By Daniel Weintraub
SACRAMENTO Ruben Barrales is not your typical Republican success story. But he'd like to be.
The son of Mexican immigrants, Barrales spoke nothing but Spanish until he started school in Redwood City. Watching a small family roofing business that would cripple his father and critically injure his brother, Barrales took a different route. He graduated from the University of California, was elected at age 30 to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, ran for state controller and then managed a Silicon Valley civic group at the height of the high-tech boom. Now he's working in the White House.
Last month President Bush asked Barrales to be his liaison to state and local governments. In an administration that pledges to devolve power from Washington, D.C., to the states, counties and cities, Barrales could be well positioned to become a major player in the nation's capital.
That also would make him one of the California Republican Party's most influential Hispanics. A relatively small club, perhaps, but one that Barrales is hoping will soon grow less exclusive.
Since his emergence as a statewide figure three years ago, Barrales, 38, has been a quiet but persistent advocate for changing his party's approach to California's largest and fastest growing ethnic group. Don't pander, he says, but don't bash. Plenty of Hispanics are natural conservatives and will identify with Republican values if they're made to feel welcome. He draws from his working-class background as much as his ethnic heritage to show the way.
"There's a lot of room for improvement," Barrales says. "There's a growing awareness that it needs to be done well and done quickly. Another way to look at it is there is no where to go but up."
Barrales was a relatively unknown county supervisor in 1994 when then-Gov. Pete Wilson and other Republicans pushed Proposition 187 to end education, health and social services for illegal immigrants. Barrales cringed at the message the measure sent to Hispanics, especially the provision to deny public schooling to the children of men and women who came here to accept grueling, low-paid jobs that American citizens had no interest in doing.
Party leaders stressed that the initiative applied only to illegal immigrants. But they were politically tone deaf. The damage done hampers Republican prospects in California still and may yet for a generation.
"That was like a 2-by-4 that hit the party, in terms of the Hispanic community's reaction," Barrales said. "It came right at a time when Hispanics were emerging, when thousands of Hispanics decided to become citizens and register to vote. They looked at their options and saw the Republican Party as one they did not think was sympathetic to their concerns."
While his party colleagues were busy pushing ethnic wedge issues, Barrales was toiling in the trenches in San Mateo County. He helped start a charter school where students had a longer academic year, smaller classes and high performance standards. He focused attention and resources on the city of East Palo Alto to help reduce crime after 42 killings in 1992 made the city the "murder capital" of the United States. And he authored an ordinance that made his county the first in the state to adopt a debt limit.
It is on those issues - education, public safety, fiscal policy - where Barrales thinks Republicans can reach out to all voters, including Hispanics. Another one: giving local voters and their governments more control over their own destiny.
As a county supervisor, Barrales saw up-close how difficult it can be for local governments to deal with mandates and rules from Washington. Now he will be the person on the other end of those frustrations, and he plans to reduce them.
Under President Clinton, the local government liaison was part of the White House political shop, seen as a place to build and maintain support for the president among state and local elected officials. President Bush, while no stranger to politics, has moved the office into his policy operation, where Barrales is hoping it will play a more substantive role.
"It's more than just delivering letters or giving tours of the White House," he said. "The president, having been a governor, fully understands the challenges governors face and the opportunities governors have to make a difference. He understands the importance of having local autonomy and decision-making power at the most local level."
He also understands the importance of having Republican role models for Hispanics to admire and respect, who show that the party is serious about being more than the home of the shrinking white majority. Barrales makes a good prototype because he is not so much a Hispanic Republican as a Republican who happens to be Hispanic.
Barrales says he fully intends to return to California but has "absolutely no plans" to run for office again. Of course, a few months ago he had absolutely no plans to work in the White House.
"Things can change, as I've learned," he said. "I'm drawn to public policy. I want to make a difference."
He already has.
Reprinted from The Sacramento Bee, March 22, 2001