Dan Popkey: Pack attack: The world media discovers Labrador

The Puerto Rican immigration reformer, tea partier Mormon is considered more vital than Marco Rubio.

April 20, 2013 

Congressman Raul Labrador has been in the global media spotlight during the past week.

KATHERINE JONES — Idaho Statesman file Buy Photo

It's been a busy week for Congressman Raul Labrador's spokesman. Three times, Michael Tate alerted reporters that major news 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 the 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 Florida senator and GOP presidential prospect. He's also in the bipartisan Senate "Gang of Eight," which produced an immigration bill this week. That 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 like 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 defer to him, telling Alberta: "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."

The National Journal story follows profiles by two other influential outlets, the venerable U.S. magazine, The Atlantic, and London-based Financial Times. 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 political cover from the church's support of "common sense" reform.

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.

Reporters typically mention Labrador's birth in Puerto Rico, command of Spanish, Mormon faith and popularity with tea party groups. Idaho reporters collected those details covering his improbable election in 2010.

The first national reporter to connect the 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. She echoed Williams' 2012 lead, 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 challenging GOP Gov. Butch Otter in 2014 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 governor's race.

That now seems very unlikely.

If Labrador is reading his clips look for him to stay in the national spotlight.

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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