When Alberto “Al” Cardenas was elected chairman of the Florida Republican Party in 1998, the Democrats had held a majority in the Florida legislature since the 1860s. Together with Jeb Bush, who had just been elected governor of Florida, Cardenas was able to get the Florida legislature to a Republican majority, where it remains today, in part by garnering the Hispanic vote. “We made the Hispanic community feel welcome in our party, and I consider that perhaps my greatest legacy in Florida politics,” Cardenas says.
I came to Miami from Cuba with the first wave of political refugees in 1960. Like most refugees, my family and I came with nothing, but the clothes on our back. My dad, who was a major bank president in Cuba, found a job as a bookkeeper for $45 a week. I helped make ends meet by mowing lawns, delivering newspapers, and selling doughnuts on weekends.
I struggled to educate myself. After high school, I received offers to play collegiate sports, but my dad suffered a heart attack and my family needed me to stay nearby and pitch in financially, so I worked as a lifeguard while attending Miami-Dade College. I was able to attend Seton Hall Law School with academic assistance and worked part-time.
Trading words with
Reward for hard work.
The key to progress.
An essential ingredient for contributing to society.
It was in law school that I developed a passion for public service and politics. I became chairman of the Ocean County Republican Party [in New Jersey] in 1974 at age 21. I had a job with a law firm lined up after law school, but then my father passed away. I didn’t want to leave my mother and sister alone, so I joined them in Miami.
I returned to Miami in 1979 to work as a partner in the law firm of Greenberg Traurig LLP. I never lost my passion for public service, but by then I had married and had children (now five), and wanted to provide my family with a better standard of living than I had growing up. I formed a title company that allowed me to make a living and participate in politics.
I decided to run for Congress in Miami at age 28. At the time, only 5 to 10 percent of Hispanics were registered voters, the district was primarily Democrat, and the incumbent Claude Pepper was a legend. I lost, but the race was a turning point in my life: it allowed me to meet the stars of the Republican Party, including George W. Bush. His dad came to campaign for me, as did Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole.
When Ronald Reagan ran for president in 1980, I headed his campaign in Florida. I was 30 years old. He appointed me chair of the President’s Commission on Small and Minority Business Affairs in 1982 and special ambassador to St. Kitts-Nevis in 1983.
When my mentor Mel Greenberg passed on, I decided to start my own law firm. I did so with my friend and neighbor Thomas Tew, and 20 years later we’re still operating Tew Cardenas LLP. I’ve had the privilege to be counsel of record in a number of precedent-setting decisions. For example, we helped the city of Hialeah in South Florida draft a public-health ordinance when members of the Santería church, which practiced ritual animal slaughter, were leaving animal carcasses around the city. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the ordinance, and we represented the city. We prevailed in the US District Court for the District of Southern Florida and the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. We lost in the US Supreme Court by a five-to-four margin, but it’s a precedent setting case that’s taught in our law schools today. We also participated in a number of legal issues during the recount of the Bush-Gore campaign.
I stayed active in the political process while practicing law. I served three terms as vice chairman and two terms as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, the largest state political party in the country, making me the first Hispanic to lead a major state party and to this day the only Hispanic Republican Party chairman in Florida history. By the time I left the party, we had offices in Tallahassee and Washington, DC, where I started spending more time. One of my most rewarding efforts has been being a leader in promoting the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.
You have to dedicate a lot of time to a career in law and politics. At some point in your life, opportunity will present itself, and you need to be prepared. Some people call it luck; I call it destiny. Like anything else in life, the rules are simple; it’s the execution that’s hard. Your chances of success are greatly enhanced by focusing not on yourself, but on your mission.