With help from Rishika Dugyala and Teresa Wiltz
Hey Recast family, we’ve made it to the end of the workweek and that means it’s time for our weekly Friday Q&A, “The Sitdown.” Today we chop it up with Sergio de la Peña, a GOP gubernatorial candidate in Virginia. He weighs in on how his immigrant roots shaped his conservatism, why he believes English should be the official language and shares his thoughts on last November’s election.
“There is not a uniqueness in my immigrant story.”
Says the man from Chihuahua, Mexico. He served 30 years in the U.S. Army, rose to the rank of colonel and most recently was appointed by the former president to serve in a high-ranking post in the Defense Department.
Now, de la Peña, 65, who never sought elective office before, is using his life story to connect with voters as he seeks to become Virginia’s first ever Latino governor.
He faces a crowded primary, which the Republican Party of Virginia will hold next month in an unassembled convention. Included on the rank-choice ballot are candidates like Kirk Cox, the former speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates and Amanda Chase, a state senator who is the self-proclaimed “Trump in heels.”
It should be noted de la Peña, who served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs, fully embraces the 45th president, too.
He credits Donald Trump with expanding the party’s reach, pointing to the 32 percent of Latinos who broke for him in 2020, outperforming totals among this key bloc from 2016 when he garnered 28 percent.
While de la Peña may be a long shot to become Virginia governor — no GOP official has won statewide since 2009 — his views on assimilation and legal immigration fall in line with how the Republican Party hopes to make inroads with Latinos in the future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
THE RECAST: What makes you confident that you can make history become Virginia’s first Latino governor?
DE LA PEÑA: I’m the only governor’s candidate that can win in a general election. I can reach out to the immigrant voters because I am an immigrant. The Republican Party is one that is expanding. And all you’ve got to do is look at how well President Trump did in 2016 and 2020.
THE RECAST: I understand you were born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and grew up in New Mexico. What impact did that have on your career trajectory? But also how did that influence your conservative politics?
DE LA PEÑA: I was born in Mexico, raised in a house with dirt floors and no running water. And when you start from that perspective, you learn how to fend for yourself. And even in Mexico, we were beneath the radar scope of the Mexican government. My father was an “ejidatario.”
It’s someone who works a plot of land provided by the government. It’s a 20 hectare plot, but it doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to the government. So when you have those conditions and you don’t have private property and you don’t get a lot of rain, you don’t get a lot of crops. So that was what motivated my father to come to the U.S. because he was starting to get hungry.
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THE RECAST: And he came to the U.S. legally.
DE LA PEÑA: He did. Are you familiar with the Bracero Program?
THE RECAST: I’m not.
DE LA PEÑA: Well, the Bracero Program was something the U.S. government came up with. It was at about the same time the G.I. Bill got put into effect, because when people came back from World War II, many of these veterans had the opportunity to go to college. That meant the farm work wasn’t being done. So there was an accommodation between the U.S. and the Mexican governments where contract workers came (to the U.S.) to work. And so that’s the way my father came. (His father later brought his family to the country after he obtained a green card.)
THE RECAST: And do you support that type of program as a pathway to citizenship? I know part of your campaign pitch is to close the borders, to build the wall.
DE LA PEÑA: Well, one of the things we need to do is we need to abide by the rule of law. When we don’t do that, one way to do it is through a wall. But I’m a big advocate for legal immigration. It’s legal immigration that has made this country great.
THE RECAST: This is your first time running for office. In your campaign video, you introduce yourself by trying to answer a question you must get all the time. You say: ‘They always act surprised. How could someone like me support someone like him?’ ‘Him’ of course referring to former President Trump.
DE LA PEÑA: Most people who are conservative understand that. I do get that question from time to time, but it’s pretty simple. I’m a Republican because the party represents those values that I hold near and dear to my heart. I mean, I can tell you, I’ve been to places where the rule of law falls apart.
THE RECAST: Pushing back here. I mean, there are quite a few people that say that President Trump changed with the norms of a presidency, right? When you mention rule of law, there are investigations going on right now looking to see if he broke any laws while in office including his role in riling up crowds on Jan. 6 before the insurrection. Are you worried that a Trump embrace is going to hurt you running in Virginia?
DE LA PEÑA:I have observed election, national level elections in three different places. And what I can say about what happened in the United States is that the laws changed. And we’ll never know the extent of voter fraud, because it wasn’t investigated.*
THE RECAST: Which laws changed? What are you talking about?
DE LA PEÑA: Well, let’s look at Virginia, where we used to have a voting day. Now, we have a voting season. And if you look at the way that you verify the identification of those voters, those have been weakened.
THE RECAST: So the expansion of early voting, you’re saying, makes the process less democratic because it’s opening up the amount of time that people can go to the polls?
DE LA PEÑA: We will never know the extent of the front. That’s the bottom line.
THE RECAST: Turning back to your primary. You’re going against a former speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates and also someone who is a self-proclaimed “Trump in heels.” How do you set yourself apart?
DE LA PEÑA: I came to this country not speaking one word of English. Well, maybe it was a word that I heard in a movie. And in one generation I’ve had a job that was the civilian leadership of the military that is sitting somewhere between a three- and a four-star general. I feel very confident that my knowledge is one that resonates with people.
Now, obviously I’m coming at it from a different angle because I’m not a millionaire and I haven’t been a politician for 30 years. And by the way, Si lo desea, podemos hacerlo en español. Si desea continuar la entrevista en español … [If you like, we can do this in Spanish…]
So my Spanish is good. I am a native speaker and I can communicate with people because I can talk to people at the lowest level about what it was like when they came here as an immigrant and what it is to be successful today and everything in between.
THE RECAST: So what do you think is the top issue or top three issues facing the commonwealth?
DE LA PEÑA: The first thing we’ve got to look at is voter integrity. If we destroy election integrity, we destroy the whole fidelity of the institution. So that’s number one.
THE RECAST: What would be two and three?
DE LA PEÑA: Two is going to be let’s open up the economy. We close the economy, we tell people don’t go back to work. And by the way, you accept what [the government] gives you for those who have lost their jobs. You know, if you’re working remotely, you are OK. But if you’re out there having to make a living and earn your daily bread after you’ve been shut down, that’s very difficult.
THE RECAST: Have you made any considerations about your next moves if you don’t make it out of the ranked-choice voting next month? Would you consider launching an independent campaign?
DE LA PEÑA: No. I am a Republican. I am a conservative. I am not running a separate campaign. I will support the nominee. That’s what I have pledged to do.
THE RECAST:One of the things you’re going to do if elected is push to make English the official language and also eliminate the tax benefits for undocumented immigrants in Virginia. Why is that a priority for you?
DE LA PEÑA: Well, let’s talk about English. How is my English? Is it something you can understand?
THE RECAST: Sure. I mean, yes, I can understand you. We’re having a conversation now.
DE LA PEÑA: Well, the reason I learned it is because when I was in school, I was told to learn how to speak English. The biggest disservice you can do to people is make it more difficult for them not to pick up English to the best of their abilities.
And by the way: También puedo hablar español perfectamente. [I can speak Spanish perfectly.]
So it was my responsibility to maintain my Spanish. And I did that. And I love my Mexican culture. But I am an American and I can have both. And that’s the beauty of this country. No other country in the world can afford the opportunity for somebody to assimilate as fully as I have.
THE RECAST: And you’re not worried that some could view your message as anti-immigrant? Obviously not everyone’s going to be able to have the remarkable career you’ve had or have gotten the same opportunities.
DE LA PEÑA: Well, first of all, I’m not anti-immigrant. I am anti-illegal immigrant. Let me tell you what happens when you get into illegal immigration. All of those kids that are being put into those camps along the border are being trafficked. And that’s the problem.
And by the way, the uniqueness of my American dream story is that I’m not unique. It doesn’t matter what you look like. I’ve talked to assimilated Asians. I’ve talked to assimilated you name the race. And when they get to that point where they are assimilated, they’re Americans first. You don’t need any hyphenation.
THE RECAST: So just to be clear, you identify as American, not Mexican American?
DE LA PEÑA: I’m an American of Mexican descent, proud of both.
THE RECAST: Virginia has not voted a Republican into statewide office since 2009. What makes you think the climate is different in 2021?
DE LA PEÑA: We’re losing competitiveness. We’re losing the way this commonwealth used to be and people are not happy. They want to have the ability to have strong family, meaningful work and safe neighborhoods in a free environment. And we’re not doing that.
THE RECAST: As you’re making your push in the final weeks of the primary campaign, what is your closing argument?
DE LA PEÑA: Well, here’s what I would say: We keep running the same type of candidate and we keep losing. The demographics have changed; if you just look at Northern Virginia, 20 percent of the immigrant population in Northern Virginia is Hispanic, about 17 percent in Northern Virginia is Asian. So we need to address that population. We have to win them over. And I am the only candidate who can reach them because I can win Northern Virginia.
THE RECAST: And without NOVA you can’t win Virginia.
DE LA PEÑA: Yes, that is correct, sir.
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