Cardenas sets new course for one of Right's oldest groups

Tina Korbe
Lawyer and longtime political activist Al Cardenas has been chairman of the American Conservative Union for little more than a month, but he already knows exactly what he envisions for the organization.

Cardenas recently succeeded David Keene, who headed the organization from 1984 when President Reagan occupied the White House until the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference in February.

The ACU -- "America's oldest and largest grass-roots conservative organization" -- will most emphatically be a "three-legs-of-the-stool" conservative coalition -- and more "grass roots" than ever, according to its new leader.

Cardenas plans to expand outreach to social, fiscal and national security conservatives at every level, both inside and outside the Beltway. On his wish list: regional versions of the Conservative Political Action Conference, increased collaboration with state and local think tanks and a sharpened focus on philosophy, rather than Republican Party loyalty.

Cardenas views his chairmanship as ACU's "third phase," a follow-up to the fiscally focused founding phase and the socially inclusive Reagan Revolution. This new phase, he says, "is about accommodating a political process that is far less about party affiliation and far more about philosophical leanings."

Cardenas cites the rise of the Tea Party as evidence of the increasing importance of ideas.

"I've been so impressed by their passion, their activity, their eagerness to get our country back on the right road. ... They're doing this with incredible common sense, but not necessarily with the full toolbox of conservative principles that I grew up with," he says.

"People know they're angry, they know they need a solution, they have a pretty strong feeling about what that solution would be, but I think ACU can provide the 'why,'" he said.

The "why" was established for Cardenas long ago. Born in Havana, Cuba, in 1948, he grew up in a world of summer homes and chauffeurs.

But his family essentially lost everything in the Cuban revolution and emigrated to the United States when he was 12 years of age. Penniless but proud, his father refused to allow the family to accept government aid.

"My dad said, 'Listen, we came to this country that welcomed us with open arms, and we're not going to be taking from it -- we're going to be giving to it and we're not going to accept help from anybody. We're going to make do by ourselves. We've got liberty and we've got freedom and that's all anybody should ask for,'" Cardenas relates. "That was a pretty good lesson in conservative principles ... and they became an intrinsic part of me."

He carried those principles through high school -- working three jobs, playing four sports and reading voraciously -- and law school, during which he worked as both a law clerk and a bartender.

He also carried them through his political career, including a failed bid for Congress during his 20s, and as a presidential appointee under Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. He also served two terms as chairman of the Florida Republican Party.

Cardenas believes his first priority at ACU is to reinforce the support team he already has. His first big move was to hire Gregg Keller, coalitions director for Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential bid.

Cardenas also plans to rely on Keene, who he calls one of his "most trusted advisers and friends."

But for Cardenas, no more significant support exists than his family -- his wife of 32 years, Diana, and his five children, Joe, Daniel, David, Derek and Diandra. These six people, he says, define him even more than his conservatism -- and they echo the refrain.

David Cardenas puts it this way: "I think family for him has always been his No. 1 priority, and ... the same values he has at home are the ones he espouses in politics."

That's why there are no doubts in the Cardenas clan about whether the vision for ACU will be achieved.

"When we discussed it in the family, I thought it was a tremendous opportunity," Joe Cardenas says. "I think I'll be going to my first CPAC convention this year."

If all goes according to Cardenas' plan, so will many others.

Tina Korbe is a staff writer in the Center for Media and Public Policy, an investigative journalism outlet at the Heritage Foundation.

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