UPDATE, October 2, 2015: Trump has cancelled his October 8 appearance with the USHCC.
When CNN reported about a September 1 private meeting Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump had with Javier Palomarez, CEO of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC), it took many U.S. Latinos by surprise.
Just a few weeks before the Palomarez meeting, Trump was feeling the heat from Latino organizations calling for networks and brands to cut ties with him for the anti-Mexican comments he made on June 16. When POLITICO reported that Palomarez (once a farm worker) thought Trump was “gracious” and had gotten “high marks” for the meeting, it caused a bit of a stir, not only with Latinos online, but also with some of Palomarez’s fellow USHCC members, who were finding out about the private meeting for the first time through the political media.
Last week, Buzzfeed’s Adrian Carrasquillo reported from a USHCC Houston meeting that several members did not agree with a USHCC decision to host Trump at an October 8th presidential forum—the end result of the September 1 meeting Trump had with Palomarez. “I don’t see any reason why any credible Latino organization or leader would give Trump the time of day, much less a forum to speak to the Hispanic community,” one local chamber chairman told Carrasquillo.
The tension within the USHCC came to a full blow in the following video Buzzfeed embedded, which shows New York state chamber chairman Frank Garcia confronting Palomarez about the Trump meeting and invitation. At one point, Palomarez takes out his wallet and offers to refund Garcia his USHCC membership fee.
This week, I called Palomarez to talk about the Trump meeting and the controversy surrounding it. Here is a transcript of the conversation we had.
JRV: I wanted to focus the conversation a bit more specifically on how the press reports are focusing on your meeting and the controversy behind bringing Trump to one of your forums and not necessarily on the work that you guys have been doing to get these candidates in front of people, particularly with your series. Can you give me the history of how these candidate forums began, because it seems like that is kind of being overlooked, and I wanted to give you an opportunity to explain the timeline of it all?
Javier: I appreciate it. Thank you. First of all, the USHCC is the first organization to broker a 2016 presidential candidates Q&A series, a forum that it looks like now is being adopted by other groups. But we were the first ones, and the idea came about during a private meeting that we had with some of Mitt Romney’s allies and some of his close advisors, back in the middle of January of this year in Salt Lake City. At that get-together —and you’ll remember during that time, Romney was still weighing the possibility of running again and was thinking through whether he would run— we met with his advisors and we were told not to count on any GOP candidates to engage us or any Hispanic organization before the primaries because they were fearful that in doing so, they would alienate their conservative base.
About two months later, during our legislative summit in March, we had a great turnout. We had 75 members of Congress participate —40 were Democrats, 35 were Republicans, as usual, right down the middle, a good representation of both sides of the aisle— we [the USHCC] pride ourselves on that, in fact, [former White House Press Secretary] Robert Gibbs made the comment that this was the only truly bipartisan event that he had witnessed thus far.
But not a single one of the Republican presidential candidates was able to accept our invitation. And we really kind of refused, we refused to let our community go unheard until the general election and we publicly cautioned the Republican Party. At the time, the only announced candidate was Ted Cruz, and what we cautioned was they we hoped they [the Republicans] would not commit the fatal flaw of ignoring Hispanics through the primaries and then planning to belatedly turn on the charm when they needed us during the general election. In other words, we wouldn’t tolerate the last-minute Hispandering, as we like to say, and sure enough, it worked, because 48 hours later, Senator Ted Cruz agreed to do the first-ever presidential candidate forum of the 2016 election cycle.
In two short months, after meeting with GOP advisors, it appears that we changed their strategy and forced the Republican Party to come deal with the Hispanic community on the front end. And think about it, of all people, Senator Cruz at that time was the most outspoken candidate within the GOP and he was the first person to publicly engage us as a declared candidate. And he’s arguably the candidate with the most to lose in terms of alienating a very conservative base. So therein began the notion that you all have to come talk to us and we all need to sit down and you [the candidates] need to explain your views and unpack your philosophy in front of my constituents.
JRV: Have you invited every candidate? I know you talked to Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz, but have you’ve invited everyone and have they all accepted? What is the status of that?
JP: We have thus far have had Ted Cruz, Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders. On October 6 we will have John Kasich. Last week we had Jeb Bush with us. Then on the 8th we will have Trump. And we’re negotiating with Hillary and with Carly Fiorna’s people as we speak. Honestly, I don’t know if we will get all the forums done —they’re so many Republicans— but we want to get a good measure of the serious, those who are polling well.
JRV: So in an ideal world, you would probably have about 8–10 of these forums?
JP: Yes. That would be about right.
JRV: And the goal would be before the primaries would start or would you continue trying to have these forums during the primaries?
JP: We’re hoping to get them done before the primaries start. You can imagine that it’s difficult.
JRV: Yeah, I’m sure.
JP: Our goal is for our community to finally merge and emerge into the mainstream as Hispanics who are proud of their heritage and equally proud to be American. Our presidential candidates Q&A series is more than just about the person running for office. It’s about the process they have to go through to hold the office.
As an American Hispanic business association —which by the way, represents now 4.1 million Hispanic-owned businesses that collectively contribute over $660 billion to our American economy— our goal is to ensure that the voices of our members and our community are heard. Not only as the business leaders, but as taxpayers, as job creators, and ultimately, as voters, and those who influence votes.
That’s why we’ve asked the candidates to clearly articulate their views, away from the public spectacle and the newsroom and the debate floor, and just have a dialogue with us. This forum is really meant to set the record straight, frankly on a wide array of issues, Julio, that concern Hispanic Americans, like jobs, the economy, small business, international trade. Yes, of course, immigration, but along with that, national security issues, equal pay for women. I mean, the issues that affect all Americans.
There’s an inordinate amount of attention being paid to one candidate and to one issue, but the reality of it is—this is about the breadth of the field and the breadth of issues that this country is facing. And for Hispanic Americans to make history in 2016, we have to harness the collective economic and social and political influence that our community is coming into. That’s why the USHCC —which, by the way represents business owners from a very wide array of views— has really served as the convener across the political divide.
JRV: So let’s talk specifically about the recent news coverage of the private meeting with Donald Trump. From what I understand, seeing it happen at Trump’s office, would you think that it would have been a perception issue? I came from the corporate world before going back to journalism, it always seems that you want to pick neutral turf. Can you explain as to why you met at Trump’s office and not necessarily at another place in New York that might have signified a bit more bargaining power?
JP: First, let me talk about Trump and why Trump. I understand the initial shock that some in our community felt when they read the initial headline of us engaging not only Cruz, but now Trump. But I’d encourage people to see our Q&A series for what it truly is. Those who know me and know my personal story, know that I don’t take comfort in meeting people like Donald Trump, but it’s my responsibility and frankly, I can’t let my personal feelings get in the way of that responsibility to my association, to my community.
Whether or not we should ignore certain candidates is not the question here. Whether we should ignore Donald Trump or anyone else is not the question. The real question is: should we allow any candidate, including Donald Trump, to ignore us?
I think we can all agree that the answer should be no, and here’s an opportunity to get all the candidates, especially the most outspoken ones, to finally start talking to our community, rather than talking at our community or taking about our community or talking down to our community. It’s time for them to start talking to us.
And we’re not attempting to show favoritism to any candidate, but we also won’t grant any candidate immunity from objective scrutiny, and that’s exactly what he [Trump] and what everyone else will get. It stands to reason that really the more at odds a candidate is with our community, the more that person should be challenged in an open forum. These Q&A’s are not easy for any of the candidates—each of them has been challenged and rightfully so. And we intend to challenge Donald Trump just as we did everyone else.
That’s why rather than being at odds with the USHCC, we’d like to have our critics behind us, especially those in our own community. The USHCC would like to call all leaders to action. We want to hear what questions they think we should ask and make sure that Donald Trump, and all candidates, are hearing our concerns and heeding frankly our warning regarding the consequences of a late entry into our communities. The idea here is that we will engage all candidates, no matter how strongly we disagree or how distasteful their views are. As long as they abide by the format and agree to engage in productive discourse and a dialogue, then that is really our responsibility to the community, and we will continue to bring these candidates to our forum, where our members and our community can be the judge and the jury.
Now, as it relates to Trump himself, I happen to have been in New York, meeting with a few of our corporate partners —we have many in New York and I go to New York often, I spend most of my time traveling by the way to meet clients and advocates, we represent 257 major corporations, we have four million members and we represent over 200 chambers and business associations throughout the United States, so I spent an inordinate time on a plane— and it just so happened to be convenient to meet Trump in New York that week. By the way, I’ve met other candidates where they work before our public engagements. I’ve met Rand Paul in his office. I’ve met Jeb Bush in his office. I’ve met Ted Cruz in DC. So in that context, meeting Trump in his office was not a special circumstance at all. We’ve done that with others. But for some reason because it’s Trump, all of a sudden, a lot of stuff gets read into it.
JRV: You shared some details of the private meeting with Trump. Did you ask for an apology on behalf of the community before you met?
JP: When we met, first of all we discussed the format of the program. He tried to make his point on the Hispanic vote. He talked to me about the wall. I disagreed with him on the wall. I disagreed with him on the deportation of 11-and-a-half million people. I pointed out that it would be disastrous for several of our clients and several of the industries we represent, like construction and agriculture and hospitality. He asked if I would consider using a Trump property in Miami during our convention in 2016. I said flat-out no. And we talked about the format of the program.
JRV: So you never asked for an apology?
JP: We will leave that kind of dialogue for the Q&A. For me to get an apology in private is practically useless. He pointed out to me that he believed that he had been mischaracterized by the media, and I mentioned to him is that what I saw him using some language that was amazingly offensive and there was no way to mischaracterize that. He assured me that I had listened to the entire speech or the entire engagement, that 30 seconds prior or a minute and 20 seconds later, it would have been put into context. I said, you know, you can’t put language like that into context.
JRV: So you mentioned that he offered, because one of the other charges —and I don’t want to harp on this anymore, because I do want to talk, I want to ask one more question and then talk about the event, one more question, about the event next week— but he mentioned that you could use or he offered the use of one his properties, which suggests that Trump was trying to, I mean, is that common, for candidates to offer, I mean, when I hear something like that, I want to ask: why would he be offering you use of his property for your convention? Did you find that request to be a little bit strange?
JP: It’s not common. It’s not common but most of the other candidates don’t own hotels either. He does. He owns a big hotel and big property.
JRV: That would suggest to me that he at least was trying soften the blow a little bit here, and, from what you said, you outright refused and there was no mention of remuneration or anything. It was just a straight private business meeting that said, we want you here in DC, I might not agree with you personally, but this is an important series for us. Is that the summary?
JP: It was more, if you want to participate, I’m here to hear you out. You’ve asked us to come meet with you. I was in town. This was convenient. Let me hear you out. Why do you think you should be in this forum? In terms of him offering the property, it was a simple offer and I said no. And he asked, “Is it because of the press situation?” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “I understand that and I respect that.” It was nothing more than that.
JRV: Let’s fast forward to next week then. So you’re mentioning that he might be coming into the belly of the beast, if you think about it, if you’re saying that it’s best to wait until you have him here [at the forum] so we can ask him questions and challenge him. What can you share on how will you approach this and again, will you be asking for him to publicly apologize?
JP: I’ll ask him to put his words into context and we’ll see where the dialogue goes from there. But I’ll give him an opportunity to apologize to the community which he has hurt with his language and to explain what exactly he meant because what we heard, frankly was bombastic. It was hurtful. It was erroneous. But like every other candidate, he will be given an opportunity to explain himself.
The reason why we decided to hold these sessions during the early primary season is so we can influence each candidate’s core campaign pledges with a pro-Hispanic and a pro-small business agenda. Candidates typically play to their own base during the primaries, so it’s very telling to see how much political capital any of them are willing to expend by engaging our association and considering our views. For example, during the Q&A with Governor Martin O’Malley, he made a commitment to attempt to reform the U.S. immigration system the first 100 days of his presidency.
And so a majority of his scrutiny really needs to take place before the nominee is selected because if he becomes a standard-bearer, as the standard-bearer, he’s responsible and accountable for the views and values of his party. And there are many candidates who refuse to show leadership and take responsibility, or at the very least, denounce some very hurtful language and own it. By way of example, Donald Trump just recently, he was in an event where one of his constituents publicly espoused beliefs that were not in alignment with sound thinking about a certain religion. And very, very inflammatory anti-Islamic remarks. And Donald just let it lie. In sharp contrast, you remember when Senator McCain had a similar interaction during one of his events and he demonstrated real leadership. He immediately and openly disagreed with the questioner and basically set the record straight.
And these are the instances where some would say, “Well, it’s because Trump is new at this, he doesn’t understand.” Well, if you want to be President, man, that’s what it takes. You’re not going to learn on the job. We want you prepared and ready to go by the minute you walk in, and certainly even a high school kid would have known that that was very inflammatory and very inappropriate and would have stood up and said, “Hey, listen, I don’t agree with that view.”
So I think that it’s important that these standard-bearers and these individuals who are polling well on either side be scrutinized so that their messages and their motives are consistent—their leadership is unquestionable. And that’s what we’ve done in front of us here. And Donald Trump will be treated just like everybody else has been. He will be challenged on his views. We’ll ask why he believes the things he believes. He believes he’s been mischaracterized—we’ll give him an opportunity to set the record straight.
It will be my community that will be judge and jury, and what he does understand, and I made it clear to him, was: he will never see the White House without at least 47% of the Hispanic vote. It’s just ain’t going to happen. And so, I think he is in a quandary now. He’s in a quandary. He’s going to have to kind of pedal back a little bit and figure out what he’s going to do, but the bell’s been rung. Now he’s got to come and account for it.
JRV: And on the flip side of that: I think that’s the biggest critique that I have heard, and considering that was some issue at the last [USHCC] meeting that you guys had in Houston last week, that this legitimizes comments from Trump and puts him in a higher standard within the Latino community, no matter what your politics are. How do you answer to that? How do you answer to the fact that you’re legitimizing someone? And this is not me, this is what people have told me.
JP: I would like to think that America’s Hispanic voters and Hispanic community are a lot more sophisticated than that. I would like to think that they can kind of see the difference between somebody being called to task and somebody being elevated. If anything, we’re hearing from a very, very, very, very large proponent and part of our community, and the overwhelming majority saying that this is the right thing to do.
And we should not run from a candidate. We shouldn’t allow a candidate to get away with it. If we turn our backs on Donald Trump, we in essence are giving him a hall pass. And then the next guy can come and say whatever he wants, and there is nothing that community will do. That is not appropriate and it is also not the American way.
If you say something about my community, I’ll give you a chance to come explain yourself. And if you don’t, we’ll eat your lunch. It’s just that simple.
The reality of it is: for us to believe that by ignoring Donald Trump somehow he is damaged or that giving him the opportunity to explain himself, somehow he’s legitimized, I don’t see it. The reality of it is: he is a presidential candidate, and the commitment was to allow any presidential candidate an opportunity to talk to our community and explain him or herself. That’s the beginning and the end of it. We’re not trying to legitimize anyone. And I’d like to think that the Hispanic electorate is a little bit more sophisticated than that. I know they are.
Image: Donald Trump (l), Javier Palomarez (r)