The epiphany was palpable that summer night in Boston in 2004.
Tampa’s Frank Sanchez, a political shaker who once worked in the Clinton Administration and ran for mayor in 2003, was among the enthralled thousands at the Democratic National Convention who were moved by Barack Obama’s mesmerizing speech to the delegates.
At a gathering that was viscerally united in whom it was against, Obama clearly stole the show by projecting a positive, charismatic persona, one that would have been easy to rally around that very night.
“There was definitely this feeling,” recalls Sanchez, 48, “that this was a guy who might one day run for president. I just assumed it would be 2012 or later.”
Fast forward three years later. The rally is on.
Obama, 45, is a rookie senator from Illinois who is heavily in the hunt for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanchez is a key policy adviser on Latin America. He’s also the Obama campaign’s finance chairman for the seven-county Tampa Bay region and a member of Obama’s national finance committee.
To date, Obama, a competitive second to Sen. Hillary Clinton in most early polls, has raised more than $56 million through the first two quarters of 2007. Moreover, that figure reflects a donor base of some 260,000. Clinton has raised nearly as much but from less than half as many donors, many of whom are now tapped out. At a comparable point in 2003, the “phenomenon” that was Howard Dean had 70,000 donors.
“I was confident he would do well,” says Sanchez, “but no idea it would be this quickly. The Clintons have been developing a national network for 25 years. Senator Obama’s had a national network for six months.”
Sanchez, the CEO of Tampa-based Renaissance Steel, a growing, regional player in the Light Gauge Steel building business, concedes that the roles of busy executive and campaign adviser/financial guru have been taxing. “I wouldn’t kid you,” he acknowledges. “It’s been a real challenge to juggle. I try to limit the campaign work to after hours, weekends, some lunch time and the occasional call at the office.”
Sanchez is one of those indispensable, go-to sorts that national campaigns require. He’s at home in corporate suites or hustings haunts. He has that killer rolodex and access to activists with money. He can delegate; he’s likeable; and he’s Hispanic. And this, of course, is Tampa Bay, which you must have to win Florida, which you must have to win the nation.
“I do it, frankly, because I enjoy the process, it’s worth it to make a difference and I can’t remember the country being more divided,” explains Sanchez. “I consider it a mission.”
A mission, he underscores, to help elect someone who is more than Democratic boiler plate in an intriguing, bi-racial package. Someone who is the antithesis of divisive and polarizing. Someone, he says, uniquely positioned to send a signal to the rest of the world that they do, indeed, misperceive America as an arrogant, hypocritical hegemon.
“He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” states Sanchez. “A defining characteristic is that he’s an amazing listener. He’s not some superficial glad-hander. And he’s perfect for a time when people are genuinely sick of Washington politics.
“He’s also perfect from the international perspective,” adds Sanchez. “He would be our strongest voice overseas. He’s intelligent, has lived overseas and has a sensitivity to points of view outside the U.S. I think it would speak volumes that we would elect someone of his background and world view. That’s a very positive message to the world.”
*Florida commitments. July 22 – Obama (and Hillary Clinton) will address the Hispanic-affiliated National Council of La Raza in Miami. August 24 – Obama in Tallahassee. Late September – Obama in Tampa for a private fund-raiser with a public component.
As to the uncertainty surrounding Florida’s early Jan. 29 primary: “We’re still formulating our resources,” says Sanchez. “But put it this way for now: This (state) is too important not to compete.”
*Media. “Obama genuinely likes meeting people,” says Sanchez, “and yet he feels there’s this element in the press that invokes ‘gotcha politics.’ So you have to be careful. But to his credit, he hasn’t lost his authenticity.”
*Trade. Obama voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement two years ago. “He’s hardly for reversing globalization,” notes Sanchez, “but he doesn’t want to give lip service to labor issues and environmental concerns.”
*Latin America. Overriding theme of Sanchez’s advice: “For starters, we need to re-engage with Latin America. Brazil and Chile come readily to mind. For the last six years we’ve ignored Latin America – much to our detriment.”
*Cuba. Do not expect any dramatic policy shift from Obama beyond making the case for reversing the travel ban for Cuban-Americans. Sanchez is certainly not recommending any bold initiatives on the embargo, which he considers “leverage” for changes on the island.
“Thoughtful” and “inclusive” and “incremental” are the watchwords of caution and calculation. Don’t anticipate a diplomatic stroke that would “turn on a dime.”
*Iraq. In a recent TV interview, Sanchez had noted Obama’s position to “redeploy out of combat by March ’08.” He’s reluctant to speak definitively on the core issue that is as protean as it is controversial. But he does say this: “Obama was against the war six months before it started – and foresaw the consequences. I am very comfortable with that.”
In fact, here’s what Obama said in 2002: “I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war.