Amid controversy, Al Cardenas, a mentor of Sen. Marco Rubio, was elected chairman of the American Conservative Union on Wednesday. A businessman and lawyer, Cardenas replaces Dave Keene, who has chaired the ACU since 1984. The ACU, through its foundation, runs the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which opens this week in Washington.
In an exclusive joint interview, Cardenas and Keene told Newsmax about the behind-the-scenes events leading up to Cardenas’ election as chairman. Cardenas laid out his vision for the future of the ACU and the conservative movement.
As outlined in my story "CPAC Sparks Controversy,"
in the weeks leading up to his election as ACU chairman, Cardenas, along with Keene, faced an array of challenges.
Some critics claimed that Cardenas was not socially conservative enough. Others attacked Keene for allowing GOProud, a gay conservative organization, to have a booth at CPAC. Still others criticized CPAC for not putting enough emphasis on national security issues in its selection of speakers.
Given that the conservative movement encompasses those who believe in strong national security, fiscal restraint, and socially conservative values, tensions will inevitably arise among those who wish to advance only one of those causes and don’t recognize the value of combining forces to win elections.
“Unfortunately, we have conservatives who think that the movement ought to be defined in terms of themselves,” Keene says. “But that’s not the way you build a very popular movement. It’s not the way you attract very many people. And it’s certainly not the way you win an election.”
Despite the claims of mostly anonymous detractors, Cardenas’ conservative credentials are solid.
Cardenas recalls that when he was 12, he and his family fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba with only the clothes they were wearing. He became a prominent lawyer in Miami and a successful investor. He essentially rebuilt the Republican Party in Florida, becoming its chairman and helping Jeb Bush win election as governor. He has been friends with Rubio ever since the newly-elected senator from Florida was a young lawyer in Cardenas’ law firm in Miami.
President George W. Bush chose Cardenas, who lives in Key Biscayne, to be a delegate to the inauguration of Óscar Nicanor Duarte Frutos as president of Paraguay. At a church service following the ceremony, Cardenas was within feet of Castro, who also attended the inauguration. Cardenas hissed at him in Spanish, “Murderer!”
“He turned around, and the two bodyguards he had behind him came towards me, and I was able to show them my U.S. delegate badge, and they reluctantly backed away,” Cardenas recalls. “That’s the only time I’ve seen him or met him, but at least I know my dad would be pleased.”
At the ACU board meeting, Keene resigned his ACU position to become president of the National Rifle Association, a position he assumes in April. The ACU’s 31 board members unanimously elected Cardenas to fill out the remaining year of Keene’s two-year term.
In recent weeks, Keene says, “A number of people outside and inside ACU were upset for a whole variety of reasons and were attacking me — but that’s nothing new. And then there were a lot of efforts to try to undercut Al’s credentials as a conservative, or to attack him, and there was an effort on the part of some board members to come up with an alternate nominee or challenger.”
However, “By the time we actually got to the board meeting, it was relatively clear that if they did come up with a challenger, Al had the votes to win,” Keene says. “So once we got into the board meeting, all the potential opposition collapsed, and instead he was elected without opposition.”
Keene is proud that he leaves the 1 million-member ACU on a sound footing. Besides CPAC, the ACU publishes an annual “Rating of Congress,” the gold standard for assessing the ideology of members of Congress. Registration for CPAC this year will be 11,000, up 16 percent from last year.
“We’ve got more organizations participating than at any time in the past, more people banging on the door to try and speak,” Keene says.
Keene is also one of the country’s most astute political observers. Just after Obama won the presidency, Keene told me for a Newsmax story that Obama “did not win for the reasons he thinks he did, and he can be counted on to overreach, helping to return Republicans to power.”
Keene says Cardenas has pledged to fulfill a promise Keene made to President Reagan to keep fees for attending CPAC low.
“One of Reagan’s first speeches outside the White House in 1981 was to that year’s CPAC,” Keene recalls. “There were always some in the White House even after that who didn’t think he ought to come, that he ought to go hang out with Wall Streeters or bankers or whoever presidents are supposed to hang out with. And he came anyway, and he gave famously a speech in which he related the story about an aide asking him why he was going to CPAC, and he used the lyrics from the country song, and he said, because I believe you dance with who brung ya.”
Keene says that at dinner that night, Reagan made his intentions clear: “You know, the reason I come here, the reason I think it’s so important, is I can go any place to meet rich people. I can go meet party grandees and all of that, all over the country. But this is the only place I can come where I can meet the people who actually made me president. It’s the only place I can come where the activists can also come. They don’t have to pay thousands of dollars; they can afford to come here, to get together with each other, and I can see them and talk to them.”
This year, many speculated that Sarah Palin would be the concluding speaker at CPAC. But as she has for the previous several years, she declined to attend, citing at the last minute scheduling conflicts. Instead, Sen. Allen West of Florida will be the final speaker on Saturday.
“We’re starting out with Michele Bachman as the opening speaker because of the tea party people,” Keene says. “Then we’ve got a whole batch of new senators and new congressmen, and we’re really focusing on the new energy of the new people coming to Washington.”
After considering various possibilities for the closing speaker, “We said what we need is an exciting, articulate member of the new group that’s come to Washington,” Keene says. “And Allen West, who is coming to CPAC for the third time, will be the perfect closer.”
As ACU chairman, Cardenas will be chairman of CPAC next year. Besides being a lawyer, Cardenas co-founded a wealth management company called Coral Gables Trust. He has an interest in two marinas and in real estate ventures.
“David is leaving on a high note,” Cardenas says, “because all of the efforts through the lean years have now been rewarded, and we have a more informed American population that truly believes they’re conservatives. I think the gap between self-identified conservatives and liberals is probably wider in our favor now than it’s ever been.”
Now, Cardenas says, “The movement has been reinvigorated by a lot of activists who were heretofore not participants in the political process. Of course, a lot of credit, most of that credit, goes to the tea party movement. And one of the encouraging things about the tea party movement is that it was formed because of their [conservative] ideology and not their party affiliation.”
Looking ahead, “One of our goals is to continue to work closely with this growing movement to reach out beyond the Beltway to other parts of America to talk about town hall meetings and other forums, to talk about the principles that we need to be demanding our leaders to pursue and follow,” Cardenas says.
Cardenas says he hopes to attract more Hispanics to the conservative movement as well.
“I’m proud of my culture, but I’ve always taken the position that what’s good for America is good for Hispanics,” Cardenas says. “My goal is to continue to make progress in that arena and to look at CPAC in the years to come and see a diverse attendance that’s more in keeping with our national population, in celebration of what the movement stands for.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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