Hobnobbing at the White House is business as usual for Maria Cardona. She knows Bill and Hillary well. She served as a Senior Advisor to the ‘Hillary Clinton for President’ Campaign. She also helped spearhead Hillary’s Hispanic Outreach team, ensuring her message reached Latinos nationwide. When the Clinton campaign fell under, Barack Obama’s team called on Cardona to see if she might help broadcast his message to both English and Spanish TV. Cardona, 45, a whip-smart bilingual democratic strategist, said yes. This was instrumental in helping Obama win 67% of the Latino vote compared with John McCain’s 31%.
Now, as President Obama and the other candidates mastermind their winning strategies for November 6, Cardona’s voice will serve as a sentinel along the way. As a mother of two children, who she’s raising in a completely bilingual household, Cardona believes that Latina moms are—and should be—concerned about what kind of economy we will all be leaving for our children in the decades to come. “It’s clear that Latina moms are going to be a valuable constituency in the 2012 elections, their advancements as entrepreneurs, in higher education, and in the workforce, are just some of the reasons politicians and businesses are paying attention,” she says.
“Latina moms are making the decisions at home, though the men are not going to admit it, but they are,” says Cardona. “Today, Latinas are finding their voices through places like Twitter, Facebook and Mamiverse. Having that voice is half the battle. Public policy experts are listening to you. It’s no longer about speaking at you through ads. It’s now a two-way conversation.
THE LATINO VOTE
For close to two decades this public affairs expert and communications professional in the governmental, public relations, and coalition-building arenas, has been one of the biggest movers and shakers the Latino community has ever had speaking for them on Capitol Hill. Today, she is the first Latina democratic contributor on CNN and the only person ever to contribute to both CNN Domestic and CNN Español. The majority of her day is spent deconstructing the political buzz, writing editorials, appearing on television criticizing poor judgment calls, praising smart ones, and calling out bigots when she sees them. Schooled in the art of persuasion, Cardona knows how to use her smile and gift of gab diplomatically, charmingly, and with icy intelligence. Viewers love her for it. If they don’t, well, at least she’s captured their attention. (Check her out in action here.)
One of the most satisfying aspects of her job as a self-proclaimed “political junkie” are the messages she receives from viewers. “They’ll write to tell me how they love seeing me on the air, debating the “good ‘ole boys”, and not only on topics of immigration or “Latino” issues, but on Iraq, the economy, foreign policy, and arguing the overall Democratic point of view—and winning!” says Cardona.
Gearing up for the 2012 elections, Cardona will be busy guiding those looking to appeal to Latinos on issues that are important to the community such as jobs, education, health care, immigration, small businesses, and Social Security. But Cardona believes Latino voters are not very different from the mainstream, albeit with a few caveats, like immigration and family values. She says that the key to reaching Latino voters effectively in the upcoming campaign will be using the correct tone and language in their messages. “There’s been a huge psychological effect on Latinos since 2005 with the use of derailing, disrespectful language by Republicans who’ve adopted anti-Hispanic demagoguery on the immigration issue, believing it will help garner them more conservative votes” says Cardona. “You felt as if it was personal, and now Latinos no longer feel welcome.” In Cardona’s opinion, all of this tremendous damage needs to be fixed by candidates willing to get personal with Latinos, and who speak to them as they were part of their own team.
THE TEAM PLAYER
Reaching out to others, making them feel included, were lessons she learned from her father when they arrived to the U.S. as immigrants from Colombia. Just before Cardona’s second birthday, her father, an engineer, moved the family from their native Bogotá to Leesburg, Florida, when he was hired by Northern Telecom, and later on by Florida Telephone. When her father was in grade school, in order to pay for the expensive tuition for the private Bogotá school he attended, he would rise at 3 am to help his mother bake empanadas to sell at school. For Cardona, “This story helped instill in me, and my two brothers, the importance of good education and of family. That’s all you have at the end of the day.”
Cardona’s parents wanted to make sure their children didn’t lose touch with their culture. In the late 60’s, there were few Latino families in Central Florida willing to promote a multicultural atmosphere. Yet her parents still opened up their homes to their non-Latino neighbors throughout the year, so they could experience the food and music of Colombia, and to partake in their novena during Christmas. The neighbors were delighted. But when the guests had left, the Cardonas made it a rule not to speak English at home. When they weren’t in school during the summer, Cardona’s mother would give them one-hour reading and writing lessons in Spanish, to assure they’d be perfectly bilingual. This proved to be especially beneficial when Cardona’s father’s telecommunications company would move the family to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
After living in San Juan, Cardona settled in North Carolina to study public policy at Duke University. A later internship in Washington D.C. would change the course of her life. While interning at the Department of Commerce, she fell in love with the capital city, and she knew she wanted to do something where she could use her bilingual skills, a huge advantage back then. When she was at Duke, she was one of the few Latino students on campus. There were even fewer Latinos in the political arena. “At that time I didn’t have the luxury that I think exists now of strong Latino networks,” says Cardona. “So I sought out such communications positions on my own.”
Eager to connect with other Latinos, she ended up getting to know the staff at Hispanic Magazine through an internship at Fleishman-Hillard, and through those connections she became the first Hispanic press coordinator at the Democratic National Committee (DNC), with the help of the late Ronald H. Brown. They created a separate press department to communicate the DNC’s messages through Hispanic media and direct mail, something that had never been done before. “Back then we (Latinos) weren’t seen as the future, if you will, like we are today. Ron Brown was credited for getting Bill Clinton elected,” she says. As an African-American, she adds, “he did it while breaking glass ceilings along the way.”
Brown then helped place Cardona at the Department of Commerce as Deputy Press Secretary under President Bill Clinton. There, she would practice her knack for bringing together different parties (i.e. Latinos and the mainstream) by shrinking the divide between political appointees and the civil servants at the DoC. “My father showed us how to open our doors to people to make them feel included. And this was a terrific role model for me as a 26-year-old Latina going into an agency filled with 55-year-old white men who’d been doing your job longer than I was alive. I had to figure out how to tell them to do their jobs, which wasn’t easy. But instead of pretending I knew everything, I expressed how I couldn’t do my job without them. I wanted to make sure the whole department shined, so we brought them into our meetings to help us do things better. It was the greatest complement for them, they said afterwards.”
A POLITICAL STAR IS BORN
Cardona’s role behind a desk would be transformed quickly into one in front of a camera as the spokesperson for the some of the most memorable events in recent history. Tragically, when Brown’s Air Force plane crashed near Dubrovnik, Croatia, in 1996, killing the then-Commerce Secretary, her moment to shine on television for the first time in her life would present itself. A mentor for Cardona, Brown’s passing was a terribly sad time for her, and, she says, her father almost suffered a heart attack thinking she was on that plane with Brown as she had originally intended to be. Her then immediate boss—the Press Secretary for Secretary Brown—decided Cardona should stay behind. She averted the horrendous fate of everyone else on board that plane. When the news broke of the tragedy, she was asked to deliver a live press conference serving out information about Brown’s missing flight. Cardona’s voice still skips a beat telling the story; she had no time to prepare for the broadcast and managed it with just a few scribbled notes. Cardona’s mother, who had tuned in from Puerto Rico, was not only able to inform her husband that their daughter was alive and well, but speaking on national television.
Over the course of the next two years Cardona’s face would become a staple on nightly news broadcasts. When she was appointed Communication Director for the INS, her relatively even-paced work life turned frenetic when a little boy named Elián González walked into her office in 1999. As the media spokesperson on the case, she was thrown to the front lines, becoming the talking head on heated topics such as U.S. immigration and Cuban relations. It was a job, Cardona says, that wound up leaving her as a persona-non-grata in Miami. “ ‘How could we send him back to a devil like Castro?’ people would say to me.’” Afterwards she left the INS and returned to the place that first gave her that big break, but this time as the Communications Director of the Democratic National Committee, which, according to Cardona, needed a lot of rebuilding after the debacle of the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Soon after, Hispanic Business named her one of the 100 Most Influential Hispanics in the country and her role as Senior Vice President for the New Democrat Network, a think tank organization, had her strategizing on new ways to reach Latino voters. At the time, the project was one of the most expensive efforts ever conducted and dedicated exclusively to researching and polling Latinos, while developing effective messages geared towards them. By highlighting the values, ideals and the policies that the Democrats see as the bond between Latino voters and their progressive causes, NDN began building the pathway for the next Democratic Administration’s (eventually lead by President Obama) win, while weakening the Republican stronghold post Bush’s reelection in 2004.
In November of that same year, she joined the Dewey Square Group, a consulting firm that applies campaign-style strategies to private-sector challenges. Cardona’s rolodex of contacts to the Latino world was highly valuable to DSG and she wound up launching Latinovations, a subsidiary at the firm. “Latinos are worth more than a trillion dollars worth of buying power,” says Cardona. “It’s not just about placing an ad in Spanish on the radio anymore. It’s a heterogeneous community of immigrants and a people who have been here for hundreds of years.” While at DSG, Cardona was appointed Senior Advisor to the Hillary Clinton for President Campaign. Though heartbroken over Hillary’s loss, Cardona accepted the offer to serve as a key surrogate for the Obama for America general election campaign, and appeared on all of the major national news shows.
Making a difference, raising sharp questions, Maria Cardona is one Latina mom making an impact on the world, keeping readers and viewers informed, involved, and connected to the leaders who run the United States government.