Lionel Sosa was a preteen with an independent streak when his father brought home a television set for the family’s San Antonio home in 1952. When he turned it on, Republicans were anointing General Dwight D. Eisenhower as their nominee for president. The youngster was mesmerized. “My parents said, ‘Lionel, you can’t be for Ike—he’s a Republican,’” the 61-year-old Sosa remembers today. “‘We’ve always been Democrats. The Republicans are the party of the rich, and we’re poor. The Democrats are the party of the poor.’ I said, ‘Who the hell wants to be poor?’ That was my way of rebelling.” That rebellion raised eyebrows in the predominantly Hispanic homes of Sosa’s childhood neighborhood, where Franklin Roosevelt’s picture commonly hung alongside home altars to the Virgin Mary. But it also set the artist turned advertising executive on the road to phenomenal success as he learned to put the power of television to work for big-money clients like Coca-Cola and Burger King. In 1980 he founded Sosa, Bromley, Aguilar, Nobel, and Associates, which grew to become the largest Hispanic ad agency in the U.S., with annual billings of more than $100 million.
He also counted the Republican party and its top candidates among his clients. In 1998 Sosa helped Texas Governor George W. Bush win strong support for his reelection bid from Hispanic voters by linking his “compassionate conservative” philosophy to the traditional Hispanic values of family, faith, and the work ethic. But he did so in a creative way: Instead of finding issues that would appeal solely to Hispanic voters, Sosa took Bush’s message to Hispanics through language, music, the right spokespersons, and the right markets. He may as well have been selling soap.
Two years later, Bush is counting on that salesmanship to help his presidential campaign win the hearts and votes of the estimated six million Hispanics expected to participate in the coming presidential election. Sosa, currently