, I thought the Hispanic community would be getting really excited right about now, but they haven't."

When Fernandez announced his candidacy in November 1978, he proclaimed, "I fully expect to be the next president of the United States." Eighteen months later he returned to his home, just in time to vote for himself in the California primary. He was $150,000 in debt, and he had the support of exactly zero delegates at the Republican National Convention. The Los Angeles Times stated that "political observers" knew that the Fernandez campaign was "hopeless" from the start, and called the vote he cast for himself a "quixotic gesture." But Fernandez said it was the high point of his campaign.

Fernandez conceded defeat later that month, a few weeks before the Republican National Convention in Detroit. By that point, fellow Californian Ronald Reagan was the clear winner.

Boxcar Ben offers important historical lessons for the Rubio campaign. The Republican establishment is so bullish on Rubio in part because he's Latino, a key demographic group. Boxcar Ben, however, demonstrates that Latino candidates can't count on Latino support, especially if their policies conflict with what most Latinos believe.

Rubio claims to embody something new in American politics. His campaign slogan is "A New American Century," and to Americans fed up with politics in general, he has said, "Now is the time to try a new approach" — presumably his. Rubio proposes to slash taxes, cut entitlement programs and offer a government credit to low-wage workers that would absolve corporations from paying their employees a minimum wage.

These proposals don't represent a new kind of conservatism. They're the same ones Latino conservatives - like all conservatives - have advocated since the days of Boxcar Ben.

Geraldo L. Cadava is an associate professor of history and Latina/Latino studies at Northwestern University. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.