Conservatives should consider this a warning sign. The Republican National Committee’s former Hispanic outreach director for Florida has left the GOP and registered as a Democrat, citing a “culture of intolerance.”
Pablo Pantoja is a decorated Iraq war vet who began his brief career with the GOP by volunteering for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and serving as field director for Marco Rubio’s triumphant 2010 senate campaign. He says he was originally drawn to the GOP “because of my business-minded mentality. Fiscal issues are important for all families—Hispanics and non-Hispanics.”
But a recent anti-immigration report from the right-wing think tank Heritage Foundation sent the Puerto Rican–born Pantoja heading for bluer pastures this week. Not only did the paper tally the cost of immigration form at an absurdly high $6.3 trillion, but its author, Jason Richwine, was found to have written an overtly racist dissertation in 2009 that labeled American immigrants as having lower IQs than those of white natives.
“This report form Heritage really hit me,” Pantoja, 33, says about his decision to decamp from the party, which he first announced to friends on Facebook. “It hit me. Immigration has made America great before and it will continue to do so. But when you look at their report, you start wondering, Wait a minute, is it really about the $6.3 trillion, or is it because they believe that Hispanics have a lower IQ and they're less of a human being?”
“I was hopeful after the [RNC] autopsy report, but where was the strong condemnation? Are they afraid to stand up to Heritage?” Pantoja asks. “Those comments, that research, is just completely, completely, completely unacceptable.”
For a party that belatedly recognizes the existential need to reach out to Hispanic voters, the defection of one of the staffers it hoped would build bridges to the fastest growing demographic in the United States should be a wake-up call.
But while the Heritage report was the spark that lit the fire in Pablo Pantoja, his decision to switch had been a long time coming. “It's a process, it's a progression,” Pantoja says. Beyond some conservative activist groups’ opposition to immigration reform, the party’s blocking of universal background checks also bothered the Army National Guard vet, who enlisted on September 7, 2001.
“I believe in the Second Amendment,” Pantoja says. “But maybe ‘a well-regulated militia’ doesn't necessarily mean that you need to have a 30-round clip in your magazine. Are we going to just completely forget about the capability of harm that a weapon like that has to eliminate a large amount of targets in a very short amount of time? We're talking about real people. We're talking about real lives being affected.”
Pantoja is careful to express admiration for many of his former Republican colleagues, especially Sen. McCain, Senator Rubio, and his co-workers at Libre Initiative, the nonpartisan free-market advocacy group focused on the Hispanic community where he continues to work. “Some people say, ‘I'm staying. I'm going to change the Republican Party from within.’ More power to them. I respect their opinions. There's some good people on all sides, obviously. But I do feel that it's a bigger tent [in the Democratic Party]. I do feel that there are issues like civil rights and human rights that are kind of just more at the forefront as opposed to an afterthought, if you will.”
The “culture of intolerance” that concerns Pablo Pantoja does not characterize the entire party, but it has surfaced too much for him to dismiss it as a coincidence: “There was the incident with the black reporter who got some peanuts thrown at her [at the RNC convention] in Tampa. Now, you can look at it and say, ‘That was just one person.’ But then you look at what happened at CPAC with this other guy that said slaves should be thankful because they got food and shelter ... So is it really one person—or is it really the base? Is it really the culture of intolerance? That’s what I view as what's going on.”
Just as critical to Pantoja is some party leaders’ refusal to confront these voices. Even worse is when they cater to them. “You've got people who feel that they have to be, quite frankly, a little bit ‘out there’ to appeal to the base.”
Losing Pablo Pantoja is just the latest sign of how much work Republicans need to do when it comes to mending fences with the Hispanic community. The problem is rooted in aspects of the conservative populist base and its impact on policy. Too often this dynamic results in a toleration of demagogues who show callousness to communities of color in the USA. If you recognize that demographics are destiny, this is a recipe for Republican disaster.
“Hopefully they'll renounce this kind of culture of intolerance overall,” Pantoja says. “Maybe the rhetoric will change. I don't see it happening. But somebody's got to take a stand.”