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ENGAGING: Pearce (center) talks with Evy Gallegos at Luna Community College in Santa Rosa, N.M.
Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images
ENGAGING: Pearce (center) talks with Evy Gallegos at Luna Community College in Santa Rosa, N.M.

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Politics | Conservative GOP Rep. Steve Pearce wins in a majority Hispanic district not by changing his views but by building relationships

Issue: "Boston Terrorthon," May 4, 2013

Two weeks after being sworn in for his first term in Congress, Republican Steve Pearce held a public meeting in Las Cruces, N.M., in 2003. Mike Tellez expected to hear the usual political jargon from the district’s newest representative. When Pearce asked for questions, Tellez, who led a faith-based nonprofit, raised his hand.

“We’ve got problems getting food donations to the south valley of the county,” said Tellez about an impoverished stretch of Dona Ana County in southern New Mexico that’s more than 80 percent Hispanic. “Kids do not have enough to eat and families are literally starving.” Tellez explained that federal agents seeking illegal immigrants in the area had arrested fathers, leaving behind families: “What are you planning to do about it? Or are you all going to just let these people sit out there like they don’t exist?”

Tellez does not remember Pearce’s immediate answer, but he won’t forget what Pearce did after the meeting. One of Pearce’s staffers grabbed Tellez before he could leave. The congressman wanted to talk to him. That was the first time Tellez could recall that happening in years of going to town halls. Pearce had one request: Show me.

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That day Tellez drove Pearce around the south valley and explained how the nearest food bank would not give food to illegal immigrants due to bureaucratic red tape. Pearce set up a call between Tellez and a senior official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Days later the food bank opened its doors to Tellez.  

There has been a lot of institutional hand-wringing within the Republican Party since Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in last year’s presidential election. The Republican National Committee released a 98-page autopsy on the defeat that said it is “imperative that the RNC changes how it engages with Hispanic communities.” The RNC hired a national political director for Hispanics and made an initial investment of $10 million toward Hispanic outreach.

But Republicans could save money if they just watch Pearce engage with the Hispanics in his southern New Mexico district. The 65-year-old former Air Force pilot is a conservative serving a district where 52 percent of the population is Hispanic and where Democrats and independents outnumber Republicans 2 to 1.

Despite those demographics, Pearce has won five congressional terms. The sole Republican in New Mexico’s congressional delegation, Pearce won with 42 percent of the Hispanic vote last November—besting Romney’s totals by 15 percentage points. Pearce’s strategy is simple. “Basically what it is, is old-fashioned shoe leather,” said Santiago Soto, a Las Cruces businessman. “He doesn’t sit in his office making phone calls.”

Each year Pearce travels more than 90,000 miles throughout his sprawling district near the Mexican border where the Buffalo Soldiers once patrolled during the Indian wars. Pearce will call Soto and tell him he’s coming into Las Cruces in a few days. Soto then takes him to local Hispanic businesses and neighborhoods in the state’s second-largest city, which is 65 percent Hispanic.

“Most of the people he visits are Democrats,” said Soto. “But when they go vote they don’t look to see if Pearce is a Republican. They pull the lever for him because they say, ‘This man I remember. He helped us.’”

Soto has taken Pearce to funerals for Hispanic soldiers who died in Iraq and to food banks where Pearce helped unload trucks. In 2008, Pearce ran for the U.S. Senate instead of seeking reelection to the House. He lost the statewide race. Out of office for two years, Pearce continued to work with the immigrants in his old district. In 2010, Pearce retook his seat, beating the Democratic incumbent by 10 percentage points. “We show up and set aside the things we know we will never agree on, and we get after the things that we can,” Pearce said. “These jobs should be out among the people.”

Pearce cautions against any quick fix for the Republican Party that falls short of long-term relational investments with communities that Pearce says hold many of conservatism’s key values. When Pearce visits Hispanic communities, he is reminded how many cherish faith, family, and personal responsibility. Hispanics throughout his district have bought homes and transformed blighted neighborhoods—cleaning up the trash and the crime.

Tellez thought he would never hear from Pearce again after he helped open the doors to the food bank. But Pearce called again asking what he could do to help. Tellez thought he’d throw out his biggest wish list: a dream center where organizations trying to help the poor could be housed together. That center opened its doors in 2005 with the congressman providing his own donation.

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