Pack attack: World media discovers Idaho’s LDS, Tea Party, Puerto Rican immigration reformer, Raul Labrador

It’s been a busy week for Congressman Raul Labrador’s spokesman. Three times, Michael Tate has alerted reporters that major new outlets have — for the umpteenth time — hailed his boss as a key player on immigration reform.

On Friday, Tate circulated a cut-and-paste of the latest subscription-only story in National Journal. Headlined “Don’t Call Him Marco Rubio,” reporter Tim Alberta quotes a House GOP aide as saying Labrador is “more important to getting (immigration reform) passed through Congress than Marco Rubio” because of his influence with conservatives.

Rubio, of course, is the telegenic Cuban-American senator from Florida and presidential prospect. He’s also in the bipartisan Senate “Gang of Eight,” which produced an 844-page immigration bill this week and prompted Labrador and the other seven members of a bipartisan House group to issue a statement saying they would soon follow suit.

Labrador doesn’t welcome being called “the Marco Rubio of the House,” however, “cringing at the comparison” and telling Alberta, “I’m the Raul Labrador of the House.”

Alberta describes the two-term lawmaker tangling with six-term Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King and winning over fellow conservatives: “It was a changing of the guard on immigration.”

Labrador is pleased, but unsurprised that conservatives are “deferring to his leadership” writes Alberta, who then quotes Labrador: “I think it’s the fact that I’m a pretty serious person on the issue. Also, I’ve been able to establish my conservative credentials over the last two years, so there’s no doubt about where I come from. And I think conservatives understand that we need to get something done, so they are kind of relying on my expertise and judgment on this.”

The National Journal story follows profiles by two other influential outlets, the venerable U.S. magazine, The Atlantic, and the London-based Financial Times. The FT story is available only to subscribers but readers can access the story by signing up for a free trial. Religion Dispatches also weighed in this week, with “Meet the New LDS Face of Immigration Politics,” by Joanna Brooks, author of the acclaimed, “The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith.”

Brooks welcomes Labrador as a replacement for former Arizona Sen. Russell Pearce, author of the Arizona immigration law overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, saying Labrador backs “sensible, comprehensive reform.” Brooks also says Labrador “has almost certainly been the beneficiary as well of political cover provided by the Utah Compact—a self-described ‘common sense’ approach to immigration reform signed by state leaders in 2010 and hailed by the New York Times as a model—and one of its key institutional backers, the LDS Church.”

This week’s coverage, while concentrated, isn’t new news. A Google search of Raul AND Labrador AND immigration AND Puerto Rico AND Mormon AND Tea Party produced 2.8 million hits Friday morning.

Reporters typically mention Labrador’s birth in Puerto Rico, command of Spanish, Mormon faith and popularity with Tea Party groups. Idaho reporters first collected those details covering his improbable wins over Republican Vaughn Ward in the 2010 primary and Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick in the general election.

The first national reporter to connect those dots in the context of immigration reform appears to be Juan Williams of Fox News Latino in May 2012.

Boasting of his “exclusive interview” with Labrador, Williams led with this: “Congressman Raul Labrador is a Latino at the center of 2012′s explosive politics. He is a Mormon, a freshman Republican who is a Tea Party favorite, a native of Puerto Rico and the most popular politician in bright red, conservative Idaho.”

A week after his re-election in November, Labrador seized the moment by citing Mitt Romney’s 27 percent vote among Hispanics. “We are never going to be a majority party if we don’t figure out a way to reach out to the Hispanic community,” Labrador told me. “So we have to have a conservative consensus on immigration.”

In January, Rosalind Helderman of the Washington Post came to Idaho to track Labrador. Her story followed Williams’ 2012 lead in describing Labrador as “the only Puerto Rican, Mormon, tea party immigration lawyer in Congress” and the “perfect bridge between hard-line GOP resistance to an immigration overhaul and the urgent sense among Democrats that the November election won them a free hand on the issue.”

Labrador told me early this year that his decision on whether to challenge GOP Gov. Butch Otter next year would depend on prospects for immigration reform. If he could help make it happen, Labrador hinted, he’d stay put.

Friday’s National Journal story says “his comrades” have taken to calling Labrador, “The Governor” and “fear they will lose him” to the 2014 state race.

That now seems very unlikely.

If Labrador is reading his clips — and his spokesman’s eager republishing suggests he is, avidly — look for him to stay in the national spotlight. If he can’t be Marco, being Raul is heady stuff for a man who three years ago was a backbencher in the Idaho Legislature.



Dan Popkey came to Idaho in 1984 to work as a police reporter. Since 1987, he has covered politics and has reported on 25 sessions of the Legislature. Dan has a bachelor's in political science from Santa Clara University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. He was a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association and a Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. A former page in the U.S. House of Representatives, he graduated Capitol Page High School in 1976. In 2007, he led the Statesman’s coverage of the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news. In 2003, he won the Ted M. Natt First Amendment award from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association for coverage of University Place, the University of Idaho’s troubled real estate development in Boise. Dan helped start the community reading project "Big Read." He has two children in college and lives on the Boise Bench with an old gray cat.

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