Al Cardenas: What I’ve learned

cardenas background
The whole idea is to fight to make things better.

Ed. NoteAl Cardenas is a longtime Republican strategist and lobbyist who has been a friend to several presidents (but not Donald Trump). This recollection, as told to Rosanne Dunkelberger, initially appeared in INFLUENCE Magazine,


Life as a Cuban refugee:

Both of my parents came from rural Oriente, the easternmost province in Cuba. But they moved to Havana where I was raised. I grew up in a big city with a rural heart from both parents.

I came to Miami with my mother and my younger sister. My dad wasn’t allowed to leave until about a year, year and a half later. We qualified with Catholic Charities for some help. So I went to school for a couple of years in Miami at the La Salle High School, where all the Operation Pedro Pan kids who had not been rerouted yet to other communities were sent. Other than that, we lived in an efficiency in South Beach.

I came here at the age of 12 and, for obvious reasons, had to work from Day One. I did what 12-year-old kids could do. I delivered newspapers in the afternoon after school, I mowed lawns and sold doughnuts door to door on weekends to help my mom out. And she would sell veils. At the time women wore veils to church and the nuns would let her sit in the church at a little table on Sundays and sell veils. She made a little money doing that, and then when my dad arrived, we moved to Broward County.

I was fortunate. I was pretty decent in sports. I played sports, was captain of some teams, and it was easier for me to socially integrate than for most. I kept working. I worked at a food store in the evenings, and parked cars and worked in the store on the weekends. I never really stopped going to school and working until I graduated from law school.

I had accepted a scholarship to go to Holy Cross University to play football and run track. But my dad, who had just arrived, had a pretty significant heart attack, so I stayed home and had worked a while going to college to help the family out.

Getting started in politics:

It came out of nowhere for me. I was interested in politics as an observer. I would you read the news and keep up with it, and developed some strong personal views of the world.

I remember I was in law school during the NixonMcGovern race, I went to a debate between representatives for both candidates. The fellow for Nixon never showed up. And I was incensed. I got up and said to the dean who was running the thing “this is not fair. I just heard one viewpoint up here.” He said, “Well, what do you have to say?” So I stood up and said a few things.

The dean of students saw me in the hallway one day and said, “You have this passion for politics. Maybe you ought to consider getting involved.” It was literally a light bulb moment because I never thought about it, but I took him up on it. And the lawyers I worked for in Toms River, New Jersey, were active in community politics.

They introduced me to some people. And as a really inexperienced, foolish young man I ran for chairman of the Republican Party in Ocean County and by one vote defeated a county commissioner who had been the chairman for 15 years.

I joined the Young Republicans while still in law school and planned to make my life there. I had accepted a job clerking for a federal judge and figured I’d get involved in politics in New Jersey. When my dad passed away, I had second thoughts. I didn’t want to leave my mother, who didn’t speak much English, and my younger sister alone. So I canceled all that involvement and moved to Miami.

The Ronald Reagan years:

Shortly after moving to Miami, I got a call from the Reagan campaign. A guy by the name of John Sears asked me if I’d run Reagan’s campaign in Florida as a field director. And I said, “John, I don’t really know people in Florida. I’m sure there are people better than me.” He said, “Well there are, but they’re all with Ford.”

I’ll never forget that 1976 convention, when no one knew who would win. I had to drive 20-some hours to Kansas City. I was a 25-year-old delegate didn’t have the money for a hotel, so I had to sleep on the floor of another delegate’s room.

When Reagan didn’t win, everybody encouraged me to run for Congress. Bill Brock was head of the Republican National Committee at the time. Charlie Black, who is now a very close friend, was political director of the RNC. And guess who was political director of the party of Florida? Jack Latvala.

I decided to run for Congress against an icon — Claude Pepper — and did very well. I got over 40% of the vote. It was groundbreaking because no Republican ever done something like that in Miami. That was a time when we only had one Republican member of Congress and four Republicans in the state Senate.

On his days as chair of the Republican Party, including the 2000 recount:

I had been a member of the board of the state party since probably 1978. And then, in ’92, I got elected as vice chairman of the party and served for six years. And then I got elected — along with Jeb — as state party chairman and took a sabbatical to help the governor and the state. I lived through the most exciting times in the state party’s history. When I was on the board of state party (Florida was) like everybody else in the South. We were a Democrat state, and there had only been Democrats running things since Reconstruction in the 1860s. It was pretty cool being vice chairman and then chairman of the party when we became a majority party in that period of time. It’s hard to see how it can be that exciting for anybody afterward because reaching the pinnacle of success after being in the doldrums for over a century is hard to replicate.

(The recount) was an incredible logistical project. Imagine 37 days in which we had 40-some lawsuits going on at the same time, we had 250 lawyers from all over the country that were sent to various courts to represent us, and we had given credentials to more than 8,000 members of the press. I would go to sleep at 12 or 1 if I was lucky. And then we had meetings at 6:30 in the morning with the team in Texas talking about what we would do.

To sit in the petitioner’s table in the U.S. Supreme Court, for a lawyer, that was pretty cool. There were a lot of cool experiences like that: A lot of Air Force One trips, beginning with President Reagan and with both President Bushes. Riding with them in their limos, talking about things outside of politics, just a lot of fun.

When I was party chairman, probably the hardest thing I had to do was to tell people, “Hey, man, we’re gonna help the other guy, because he’s got a big lead and we’ve got to be ready for the general election. And the other toughest thing I used to have to do in a general election was to tell a Republican candidate we can’t help him anymore because he’s not going win. We have to use resources wisely in campaigns that are up in the air. It’s realistic. The candidate will never be realistic because they have so much as stake personally. But some people need to make adult decisions.

On marrying outspoken pundit and television host Ana Navarro:

I have a very active wife and we love going on exciting adventures. Just this year, we were at shark cages in Africa and cave diving in Mexico. We do a lot of fun things together. We talk politics sometimes at home, but most of the time we talk about a host of other things. She hosts “The View,” so she’s always having interesting people outside the realm of politics in her life. We share a pretty broad spectrum of social friends.

My wife is passionate about cooking. We’ve got all these world-famous chefs that are now her friends. I enjoy that as well. The only interests we don’t share is I don’t cook, and she doesn’t play golf. But beyond that, we enjoy doing things together.

I’m proud of her successes. She came out of nowhere, basically, to be successful. She’s passionate about her beliefs, and I’ve never considered myself a second fiddle to her.

I consider myself a blessed man. I’ve got great kids. I’ve got a great wife. I’ve had a better life than I’ve deserved based on where I came from. When you feel lucky and blessed, what’s there to complain about?

Reconstructing the Republican Party:

I’ve always been a loyal Republican until Donald Trump. I don’t care for him. I think I share a lot of Mac Stipanovich’s sentiments, but we have two different theories about how to reach the same goal — being the party that he and I grew up with and always believed in. His theory is that you have to blow up the party first to rebuild it.

My theory is we have to get rid of the poison in our party and rebuild it from within. But you can’t rebuild it from ground zero. That’s not possible in America anymore. My goal is to get rid of those at the top who were responsible for the decay and be able to reconstruct it from within. Donald Trump took a party with totally different beliefs and ideas and made it his own in three years. So why can’t you reverse it in three, four years? It’s a lot harder to reverse it a short time span if you blow it up and try to rebuild it again. That’s why I’m staying in the party.

I’m a loyal Republican. I believe it passionately in what we used to stand for and will continue to push for that. I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying in my party and trying to make it the party of Ronald Reagan again.

Plans for the future:

I still plan to be active here, be part of this vibrant business in Tallahassee. But in terms of the practice of law itself that I do in Miami and Washington and elsewhere, I plan to take a step back and dedicate myself to have a more significant sense of purpose. I’m working on a couple of alternatives. But I would hope that everything I have in life and the perspectives I’ve gained I can share with the younger generation, especially students, and make them think about politics in a way that’s more constructive and more civil than what they’re witnessing. Most college students have only seen some of the roughest cycles in our nation’s political history over the last 10 years, and many of them don’t even know Ronald Reagan or John Kennedy or the Bushes. My goal would be not to teach history but hopefully spend time on the lessons I’ve learned about constructive governance and civility.

We have a new generation that thinks about public service in a different way. Now, we’re so team-oriented and so oriented toward facing the opposition that we don’t spend enough time keeping an eye on the ball, which is what can we do to make our country better.

The political consultants’ job is to get their candidate to win. They’ll use whatever ammunition they think they can come up with, and that’s the nature of the beast in the political election process. But in the governance process, you have to have enough discipline, enough ethics, and enough patriotism to simmer that down. Once people get elected, they’ve got to understand they’re in a different phase. It seems like we were now living in an election cycle year-round every year. We don’t really put emphasis on governance. Everything people do is posturing for the next election. We can’t govern that way.

I want to spend time with young people to revive my hopes and aspirations. There’s nothing like this country; I can tell you that having traveled the world, you have to work hard on making it better. Those who are giving up, it’s too bad. The whole idea is to fight to make things better. That’s the frame of mind I have.

Rosanne Dunkelberger


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