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, Sosa had watched his father slave for endless hours as the operator of a laundry and dry cleaners. Steered by “well- intentioned” teachers who taught their Hispanic charges to “be good with our hands,” Sosa developed his aptitude in art. At age nineteen, he took his first job as a sign painter. “My story is one of hard work, energy, ambition, aggressiveness, stick-to-itiveness, huevos,” he wrote.
That ability to move so effortlessly between cultures explains why Sosa was once chosen as Adweek’s Advertising Executive of the Year. In 1995, having sold his interest in Sosa, Bromley, Aguilar, Nobel, and Associates so he could retire, Sosa joined GarciaLKS, a firm founded by his wife, Kathy, and their friend Luis Garcia. Among other things, the move showed that Sosa hasn’t lost touch with his roots. Employees of the thirty-person agency, whose offices have a family feel to them, gather twice a week for lunches cooked by Sosa’s housekeeper, Lupita.
Sosa first used his advertising talents in the political world in 1978, when Republican U.S. senator John Tower, concerned that his Democratic challenger, Bob Krueger, spoke fluent Spanish, asked for help in appealing to Hispanic voters. That election solidified Sosa’s reputation nationally as a Hispanic advertising whiz. When the votes were counted, Tower won by only one half of 1 percent but claimed 37 percent of the Hispanic turnout. Historically, Texas Republicans had claimed less than 8 percent. Word spread, and Coca-Cola and Coors beer soon hired his agency for advertising campaigns that would target Hispanics. Other political accounts would also follow: Ronald Reagan, George Bush the elder, and the Republican party all had Sosa devise TV campaigns for them.
Sosa, who says he is still the only Republican in his family, realizes that he is bucking a deeply imbedded cultural bias when he asks Hispanics to vote Republican. “My number one rule is that I don’t try to convert them to the Republican party,” he says. “‘Vote Republican’ is a tougher sell.” What’s easier, he says, is asking them to vote for a specific candidate by “tying Republican conservative values to conservative Latino values.” So, in the Bush television ads, “we talk about what’s important to Hispanics: education, family, creating an environment in which you can achieve what you want to achieve because there aren’t going to be obstacles in your way.”
If that seems awfully generic, Sosa is the first to admit it. His favorite Bush ad in 1998 was a soft sell, he says, with Hispanic singer Emilio (whom Sosa calls the Garth Brooks of tejano) crooning to images of Bush walking in shirtsleeves in a Hispanic neighborhood during a parade. “We just showed his interaction with people,” Sosa says. “Voters want to know, ‘Is he genuine? Do I like him? Does he like me?’ That’s an emotional connect. If you don’t do that, issues don’t matter.”
Sosa has his critics—or at least his work does. Ask Garry Mauro, a Democrat who was the land commissioner for sixteen years, managed Krueger’s race against Tower, chaired Bill Clinton’s Texas campaign, and challenged Bush in 1998. Mauro believes that Sosa’s soft sell approach reflects the Republican party’s poor record on issues directly affecting minority voters. “If I were him, I wouldn’t want to talk about bilingual education and showing proof of citizenship to register to vote either,” Mauro says. “Short of Bush distancing himself from the Republican congressional platform, I think he’s gonna have a hard time doing anything but suppressing [Hispanic] turnout.”
Still, Mauro says, “Lionel and George W. Bush did an excellent job of presenting an absolutely negative record to the Hispanic community.” That negative record, he explains, includes Bush’s support of requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote and failure to support mandatory kindergarten attendance and other education initiatives that would have benefited low-income communities.
But Mauro credits Sosa and other Hispanic advisers with keeping Bush from making fatal errors with Hispanic voters—for instance, they encouraged him to oppose the California proposal to eliminate government services for the children of illegal immigrants. “He’ll listen to Sosa when a lot of Republicans won’t,” Mauro says. Whether Hispanic voters will listen too remains to be seen.