When the Trump reelection campaign kicked off its “Latinos for Trump” outreach effort in Miami this summer, it didn’t have the benefit of any Latino Cabinet members who might appeal to the large number of Spanish-speaking voters in the state. So it turned to the next best thing: Vice President Mike Pence.
It’s hard to imagine someone less suited to rally Latino voters than Pence, a non-Spanish-speaking white guy from Indiana, a state whose Latino population clocks in at a mere 7 percent. Yet there he was, walking on to the stage to Free’s “All Right Now” in a hotel ballroom full of cheering Latinos. “Hola Miami!” he cried, giving a big thumbs up. Speaking for 40 minutes, Pence hammered home Trump’s biggest selling points with Latino voters: the roaring economy, the low Latino unemployment rate, and the president’s robust opposition to socialism, especially in places like Venezuela.
The campaign needs Latino voters if it wants to carry states like Florida again in 2020, and it’s making a big push to make that happen. But it’s clear from the headliners at events like these that Trump has to dig deep to find appropriate, big-name Latino surrogates who are willing to make the case for him, given how unpopular his harsh immigration policies have been. The campaign’s Latino advisory board has just 20 members. By comparison, Mitt Romney’s list of Latino advisers topped 200 people in 2012, and his Hispanic steering committee included several former Cabinet members, current and former members of Congress, prominent former White House staffers, and top business leaders.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s Latino outreach was an ad hoc operation, and the organizing vacuum made room for his often-controversial grassroots supporters to fill the void. The original “Latinos for Trump” organization actually had nothing to do with the campaign. The current Florida representative of that group, Enrique Tarrio, is also the head of the Miami chapter of the Proud Boys, the alt-right group with ties to white nationalists.
Yet the jayvee Latino organizing efforts made up for lack of experience with enthusiasm for Trump. Even with the obvious liabilities of the candidate, Trump managed to win just over a quarter of the Latino vote nationally—slightly better than Romney in 2012—and 35 percent in the crucial swing state of Florida, where Latinos make up about a quarter of the population. Since then, Trump may have further solidified his support in the Latino community.
Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, who served as the chief of the Office of Citizenship, says, “They’re much better organized than four years ago. I believe Donald Trump is going to perform better with Hispanic voters than he did three years ago, because of his policies.” He says Latinos support Trump’s anti-abortion judges and his work on religious freedom, and he notes that the unemployment rate among Latinos is at a record low. “Hispanics are seeing that and they’re responding very, very well,” he says.
The Miami rally marked the transformation of the campaign’s Latino outreach from a scrappy, decentralized grassroots movement in 2016 to a well-oiled political machine. And conservative Latinos who have been involved with the campaign say some of the engine for that change is coming from an unusual source: Pence’s nephew, John.
Now a senior adviser to the Trump 2020 campaign, John Pence—the son of Mike Pence’s brother, Rep. Greg Pence (R-Ind.)—has received accolades and criticism for his pioneering work stage-managing and producing Trump’s big campaign rallies. In their book Let Trump Be Trump, former Trump campaign operatives David Bossie and Corey Lewandowski credit Pence with devising a “crowd-building process” that turned Trump’s campaign rallies into feats of logistical sophistication. According to former Trump White House staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman, Pence was also instrumental in orchestrating the inflammatory audience chants that have come to characterize Trump’s campaign rallies. Far from being spontaneous shows of support for Trump, she explained in an interview on MSNBC, these chants were started by section leaders whom Pence helped set up and who controlled how long they lasted. This included the one in July in North Carolina when the crowd chanted “Send her back,” referring to Somali-American Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). “All of that is coordinated and manufactured to stoke fear in this country,” Manigault Newman said. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment or for an interview with Pence for this story.
Pence, a white Indianan like his uncle, would seem an unlikely emissary from the Trump campaign to the Latino community. But he is the rare campaign official who also speaks Spanish. He majored in Spanish at the College of William & Mary in Virginia and spent a semester studying journalism at Argentina’s Universidad Nacional de La Plata, whose politics didn’t exactly align with Trump’s today. While he was there, the university gave former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez an award. Pence listened to his speech surrounded by students who cheered in response to Chavez’s attacks on the “Yankee empire.” He later taught English in Nicaragua, in a neighborhood that supported the Marxist president Daniel Ortega. Pence told the Daily Caller that the experience taught him firsthand how socialist policies had wrecked Latin America.
His Spanish skills and his background in some of the hotbeds of Latin American socialism have made him a natural leader in the campaign’s Latino outreach. Pence has been a regular presence on Spanish media, talking up the administration’s jobs numbers and its work in Venezuela to try to oust socialist president Nicolas Maduro. In September 2018, Pence further secured his position in the Trump firmament when he married a White House communications aide, Giovanna Coia, who is the cousin of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.
Jesus Marquez, a member of the Trump campaign’s Latino advisory board who hosts the only Spanish conservative radio show in Nevada, says that John Pence was in Miami for the campaign’s Latino outreach event and that the presence of both Pences is evidence of just how much importance the campaign is placing on attracting Latino voters. John Pence, he says, “was a very big part of that. He’s been an essential key of this coalition.”
The Latino advisory board consists of an assortment of supporters with varied backgrounds. A number of the people on the board denounced Trump in the past or dropped their support for him during the 2016 campaign because of his offensive comments about immigrants. In March 2016, when she was supporting Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the presidential race, the board’s co-chair, Florida Lt. Governor Jeanette Nunez, tweeted, “Wake up Florida voters, Trump is the biggest con-man there is.”
The board’s other co-chair is Margarita Paláu Hernández, who serves on the board of Herbalife, a dietary supplement company accused by investors and consumer watchdogs of being a pyramid scheme. An experienced GOP fundraiser, she was one of Jeb Bush’s biggest bundlers during the 2016 campaign. When Bush dropped out of the presidential race, she threw in with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), not Trump.
Then there’s Ramiro Peña, a Waco, Texas, pastor who was on Trump’s 2016 Hispanic advisory council but threatened to quit after Trump gave a harsh anti-immigrant speech in Arizona in September 2016. “I am so sorry but I believe Mr. Trump lost the election tonight,” Peña wrote a letter to the campaign. “The ‘National Hispanic Advisory Council’ seems to be simply for optics and I do not have the time or energy for a scam.”
His departure from the advisory board did not last long. Peña returned to the council the very next day, and he later made headlines for his television appearances promoting the debunked conspiracy theory that Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich had been murdered by people associated with Hillary Clinton. Before the vice president spoke at the June Latinos for Trump event, Peña kicked things off with a prayer.
Matthew Gomez is another curious addition to the advisory board. He’s a Texas resident and self-proclaimed Second Amendment activist who helped found the original grassroots group Latinos for Trump back in 2015, and most of the pictures in his Instagram profile are of piles of guns. His connection to the campaign seems to come by way of Trump’s sons Eric and Don Jr., who are reportedly hunting buddies.
Katrina Campins, a failed contestant from the first season of The Apprentice who went on to work for Trump International Realty, is also on the board.
Aguilar, of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, dismisses any suggestion that members of the Latino outreach team lack enthusiasm for the president, though he understands the initial reluctance of conservative Latinos to back Trump. “There is a genuine change of heart because we know who the man is,” Aguilar says. “I’m not saying that people love every time he tweets, or some of his comments. But people know who he is and what his policies are, and he’s authentic.”
Aguilar too withdrew his endorsement after the 2016 Arizona speech, but he is on board now after realizing that Trump is not as scary as Democrats said he would be. “He’s proven that his policies are not anti-Hispanic,” Aguilar says, “and that he’s not deporting every undocumented person in the country.” He won’t be surprised if Trump wins more than 40 percent of the Latino vote in Florida in 2020, as Trump fans Sen. Rick Scott and Gov. Ron DeSantis did in 2018.
In October, the Trump campaign scored some points by trolling Joe Biden over Latino voters. Biden had just rolled out his own Latino outreach effort, dubbed “Todos con Biden,” but failed to buy the web address for it. The Trump campaign scooped up TodosconBiden.com. Its home page now says, “Oops! Joe forgot about Latinos. Joe is all talk.” It directs visitors to the Trump campaign. It was a savvy move, but the Trump campaign doesn’t own all the social media accounts or domain names for its own Latinos for Trump efforts, either, including LatinosforTrump.com. That’s because most of the domain names related to Latino Trump supporters are owned by grassroots activists like Bianca Gracia, one of the co-founders of the original Latinos for Trump, who says she owns about 15 of them.
The campaign is actively trying to keep a lot of these people at arms’ length. It has sent legal threat letters to organizers of pro-Trump Latino groups instructing them to stop invoking the president’s name or using it for fundraising. Those efforts have alienated some of the original die-hard Trump backers in the Latino community.
Marco Gutierrez, one of the founders of the original Latinos for Trump, got his 15 minutes of fame during the campaign when he predicted during an MSNBC interview that if something didn’t change in immigration policy, “You’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.” Guiterrez, who is no longer involved with Latinos for Trump, has been sidelined from the official campaign. “When Trump announced his campaign, we didn’t know they were going to roll out their own Latinos for Trump,” he says. “They wanted us to say we were not part of the campaign.” Guiterrez still supports Trump but has contempt for the more professionalized Latino outreach, referring to at least one member of the advisory board as an “empty suit.”
“As the guy who has done most of the Latino outreach since Trump announced [his candidacy in 2015], I don’t think they’re really doing a good service to Trump,” he says, noting that the original Latinos for Trump Facebook page has more than 30,000 followers, nearly three times the number of the one established this year by the campaign.
Ileana Garcia, a local Florida TV personality, founded Latinas for Trump before Trump was even considered a serious candidate. The campaign eventually hired her to do outreach to Spanish media, and she later spent 10 months working as the deputy press secretary at the Department of Homeland Security. She too has been shut out of the 2020 campaign, even though she’s frequently called on by Spanish media to serve as a Trump surrogate. She says the campaign has been dismissive of many of the original grassroots supporters who helped put Trump into office. “I’m very surprised that no one’s embraced the people who go out there and do the work,” she says. “People who can’t get into the campaign are considered grifters, which I find not nice on their part.”
She learned only late in the game that the campaign was launching a Latino outreach effort on her home turf this summer. After some cajoling, she eventually scored an invite to the Miami event, where she introduced herself to John Pence. She politely reprimanded him for not including many of Trump’s earliest supporters in the campaign. She says she told Pence, “I’m surprised that none of the original people who were insulted, spit on, got fired from their jobs, are here.”
But neither Garcia nor Gutierrez blames Trump for their treatment by the campaign. They believe it’s been taken over by Washington insiders and that Trump is simply unaware of their exclusion. “If Trump had more of an understanding of what’s going on,” Gutierrez laments, “this would be working differently.”