Things got heated at breakfast at the Coronado Bay Hotel in San Diego at this year’s annual conference of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. Cristóbal Alex, head of the liberal nonprofit Latino Victory Project, tangled with his rightwing counterpart, Daniel Garza, president of a group called the Libre Initiative, at the breakfast plenary. Both men were raised in Texas by immigrant Mexican workers, but that’s where their similarities end.
“I like Daniel,” said Alex. “I think he’s a nice guy. But I don’t like to see the Libre Initiative, with Koch brothers’ money, attack Latino candidates who are champions of things like immigration reform. That bothers me.”
Alex was referring to a series of ads that attacked Hispanic Democratic candidates such as Representatives Pete Gallego of Texas and Joe Garcia of Florida. Various reports state that Libre has spent $700,000 on the anti-Gallego and anti-Garcia ads alone.
Garza fired back with talking points from the Koch brothers’ playbook.
“We’re not going to back down,” he told the conference attendees. “We don’t want centralized government! We don’t want collectivism! We don’t want bigger government!”
But Latino Democratic activists see things differently.
“The Libre Initiative has no interest in actually solving problems,” says Anthony Gutiérrez, Gallego campaign spokesman. “It exists to play dirty politics and lie to the Latino community.”
The Libre Initiative—whose name obviously derives from the Spanish word for “free”—was created in 2011. Garza told the conference that it is “a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advances the principles and values of economic freedom to empower the U.S. Hispanic community by developing a network of Hispanic pro-liberty activists.”
But it is not exactly nonpartisan when you look at its major players. Garza is a former George W. Bush staffer. The group’s national strategic director is Jose Mallea, formerly the campaign manager for GOP Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Its policy director, Jorge Lima, was once an adviser to former Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuño, who tried to mimic Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attack on the territory’s unions. And the group’s chief of staff, Andeliz Castillo, led outreach to Hispanic media for the Republican National Committee in 2008.
And when you look at Libre’s funding, you see the tentacles of the Koch brothers, who have spent millions of dollars funding rightwing groups through intermediaries like Freedom Partners and an outfit called the “TC4 Trust.” Libre is one of the recipients.
“Libre received $3.8 million from TC4 and Freedom Partners” in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And Yahoo News reported that Libre’s Arlington, Virginia, headquarters “also shares a floor in the same office building as Freedom Partners.”
Robert Maguire of the Center for Responsive Politics says this type of funding arrangement is typical of the Koch brothers. “The Koch network is unique because of the concentration of money and the lengths that they go to make the flows of money as complex as possible,” he says.
Two of the main issues on Libre’s agenda are denouncing the Affordable Care Act and opposing increases to the minimum wage. Ironically, Latinos stand to benefit more from expanding access to health care and raising the minimum wage than many other groups.
“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that Hispanics are twice as likely as non-Hispanic blacks and three times as likely as non-Hispanic whites to lack a regular health care provider,” the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project found in 2008.
And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20.2 percent of Latinos were working at or below the minimum wage in 2012, as compared, for instance, to 15 percent of African Americans.
“One study we’ve done,” says Mark Hugo Lopez of the Pew Hispanic Center, “shows that Latinos have been more supportive than the general public of a government that provides more services. That’s something that we consistently found over the years.”
On immigration reform, which is vital to many Latinos, the Libre Initiative promotes what it calls a “market-based” solution that emphasizes border security and work visas. Rather than supporting a “path to citizenship,” Libre emphasizes a “path to work,” which could lead to a class of workers with limited options for becoming citizens as they age, a system more like Kuwait’s than the one President Obama proposes. Most Latino voters (77 percent) oppose immigration reform without a path to citizenship.
When the disturbing crisis of unattended children crossing the border erupted, Libre spokesperson Judy Pino, appearing on Fox and Friends, blamed it on “the perception that the President of the U.S. has created, where he can, with a flip of the pen, change the rule of law at any time, circumvent Congress. . . . When you have that perception, you create a crisis.”
On its website, the Libre Initiative tries to soften its image with a series of gauzy and polished short videos called “Share the Dream.” They feature a New Mexico preacher named Pastor Mike Naranjo, who overcame alcoholism with self-reliance and religion. They also feature Libre’s national spokesperson Rachel Campos-Duffy and Garza himself.
With string music playing behind her and a picture of the sun shining on the Washington Monument, Campos-Duffy tells her family’s personal story. Then she adds: “I’m worried that government programs that are supposed to help Hispanics are actually doing harm. . . . A sense of entitlement and dependency on government is starting to take over.” (Campos-Duffy is married to GOP Representative Sean Duffy of Wisconsin.)
Garza’s three-and-a-half-minute video tells of how he and his family worked in the fields. “My father never took welfare,” he says, but got ahead because of self-reliance. Garza warns that folks are “caught in dependency that government offers,” which, he says, has “condemned their children to a life of mediocrity and subsistence. This is not the American dream. This is an American nightmare.” Garza says: “Advancing economic freedom is the best way to improve human well-being, especially for those at the bottom.” Taking an evangelical tone, he concludes: “The Libre Initiative is reaching the Hispanic community before they are lost forever.”
Certainly, some rightwingers have been trying to reach the Hispanic community since Ronald Reagan declared that Latinos were “natural conservatives.” And Newt Gingrich’s “The Americano” website and the Spanish-language ads produced by Karl Rove’s American Crossroads have been desperate efforts to try to bring back Latinos to the Republican Party in numbers comparable to the 44 percent that voted for George W. Bush in 2004.
But these efforts are not succeeding.
“The share of Latinos who say the Democratic Party has more concern for them has been over 50 percent for the last couple of years, and the share that say the Republican Party does has been at around 12 to 14 percent in recent years,” says Pew’s Lopez. “So there’s a big gap in what Latinos view as the party that’s more concerned for the community, and the gap has only grown in recent years.”
To fulfill its goal of outreach to the Latino community, Libre offers an array of social services, including free tax-preparing services, English classes, health and wellness checkups, and a free GED course.
But, by and large, the Libre Initiative is a message-delivery machine for the Kochs’ ideology.
Some of Libre Initiative’s website claims appear to be standard rightwing filler. When you click on the tab under “Issues” called “Resources,” you are taken to a page listing downloadable documents that are identical to those featured on the site of American Majority, another rightwing operation whose leaders have ties to the Koch brothers. That’s ironic, because when Garza spoke at the convention of Latino officials in San Diego, he claimed that “Univision is running left-slanted news packages on an 8-to-1 ratio,” a statistic he took from a study by Brent Bozell’s notoriously rightwing Media Research Center. (Bozell’s dad was an active member of the anti-civil rights John Birch Society, so extreme that it attacked even the Muppets as anti-capitalist.)
Libre’s 2012 tax documents show it paid two independent contractors big sums. It spent $500,000 on Mentzer Media Services, an ad-production group whose clients include the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity and Rove’s American Crossroads. It also spent $300,000 on the Miami-based advertising agency Noiseworks Media.
In 2012, Libre paid Garza almost $200,000, which he earned not in his much-vaunted free market, but from a Koch handout.
(Note: Despite repeated requests made to Garza and Libre’s communications director, Brian Faughnan, no interview was granted to The Progressive.)
Libre gets around. Its spokespeople have popped up on HuffPost Live and MSNBC. Garza’s op-eds have appeared in NBC Latino, the San Antonio Express, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Often media outlets do not identify his group as conservative or rightwing.
Garza was on the schedule for the Palm Springs Koch brothers gathering in January, and Mother Jones said he had arranged to meet there with Paul Foster, president of Western Refining, Inc., a man whose wealth is estimated by Forbes at $1.1 billion. The company is a crude-oil refiner and marketer that paid a $1.45 million settlement to the EPA for pumping excessive amounts of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and benzene into the air at its El Paso, Texas, refinery. El Paso County is 81 percent Latino.
Cristóbal Alex of Latino Victory hammers away at Libre’s connection with rightwing groups that are behind efforts to block voting rights of Latinos and other minorities. But he also finds it telling that Libre has no apparent position on protecting the environment.
“They call it economic freedom on their website, but it is essentially about removal of regulations,” says Alex. “You can tell a lot about a person by the company he keeps. And Libre keeps company with the Koch brothers, who stand to profit from hurting our environment because that’s where they literally make their money. It directly contradicts what the Latino community values.” u
Ed Morales is a contributor to The Nation and Rolling Stone and a contributing editor at NACLA Report on the Americas. He teaches at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. And he is the author of Living in Spanglish.