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 a partner in GarciaLKS, a small San Antonio ad firm, and a consultant to Maverick Media, the Bush campaign’s ad agency, believes the strategy he hatched for the ‘98 race will help Bush triumph with Hispanics nationwide. “What we do is we take what’s important to Hispanics and what’s important to the governor and link them together,” Sosa says. “It’s all values-driven. He champions our values, and the connect happens.”
The assumption at the core of that strategy, however, is that a candidate can win over Hispanic voters by appealing to values, opportunity, and inclusion and by pushing specific government policies—on education, Social Security, and health care—that target a mostly economically disadvantaged class of immigrants and their offspring. In the past Sosa has earned success for Republican candidates with the premise that Latino “hot button” issues are no different from those of mainstream America: low taxes, economic and educational opportunity, and a strong national defense. But remaining mute on key issues affecting minorities and the poor carries its own risks in an age of growing sophistication among Hispanics toward political advertising. Once, any appeal to Hispanics—however vapid—succeeded by virtue of its own novelty. Today no serious candidate mounts a media campaign without some portion of it tailored specifically to minorities.
To Antonio González, the president of the William C. Velásquez Institute, a San Antonio-based nonprofit group that researches Hispanic voting patterns, that means candidates could have the effect of “neutralizing each other” by using a soft sell in Spanish in a campaign year when Hispanic voters may be looking for something more. “The successful campaign will be the one that will go deeper into the substance of issues and take the challenge of moving from form to substance,” González says. While he agrees that Hispanics have made giant strides in becoming fully assimilated Americans, González points to demographic data that suggest Hispanics are affected by different political issues than Anglo America. “The issues of Hispanics continue to be working-class issues, not middle-class issues,” he says. “Hispanics are more concerned about health-care access, not health-care reform. The HMO reform deal? That’s a middle-class issue. Two thirds of Hispanics don’t have an HMO. They’d like to have one to reform.”
Many Hispanic Republicans disagree. U.S. congressman Henry Bonilla of San Antonio, who represents a 67 percent minority district, says that “people who think you need a Hispanic agenda don’t understand the culture.” That culture is intrinsically conservative, Bonilla believes, and responds well to the traditional Republican emphasis on low taxes, cutting government regulations, and promoting the military. “Those things cut across all ethnic lines,” he says.
More important, Bonilla and other Hispanic Republicans say, is Bush’s appointment of Hispanics to top state positions, which is evidence of the governor’s philosophy of inclusion. They include Sosa, to the Texas A&M University Board of Regents last year; Al Gonzales, to the Texas Supreme Court; Tony Garza, to Secretary of State (he has since won election to the Railroad Commission); and Houston engineer Raul Romero, to the University of Texas Board of Regents. Romero, who attained the status of “Bush Pioneer” by personally raising $100,000 for the presidential campaign, has successfully applied Sosa’s blueprint to fundraising. Early in the campaign, when Bush was lining up political support, “we quietly did the same thing with Hispanic CEOs,” Romero says. “Why businesspeople? Because they create jobs and most closely identify with the governor’s values.”
No one disagrees that Hispanic advisers like Sosa are essential for helping a candidate navigate the uncharted waters of a foreign culture. Republicans have only to recall President Gerald Ford’s memorable visit to San Antonio: Ford gamely bit into a tamale—and bit and bit and bit—until someone took pity on him and showed him how to remove the impenetrable corn shuck. That moment ranks high in modern Texas political folklore, and it would never have happened if Lionel Sosa had been around.
In his memoir, The Americano Dream (Plume), which was published in 1998, Sosa traced his entrepreneurial path from hourly-wage earner to head of the largest Hispanic ad agency in the country. As a child,