Tito the (Party) Builder

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The GOP goes shopping for minority voters.

Mary Katharine Ham

March 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 24

There is a political missionary in the grocery stores of Prince William County, Virginia, waiting to proselytize while shoppers are sorting through out-of-season avocados.

“Hello, I’m Tito, and I’m a Republican,” he announces, noticeably without the solemn tone of an Alcoholics Anonymous introduction. But Tito’s simple declaration, delivered in the Colombia native’s heavily accented English, is enough to make some fellow Latinos think he might need a 12-step program.

Tito Munoz, a naturalized American citizen who owns a construction business in Northern Virginia, gained prominence in the waning days of John McCain’s 2008 campaign as the second–and arguably more charismatic–coming of “Joe the Plumber.”

He was overheard facing off with reporters at an October rally about their treatment of Joe Wurzelbacher. “I am Joe the Plumber!” Munoz said, crystallizing the McCain-Palin message and securing his spot in the campaign firmament as “Tito the Builder.” He later appeared on Fox’s Hannity and Colmes in his trademark shades, which he wore “to intimidate Colmes,” he said.

Today, Munoz is trying his hand at another job that might require a hard hat–reaching minorities for the Republican party. That tough mission got even tougher in Prince William County, an outer suburb of Washington, D.C., when a 2007 debate over stricter immigration enforcement pushed by Republicans became a microcosm of the fiery national discussion.

A local website run by pro-enforcement activists was notorious for calling illegal immigrants “parasites” and “invaders.” Its opposite number, a group called Mexicans Without Borders, pushed for “conquista” at rallies. The 12-hour-long public meetings/shouting matches are a memory, but divisions remain, and local Republicans, led by Munoz, are determined to make inroads during this lull in the debate.

“We have a terrible brand right now among .  .  . Latin American communities,” says Milt Johns, a Republican member of the Prince William County school board, speaking to a group of about 40 who gathered at Munoz’s house for a Saturday meeting.

Munoz, who was not involved in the Prince William debate, doesn’t think pro-enforcement activists were driven by xenophobia, as opponents claimed, but the political reality is that a few activists’ words damaged the perception of the entire party. “You know that the bad news [is what] travels fast,” Munoz said. “Those things hit the [immigrant] community quick.”

His efforts are not about solving the national immigration problem, Munoz says, which is a federal responsibility, but about repairing ties and forging new ones with communities that are quickly becoming necessary to win elections in Northern Virginia. “I’m committed to do whatever it takes to be inclusive,” Munoz said, though he doesn’t think that means a capitulation on immigration enforcement. He favors a “high wall with a wide gate” approach, which would allow more immigrants to come and go legally.

He has an unlikely ideological ally in Corey Stewart, the county board’s staunch pro-enforcement chairman, who said in a phone interview he doesn’t think Republicans have to abandon a principled pro-enforcement stance to attract Latino voters. “You don’t just give in and say, ‘we’ll turn a blind eye to illegal immigration’ just like the Democrats do,” Stewart said. “You meet and sit down with them and make them realize that this is not a personal thing against Hispanics.” A representative from Stewart’s office attended the meeting at Munoz’s house.

The crowd in Munoz’s living room, munching on homemade guacamole and tacos, has its share of white male Republican archetypes, but it also boasts young immigrants like Clio Long, a native of Milan who became a citizen last May. There is Rafael Lopez, a 30-year-old running for delegate to the state assembly. Lopez’s sister Lenny, a graduate student at George Mason University, and 19-year-old Joseph Taylor want to reach young people they feel the Republican party has written off.

Munoz warns that the work of outreach will not always be comfortable, but that people in other countries risk far more to speak their minds. As a teenager in Colombia, he worked briefly in the peasant movement of the 1970s, until members of his family were attacked and killed for their involvement. He came to America on a student visa and later got political refugee status before becoming a citizen. “Here, it’s easy,” he says. “You can talk about what you believe and you can participate in politics and they don’t kill you. Here, it’s a piece of cake.”

The outreach group is still in its nascent stages, but Munoz is convinced personal contact is the way to go. He is advising the leaders of three other groups in Ohio, Texas, and Florida, all of which are holding similar meetings. He volunteers to accompany anyone who needs a translator to local church services and soccer games and takes candidates to events where they can meet minority voters. He tutors legal residents who want to become citizens.

“I’m mentoring them on what America’s about,” he said, with a special emphasis on Thomas Jefferson. “For me, he’s the man.”

There’s evidence in the small Republican freshman class of the 111th Congress that Munoz’s approach can be effective. In a year of dim Republican prospects, two newcomers took their spots in the House thanks partly to their success with minority voters–Aaron Schock of Illinois and Anh “Joseph” Cao of Louisiana.

Schock, at 27 the youngest member of the House, started his political career on his local school board before defeating a four-term Democratic incumbent for a state legislative seat in a district that is 24 percent African American. “Time and time again I visited black churches .  .  . and time and time again I heard, ‘We’ve never had a Republican candidate even come here and show us the respect of asking for our vote,’ ” Schock said. “No party can be a ruling majority if they arbitrarily rule out certain demographics of our population.”

The shift wasn’t quick, but Schock’s support in the black community went from 4 percent during his first run for the legislature to 39 percent in his reelection campaign two years later.

Cao, who came to America as a refugee from Vietnam at age 8, took advantage of the scandal surrounding incumbent William Jefferson, who had been indicted on multiple felony counts. Despite a Democratic registration advantage and a 62 percent black population, he upset Jefferson, 50-47, becoming the nation’s first Vietnamese-American representative, and the only congressional Republican representing a predominantly black district. The key for Cao, said his campaign manager Ruth Sherlock, was a personal touch that transcended party prejudices.

“True conservatives understand that conservatism transcends all culture,” says Artemio Muniz, a 27-year-old starting his own outreach group in Houston, Texas. Muniz and Sherlock say they’re encouraged by the election of Michael Steele, the African-American former lieutenant governor of Maryland, as chairman of the Republican National Committee. The RNC, still in flux, has not yet proposed specific plans for outreach to minority voters, but Steele’s acceptance speech hinted at his approach.

“We’re going to bring this party to every corner, every boardroom, every neighborhood, every community, and we’re going to say to friend and foe alike, we want you to be a part of us,” Steele said in his speech.

“It’s almost like [Steele’s election] legitimizes our mission,” Muniz says. “Now we know that the GOP is serious about outreach and about going after everybody.”

Muniz’s parents came from Mexico illegally but got amnesty in 1986. His father worked two jobs to get them off welfare, while Muniz turned to political philosophy to avoid the pitfalls of life in his rough neighborhood. “While everyone was joining gangs and stuff, I just read,” he says, ticking off works by the Founding Fathers, Tocqueville, and Burke. “It’s like a weird anomaly. I’m this guy in the ‘hood and I just read books all the time.”

His activism is fueled by a belief that many Hispanic voters are naturally conservative who come to America precisely because they were unsatisfied with the left-leaning governments and socialist experiments of their home countries. “These are people who have a bad taste in their mouth from failed governments,” he says.

The specter of socialism is also in the air at Tito Munoz’s house. “I’m not even into politics. I’d much rather just do my job or go dancing, which I love,” says Long, the newly minted American citizen from Italy and a neuropsychologist. “But I really felt compelled. I lived in Europe. I’ve seen how Europe has been destroyed by socialism.”

As if on cue, Munoz reveals to the crowd that the pink pony piñata hanging over his kitchen is not a remnant of a child’s birthday party, but the finale of the evening. “It’s a socialist donkey,” Munoz says with a smile, pronouncing “socialist” with the same syllabic intensity Arnold Schwarzenegger gives the word “California.” “I’ve got you in my sights now, socialist donkey!”

He brandishes a stick at the piñata for a picture before handing the work off to the kids in the room. When it bursts, a pile of Monopoly money and candy falls to the floor. “Oh no, the socialist donkey has bailed out all over the floor,” Munoz shouts as the room laughs along. “It doesn’t matter where the money goes. It just goes everywhere!”

Munoz, Muniz, and Long all radiate an infectious excitement that bodes well for their efforts. It remains to be seen whether, under new RNC leadership, their charm is the only currency they’ll be working with.

But no matter what happens, Tito will be building in Virginia. “For those who think that Tito is gonna be quiet, they’re wrong,” Munoz said. “It’s up to us to reach out to whoever we can grab. Whoever we can change, and grow this party, make it big.” One grocery store aisle at a time.

Mary Katharine Ham is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.