Rudy Fernandez, a Cuban who grew up in Miami, is one of the top operatives in the reelection campaign of President Bush.
BY OSCAR CORRAL
Rudy Fernandez walked into a classroom in Miami two decades ago and only knew these words in English: ``My name is Rodolfo Fernandez.''
Today, the 31-year-old is one of the top operatives in President Bush's reelection campaign, and the only Hispanic among the six regional directors.
At least in Fernandez's opinion, his rise to the top echelon of national politics shows that the most successful Hispanics are those who transcend minority issues and excel in the mainstream.
''The success of Hispanics in the U.S. is truly measured when you see Hispanic talent taking on mainstream jobs that don't pigeonhole them into just minority issues,'' Fernandez said in a recent interview during a visit to Miami.
``Ultimately, the dream of every Hispanic parent is for their kids to make it in this country and that necessitates being accepted by the American mainstream.''
With a quick smile, Fernandez asks almost as many questions as he fields. In a recent interview at Versailles Restaurant, the robust, jeans-clad Fernandez freely switched between Spanish and English, and joked about Miami's unique political atmosphere.
Former Montana Gov. Mark Racicot, chairman of the Bush/Cheney campaign, said Fernandez built a solid rapport with him and earned his position through hard work. In a recent telephone interview, Racicot said he first met Fernandez 2 ½ years ago while Fernandez worked for him at the Republican National Committee.
When Racicot was named chairman of the Bush campaign, he asked Fernandez if he would come along for the ride.
''My most satisfying times at the RNC were the outreach efforts I worked on with Rudy,'' Racicot said. ``Rudy is a young man, at least by my standards. And he has accomplished a great deal in that period of time, and not without significant obstacles.''
As regional director of the Bush campaign for the American Southwest, which includes California, Arizona and Texas, Fernandez oversees everything from communications to political strategies to the logistics of voter outreach and campaign stops for the president.
Fernandez believes being an immigrant gives him the sensitivities required to connect with a broad swath of minorities, from Asians to blacks, to Hispanics of all backgrounds.
''Hispanic voters are complex,'' he said. ``But I choose to focus on the similarities, not the differences. We see Hispanics first and foremost as Americans. And they care about the same things Americans care about.''
Blaise Hazelwood, political director for the Republican National Committee and Fernandez's former boss, said Fernandez has the ability to both understand policy and be able to communicate effectively.
''I have to admit, he has a Cuban temper, it's very endearing,'' Hazelwood said. ``He's opinionated. He'll tell you exactly what he thinks.''
His girlfriend, Miami lawyer Miriam Alfonso, concurs. She said it hasn't been easy keeping their long-distance relationship alive for 2 ½ years, but that she understands his commitment to his job.
She said that when Fernandez is not working, he tries to catch up on sleep, or do something relaxing like going to a movie. Fortunately, she's a Republican, too. He jokes with her that he doesn't know if he could date her if she was from another party.
''I tell him he's part of a cult,'' she said. ``You really have to be brainwashed into thinking this is such a great mission and that it's so important.''
As a Cuban American on the Bush campaign, Fernandez has faced his share of awkward moments. For example, several of Fernandez's Cuban-American friends in the Florida legislature wrote a letter to Bush last year telling him to get tougher on Castro or risk losing Cuban-American support.
''Friendships sometimes transcend jobs,'' Fernandez said. ``They have a job to do. They are following their hearts and doing what they believe their constituents want. But I also have a job to do. And I think the president has a good record on Cuba.''
He said the alternative, John Kerry, is ``a lot softer than even Al Gore in terms of Cuba.''
Kerry spokesman Mark Kornblau said Bush had done nothing to improve the situation in Cuba.
State Rep. David Rivera, who helped draft the critical letter to Bush, said he and Fernandez discuss the Cuba issue informally, and he considers him a friend despite their disagreements on the issue.
''The fact that I may want the Bush administration to be more pro-active on Cuba doesn't mean I can't be friends with Rudy,'' Rivera said. ``I was friends with him before President Bush was around and I will be friends with him after President Bush is gone.''
Fernandez was born in Venezuela to Cuban parents, and came to the United States when he was 10. He began school in the fifth grade and knew almost no English.
''Since my husband and I always spoke so much about Cuba and the dictatorship, that perhaps inclined him [Rudy] to think about the importance of democracy,'' said Fernandez's mother, Elsa Fernandez, who lives in West Miami-Dade.
By the time Fernandez was a senior at Southwest High School, he had risen to the top of his class, graduating as the school's valedictorian. He went off to Harvard, where he earned his degree last year after taking time off from college in his 20s to work on his career.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Fernandez's political godmother, remembers the first time she met him. It was at a Southwest High School memorial service for Shannon Melendi, a student who disappeared from the school. Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, who also graduated from Southwest High, met Fernandez there and asked her chief of staff to ask him to apply for an unpaid internship.
MOVING UP FAST
Soon after that internship started, Ros-Lehtinen's press director resigned and Fernandez got the job. He was offered the position on a Wednesday and was told he had to be in Washington by Sunday.
''Hiring Rudy was one of the luckiest things I've done,'' Ros-Lehtinen said in a recent interview.
'We brag about him every time he is on TV now for the Bush/Cheney campaign. We say: `Hey, there's one of our guys.' ''
The next stop for Fernandez was the Republican National Committee, where he directed the groups' grassroots development, where he worked until last year, when he joined the Bush campaign.
Hispanic Business Magazine named Fernandez one of the ''100 Most Influential Hispanics'' in the United States in 2002, one of only two people under 30 on the list.
In his current role, Fernandez spends most of his time traveling around the country, mostly in the American Southwest, where his Spanish comes in handy. Although he will see less and less of Miami as the 2004 campaign heats up, he says he wants to eventually settle down here.
''Washington is too cold,'' he said. "Miami is home.''