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
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
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
''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
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.''