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.
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.
But Pearce did not just throw money at the problem. He started volunteering at the center. Pearce would come to the center unannounced. Tellez would find the congressman on his knees measuring children’s feet before selecting the right fit among the center’s piles of donated shoes. Pearce talked to the children about school, never announcing his status as a congressman. “And these people were not voters,” Tellez said. “They are immigrants who don’t have two cents to rub together and are not here legally. He treated people who don’t even know English like they are the most important people on Earth.”
Pearce is comfortable with the poor Hispanics in his district because he grew up as poor as they are. His father worked in the New Mexico oil fields as a roustabout, spending decades toiling in maintenance and earning few promotions. The family of six children first owned a home with no indoor plumbing. At 9, Pearce began working on the small family farm where they grew vegetables to sell at a roadside stand.
When Pearce owned a small oilfield services company as an adult, he was more comfortable walking through the muck of a job site than sitting behind his desk. It’s a philosophy that is rooted in his Christian faith. “Jesus was out there talking to people,” Pearce said. “I think we have gotten away from real representation when we start running based on our ads on radio and television. There is something fundamentally flawed with that.”
A Southern Baptist who was baptized at age 10, Pearce’s faith grew through Bible studies and prayer groups he attended while serving as a pilot during the Vietnam War. In an 18-month combat tour in the early 1970s, Pearce logged in 518 hours of flying missions in Southeast Asia, sometimes landing with bullet holes in his C-130 transport plane.
Applying his faith today, Pearce helped start the Congressional Prayer Caucus on Capitol Hill and helped form a Hispanic youth group in Anthony, N.M. The youth group conducts trash pickup days, and Pearce is planning a financial literacy class: “What I want the kids to see is that help comes not in the form of dollars from Washington but from their desire to make the community better.”
Soto said Pearce has never tried to change his conservative views to get the Hispanic vote: “He’s the same man he’s always been.” Pearce talks about respecting the law when he explains to Hispanics why he doesn’t support giving broad amnesty to those in the country illegally. They should not be given an advantage over the people who stayed home and followed the law, he argues.
Pearce believes the border should be secured and the legal immigration process streamlined before lawmakers consider the status of immigrants already in the country illegally. Most of the illegal immigrants Pearce talks to admit they would have waited to come here legally if they could have received an answer to their formal request within a year.
“I love the infusion of new ideas and new energy that comes from people coming here hungry for their chance at success,” he said. “As Christians we should embrace immigration, but I also think there should be a process.”
Pearce said Republicans are “sadly mistaken” if they hope rushing to pass a complex, comprehensive immigration law will lead to more Hispanic support. “If we give up our fundamental values it is going to be a major catastrophe,” he said. “We will lose our core supporters, and we won’t win anybody either. We should be more about understanding who these people are that we represent by seeing them on their turf.” Mitt Romney’s reluctance to visit more Hispanic communities was a main failure of his campaign, according to Pearce. “I think he could have bumped up his performance by 10 points,” Pearce said.
Since opposing the reelection of John Boehner as House speaker, Pearce has been excluded from the internal debates of establishment Republicans. But individual members of Congress have asked Pearce to hold seminars for their offices about the secret behind his success with Hispanics. He tells them it should be less about what Washington wants to accomplish and more about helping others. “They say, ‘Well, it sounds like we just need to get out among the people.’ And I say, ‘That’s basically it.’ It’s pretty easy stuff.”
Last year Tellez, whose parents cast their first ever Republican votes when they supported Pearce, talked to some Hispanics about Republicans running for local office. “We are not voting for them because they are Republicans,” somebody in the group said.
“What about Congressman Pearce?” Tellez responded.
“He is not Republican,” someone in the group replied. “He is one of us.”