A prominent Hispanic Republican and Miami power broker accused Mitt Romney of lacking leadership and compassion in his approach to immigration in an interview with BuzzFeed this week, and warned that elements of the Miami party machinery won't engage on election day without a more expansive Romney plan on immigration.
Rep. David Rivera, who represents the southwestern tip of the Sunshine State, is the only Latino Republican in the House who's not on Romney's Hispanic Steering Committee, kept at arm's length by the presidential candidate because of a set of investigations into his personal finances. He recently introduced legislation that would give amnesty to some immigrants who came to to the country as children. And he said he has yet to see a serious, satisfying proposal from Romney on the issue.
"I think Hispanic voters expect more details as to what that 'permanent solution' might be that he keeps talking about," Rivera said, referring to Romney's pledge to fix the immigration system while in office.
In the telephone interview, Rivera rejected the notion that Romney can largely bypass the issue by focusing on Latinos' high unemployment rate, as has apparently been the campaign's strategy.
"The economy is the number one issue for every voter," Rivera said. "But there are issues that are important to different voters other than the economy. For Evangelicals, pro-life issues are important. For gun owners, gun rights are very important."
He added, "Gov. Romney has taken positions on issues other than the economy. Immigration shouldn't be an exception. I think he could show more leadership on the issue by unveiling a specific proposal."
Rivera chalked up Romney's failure to articulate a comprehensive immigration plan to fear of the tough politics.
"I think they're probably worried about wading into a quagmire where whatever he does he will be criticized from the right, and have it not be satisfactory to those for whom the issue matters," he said. "So they may not want to wade into that debate. But that's what presidential campaigns are for. To put out your proposals and let voters judge them on their merits."
Elected to the House in 2010, Rivera has been a fixture in local Florida politics for the past decade. But he's also spent recent years battling investigations into his personal finances and disclosure of income from his time as a state legislator. Most recently, The Miami Herald reported that the FBI and IRS are probing payments from a dog track operator.
The investigations have prompted national Republicans, including Romney, to keep their distance from the South Florida congressman, and explain why he's the only Hispanic Republican in the House who isn't tied to the Romney campaign. But Rivera has denied even being contacted by federal authorities, and his defenders have included Senator Marco Rubio.
“One of things that’s startled me is that only in Washington are people expected to turn their backs on friends when things may not be going well for them,” Rubio told Politico after holding a recent fundraiser for Rivera. “That’s certainly not the way I want to operate.”
Rivera's place in the national party, meanwhile, isn't just symbolic. He's a big wheel in Miami's Republican machine, a long-time leader of its conservative Cuban community. (In the primaries, he ran Newt Gingrich's campaign, and reportedly helped produce an ad labeling Romney "anti-immigrant.") He represents a crucial district in a crucial swing state, and Romney will need strong Cuban-American support to carry Florida.
Asked whether he would rally that community to turn out for Romney on election day, Rivera said he was committed to defeating President Obama. But he added that as long as Romney's immigration position remains hazy, he would refuse to act as an official surrogate to Hispanic voters.
"I'm not willing to participate in any Hispanic outreach efforts without seeing more details on a permanent solution for these kids," he said.
He said Obama is winning the fight for Hispanic voters because Romney hasn't given his Latino supporters anything to work with.
"Right now, his Hispanic supporters and Hispanic surrogates don't have the ammunition to combat the Obama attacks on him," Rivera said.
And while he said immigration isn't necessarily a pressing concern for the large Cuban-American population in his district, Romney is at risk of alienating even conservative Hispanic citizens by signaling apathy for the community's plight.
"It goes to what I will call the compassion factor," Rivera said. "Cuban-Americans would like to see a level of compassion in their next president exhibited toward Hispanic kids in the Southwestern United States. They're very sympathetic to the plight of these kids, and it will certainly be on their radar screen the approach the candidates take. I think Gov. Romney would serve himself well to take a more specific position."
This story has been updated to correct a transcription error in the final quote. The current version is accurate.