By: Mike Madrid
Fifteen years ago I had the opportunity to work on my first Presidential campaign. The George W. Bush campaign became the first Presidential campaign in history to incorporate a Latino strategy directly into its overall campaign. Let me explain what I mean by that…
Fifteen years ago I had the opportunity to work on my first Presidential campaign. The George W. Bush campaign became the first Presidential campaign in history to incorporate a Latino strategy directly into its overall campaign. Let me explain what I mean by that. For years national races had small symbolic ‘Viva Kennedy’ or ‘Viva Ford’ efforts that included a quick photo op in heavily Hispanic precincts – usually involving a sombrero, fieldworkers and tamales. Sure, national campaigns had issued press releases in Spanish before – even run some ads but nothing like what happened in 2000 had ever happened before – or since.
That campaign was different. There were no ‘Viva’ campaigns. There were no purely symbolic stops. For the first time in history a Presidential campaign strategy was integrated into the overall strategy. It became, as the national press corps referred to it at the time, the ‘seamless’ campaign. There was no differentiation between our Hispanic efforts and every other aspect of the campaign.
It was on this campaign that I first had the opportunity to meet Lionel and to see him work. To see someone like me advising a future President, guiding a national narrative and defying conventional wisdom through sheer talent was an inspiration for a young Hispanic operative who thought maybe I could be a political consultant too.
For the first time in that campaign Latino staff worked not just as volunteers and advance, but, literally at every level of the operation. In fact, the first staff on the payroll were Latinos and at the top, advising George W. Bush was Lionel Sosa. Never before had any campaign – Democrat or Republican – registered and turned out Hispanic voters in the Iowa Caucuses. Never before had Spanish radio been purchased in places like Des Moines, Dubuque and Davenport. For the first time in a Presidential campaign Spanish language television ads appeared in places like Concord New Hampshire, Raleigh North Carolina, and Memphis Tennessee…and for the first time there was an extraordinary national ad campaign targeting Hispanic voters in English as well. Even in the deepest blue state of California, where the Al Gore campaign didn’t spend a dime, Lionel’s ads were running on Univision in Los Angeles – among the most expensive, Latino, immigrant, Democratic media markets in the country. In Los Angeles Lionel’s ads increased the GOP share of the Latino vote by a stunning 22%. And in every market across the country the campaign followed his lead, executed his strategy and significantly over performed historical standards.
Being my first Presidential campaign I didn’t realize just how unprecedented all of this was. I just figured both parties had finally figured it out with Republicans leading the way. Of course I was wrong since no campaign – Democrat or Republican – has run a campaign like that since. But more importantly I was wrong because even today neither party has anyone who comes close to successfully developing messaging and ads in as many Senate, gubernatorial and Presidential campaigns focused on Latino voters across the country as Lionel.
Think about that for a moment. As a Latino media consultant successfully practicing his trade for candidates since the early 1970’s Lionel Sosa truly has no peers. No one in our profession has communicated with more Hispanic voters than Lionel by a wide measure. More than any other political consultant in history he has defined our political system to the emerging Latino electorate.
Despite all of that, as you’ll see momentarily, Lionel Sosa is a soft spoken humble man. In a profession that values a bare knuckle street fighting mentality, Lionel rose to the top of his profession with a gentlemans demeanor, a sincere personal touch but a fierce effectiveness in his medium. Make no mistake, there is a warrior behind that bow tie and calm voice.
In fact when I called Lionel to tell him that the AAPC would be inducting him into the Hall of Fame, I immediately started listing off the names of those I wanted to have personally acknowledge his work – President Bush (both of them – and possibly a third), Speakers Gingrich, Hastert, more Governors, Senators and Congressmen than I could count.
Ultimately he would decide that we should just show some of his reel. “Mike,”, he said ” maybe we should just have my work speak for itself.”
And why not?
Lionel Sosa’s work has been speaking for itself for decades.
It’s been said that while Fred Astaire is recognized as one of the great dancers of all time it was his partner, Ginger Rogers that deserves most of the credit since she was doing everything he was doing only backwards and in high heels.
I would submit that for all of the men and women we have honored with our highest level of recognition – tonight we induct the first among us to have mastered our craft in two languages and in two cultures.
While Lionel is undoubtedly the first man to bring Spanish language mediums into common practice on state and national campaigns – he was also among the first to demonstrate that targeting Hispanic voters in English was as, or more, effective as Spanish if you understood and could connect in both Hispanic and popular American culture. Lionel wrote the book on how to have a political conversation with two cultures in the same medium at the same time.
No seriously, Lionel literally wrote a book on how to do it. In fact, he’s written a few books including “The Americano Dream”, Think and Grow Rich: A Latino Choice”, and “The children of the Revolucion: How the Mexican Revolution changed America”. In each of these works Lionel captures the optimistic and ascendant nature of Latino thought so regularly missed or ignored by today’s popular political narrative. In these stories, we discover the heart of the Latino soul, rich in spirit, patriotism, and a fierce commitment to the United States.
As the sweeping demographic changes we are experiencing continue to redefine our country, and as this specialty becomes more common place in American campaigns it’s easy to forget how transformational and unprecedented that national campaign was when I first met Lionel fifteen years ago.
It’s even more impressive when you learn that by the year 2000 Lionel had already been transforming political campaigns for decades in this way.
Often unrecognized and certainly not fully appreciated Lionel was that rare person who was so far ahead of his time the only person he could compete with was himself.
More than any media consultant I have worked with in my career, Lionel Sosa’s work is defined by the politics of aspiration. His uncanny ability to capture the American Dream as envisioned through the eyes of the immigrant, the poor, the struggling family working to build a better life has allowed him to introduce his clients to Latino voters in a way that would serve both major parties well today – especially during these times of mutual anger and negativity.
Nowhere in his extraordinary body of work do you see the vitriol, name calling, blame, scapegoating, demagoguery or scare tactics that both Democrats and Republicans commonly employ today to mobilize Latino voters. That he has been so overwhelmingly successful in that way should be a lesson to us all.
That aspirational quality doubtlessly comes from a moment in Lionel’s childhood where he tells a story about being a young 13 year old son of immigrants in a poor Mexican family watching the national conventions on TV. ‘What are Democrats and Republicans?’ He asked his parents.
Like many of us young Latinos who grew up in poor and working class Democratic families he was told ‘Well Lionel – Democrats are poor and Republicans are rich’.
“Then I want to be a Republican!”, he said.
I have no doubt that from the moment that young Mexican kid established in his own mind where he wanted to go in life, he innately grasped the politics of who we as Latinos aspire to be in America. His experiences, his life, his understanding was indelibly etched into the mind of a man whose creativity in communicating with Hispanics is truly unmatched in our profession.
Two decades after that moment, as a struggling ad-agency owner, Sosa helped U.S. Senator John Tower win his 1978 re-election bid with 37% of the Hispanic vote; no Republican in Texas had ever won more than 8%. Soon clients like Bacardi rum, Dr Pepper and Coors beer came seeking his advice on how to woo the Latino market, eventually turning Sosa & Associates into the largest Hispanic advertising agency in the U.S.
Lionel will tell you that his big moment came during that John Tower US Senate race in Texas in 1982. It was to be just the beginning of a career that would see Lionel introducing the conservative movements messages and messengers successfully into the homes of millions of Latinos nationwide.
President Ronald Reagan would ultimately reach out to Lionel and asked him to formulate his emergent brand of conservatism. A brand that would define a generation of conservative thought for the Nation. Reagan looked to Lionel to convey that message to the Hispanic community. Lionel’s work would see Latino voters join the national blue collar working class coalition we now refer to as “Reagan Democrats”. Reagan, of course, would go on to tally an unprecedented number of Hispanic votes.
Time and time again over the decades Lionel Sosa’s campaigns have surpassed what the experts considered possible – regularly having Republicans over perform historical expectations of what experts throughout the country could possibly achieve with immigrant voters. And he did the same with second and third generation Latinos.
While we recognize Lionel’s work tonight as a political consultant we could also be recognizing his work in an array of areas. He is an accomplished painter, novelist, businessman, husband, teacher and thinker. In 2005 TIME magazine named Lionel Sosa one of the 25 most influential Hispanics in America.
Every time they set a bar for Lionel Sosa he exceeded it. Every time he was told it could not be done he did it. Every time we set a new level of what was possible with Latino voters it was Lionel Sosa moving the needle. Frustratingly, every time I thought I was cutting new ground with Latino voters I would learn that Lionel had done something similar twenty years ago.
Lionel, your work has been an inspiration to me over my career. You have been a mentor, a business partner and a friend. From today forward every Latino political consultant in the country – and there are a lot in the pipeline, both Republicans and Democrats – will look to the work you have done, the changes you have made in our country, our profession and our people and see a bit of themselves in this profession. Today your work sets the standard for all of us to work to achieve. It is my sincere honor to invite you up to accept our associations greatest honor and accept your induction as the first Latino in our organizations history to have a place in our Hall of Fame.
I would be remiss if I did not mention his amazing wife Kathy – who deserves and has achieved so much in her own right. To watch them work together is a special gift.