Raúl Labrador: The Tea Party’s Speaker

Raúl Labrador: The Tea Party’s Speaker

By Emily Cadei

Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) speaks to reporters following a meeting with House Republicans on the eighth day of a government shutdown at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 8, 2013.
SourceStephen Crowley/The New York Times/Redux


One of the most vocal of the 2010 wave of tea party Republicans to join Congress, this Puerto Rican native from Idaho says the time has come for the GOP to be more than just the “Party of No.”

By Emily Cadei

Listening to tea party firebrand Raúl Labrador lambast Obamacare and big-spending Democrats doesn’t exactly bring to mind Ted Kennedy, the longtime “Liberal Lion” of the Senate.

But, in fact, Ted Kennedy did play a part in leading him to politics — by way of Labrador’s mother, Ana Georgina Pastor, who once took her 9-year-old son to a 1976 presidential rally in their native Puerto Rico.

Pastor was a big fan of former President John F. Kennedy and his iconic family because of his support for closer ties between the mainland U.S. and Puerto Rico. It wasn’t until Pastor, a single mother and a staunch Democrat, packed up her belongings and moved with her only child to Las Vegas in the early 1980s that she began to rethink that affiliation, becoming one of thousands of “Reagan Democrats” to switch parties around that time.

His small government policies and commitment to spending cuts are popular in the rural first district of Idaho, but enrage most Democrats.

In their first years on American soil, “she went to register to vote, and I was surprised that she registered as Republican,” Labrador recalls. “It was very impactful,” he says. He credits his mother with shaping much of his direction in life: “She was a strong woman, not easily swayed to change her opinion.”

It was her influence that also led him to become a Mormon as a teenager — an unlikely move for a Puerto Rican immigrant. Pastor was looking for a way to keep her teenage son out of trouble in Las Vegas when a friend recommended she sign him up for the youth program at the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Though he started out skeptical, Labrador quickly embraced the Mormon church’s emphasis on family, which he says resonated with his own dreams for an all-American nuclear family.

Family portrait of Raul, his wife to his front, left and his 5 children surrounding him.

Labrador (center, back), his wife (second from right) and their five children

Nearly 40 years later, it’s his mother’s up-by-the-bootstraps attitude (as opposed to any lingering effect of a long-ago Kennedy campaign stump speech) that is abundantly evident in Labrador’s words and policies. That same direct, do-it-yourself approach also helps explain the 46-year-old’s lightspeed ascent to the heights of national politics — emerging as a leading voice among those on the right who have made it their mission to block Obama administration policies and, when they feel it necessary, stymie their own party’s leadership’s attempts at compromise.

It was Labrador who, along with a dozen or so other House Republicans and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, orchestrated the strategy that led to the government shutdown last year.

Labrador’s mother, in her later years, teased him for turning into such a staunch Republican. He would tell her, “It’s your fault; you taught me to rely on myself!” Her strongly held opinions, he laughs, might also have something to do with his own fierce debate style, which has proved to be popular in conservative circles — and a ratings bonanza for political talk shows of all stripes, where he ably plays the tea party foil to a rotating cast of centrist and progressive voices.

Andy Roth, vice president of government affairs at the antitax advocacy group the Club for Growth (which, as you might guess, approves of Labrador — giving him a 95 percent lifetime rating for his positions in Congress), credits the Idaho congressman’s rising Washington profile to the fact that “he’s not afraid to speak out. If he thinks that something is going wrong, he’s not afraid to challenge leadership.” 

But Idaho politics expert David Adler says it’s more than that: Not only does Labrador talk the talk, but he also walks the walk.

As a Latino and former immigration lawyer, an overhaul of America’s broken immigration system is also on Labrador’s docket.

“So often politicians say one thing after town hall meetings, but then they vote differently,” says Adler, director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. Labrador supporters “really like the fact that he gives it really straight from the shoulder; he does take positions that really reflect what he says on the campaign trail or in town hall meetings.”

For example, he voted against the budget deal that reopened the government in the fall, despite the fact that it boosted Idaho’s nuclear research facility, a major employer in the state. Labrador has also pushed to limit federal influence on his state’s abundant supply of open land and natural resources. He also supports efforts to amend the Constitution to require the U.S. government to balance its budget.

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, second from left, and other members of the House of Representatives leave after the Republican-controlled House voted to let insurance companies sell individual health coverage to all.

Labrador (second from left) and other members of the House of Representatives

His small government policies and uncompromising commitment to spending cuts are broadly popular in the largely rural first district of Idaho, which stretches along the state’s western border, but they enrage most Democrats.

Like it or not, though, you know where this man stands. Which is to the far right. But he knows his party can’t simply react to what it doesn’t like in Washington. 

In person, his tone is soft and measured — a far cry from the flamethrower he plays on TV — as he argues that Republicans now have to move beyond the shutdown he helped create (which he insists helped draw a clear line between the parties on health care). He says Republicans need to present alternatives. And not just on health care, but on everything else they criticize: “What is our welfare reform bill, what is our tax reform bill, what is our position on entitlement reform?” he says. Doing so, he believes, so will help them win back the Senate this November.

As a Latino and former immigration lawyer, an overhaul of America’s broken immigration system is also on Labrador’s docket — though he walked away from a bipartisan group of House members trying to hammer out a compromise measure last year. House Democratic leaders, he says, “thought they could cram the Senate bill down our throats.”

And he argues against action in 2014 — for unapologetically political reasons: “Right now I think this is an issue that could divide our conference, and I think our goal should be to get beyond the divisive issue, unite our conference and … focus on the election.” Labrador says Congress should address the issue in 2015, when he hopes his party will have firm control of Congress and can pass a series of bills that address various elements of the issue, as opposed to the comprehensive all-in-one bill Democrats favor.

And where does Labrador see himself fitting into all these discussions in 2015 and beyond? He publicly decided against a primary challenge to Idaho’s Republican Gov. Butch Otter earlier this year, saying he enjoys working on important federal issues like immigration and national spending too much to run for statewide office.

And Labrador predicts the top slot in the House could come open in the not-so-distant future. “I just don’t think that John [Boehner] is going to run again” for House Speaker next year, he says. “I think somebody else will be speaker.” 

Could that somebody be Labrador? “If there’s any way I can serve, I will,” he says. The door, in other words, is wide open.

This OZY encore was originally published Feb. 14, 2014.