Southern Republican Leadership Conference: Oklahoma’s Estela Hernandez is a key player

OKLAHOMA CITY – When the 2016 Republican presidential campaign arrives full force in Oklahoma this weekend, conservative activist Estela Hernandez will be more than an interested observer.

Hernandez is a key player for the state Republicans in promoting the Southern Republican Leadership Conference (SRLC), scheduled May 21-23, including Friday night’s “Energizing America Gala,” designed to raise money for the state party. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, will keynote that evening, which will run from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.

State and local Republican officials are for the most part avoiding even a hint of favoritism.

In an interview, Hernandez scrupulously avoided naming her favorite or favorites among the baker’s dozen of presidential aspirants who will appear in Oklahoma City.

She had several nice words to say about the field in general, and certain of the individuals. 

In addition to Cruz, most of the candidates or potential candidates will get starring moments Thursday, Friday or Saturday.

It is the largest Republican field in modern history, and includes California businesswoman Carly Fiorina, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, South Carolina U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Dr. Ben Carson, and former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (who won the Oklahoma presidential primary in 2012).

Monday afternoon, conference officials announced two other hopefuls – former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore and retired IRS Commissioner Mark Everson – will also participate. Additionally, the wife of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee will speak.

Only Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and billionaire tycoon Donald Trump are missing or not represented at the OKC confab.

Hernandez was elected vice-chairman of the state Republican party at the recent Republican state convention. She has labored in the activist trenches for a decade, addressing a party convention for the first time in 2011. She was named one of the party’s “rising stars” in 2013, and has taken an active role discussing a wide range of issues.

In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Hernandez said the Republican party needs to better communicate its core messages of economic liberty and traditional values to minority voters. She said the challenge the GOP faces is not content, but the framing and projection of that content. “We have long needed to do a better job delivering our message.” She continued, “We have allowed the other side to define us. It’s time for Republicans to define themselves” with all Americans, including potential new registrants.

Every month, Hernandez attends naturalization ceremonies for new citizens. She told CapitolBeatOK those moments inspire her, and give her practical motivation as she meets the new Americans to discuss issues and offer them an opportunity to register to vote. Intriguing to her is the fact that “for the most part, they know little or nothing about the political parties, but I have found they share conservative values on family and other matters.”

As for immigration policy, she was a little reserved, but said he opposes “executive or presidential mandates. I want immigration reforms to come from the elected representatives of the people.” She said the Obama administration’s orders cut shot a promising debate in Congress that slowed, for now, a legislative reform.

In a 2013 letter to CapitolBeatOK, Hernandez said, “Modernizing our outdated immigration system is one of the most critical issues facing our country today and Congress must take action to enhance our business climate, grow our economy and enrich our local communities – especially here in Oklahoma.”

Several of the presidential hopefuls, she observed, have put forth policies to allow for broader legal immigration and paths to citizenship.

Born in El Salvador, and came to the United States when she was six years old. After growing up in New Jersey and living in Texas, she came to Oklahoma.

Hernandez is married to Ezequiel and they three children – Hannah, Samuel and Zeke. The youngest (Zeke) politely avoided interrupting discourse as his mother chatted with this reporter during an interview at state Republican headquarters on N. Lincoln Boulevard near the state Capitol. After the conversation ended, he properly responded with a firm handshake to the visiting journalist.

Details on the conference are available online here. From there, you can link to information on the fundraising dinner.

Despite opinion surveys that have shown former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton holding a lead over any individual in the Republican field, grass roots activists and party officials have a palpable sense of optimism about the party’s prospects next year.

After a methodical move toward the GOP that accelerated in the early 1990s, Oklahoma transformed from a state dominated by Democrats to one where every statewide elected office is held by Republicans.

Local conservatives contend tsunami that hit state politics in 2010 makes Oklahoma a model for understanding political transformation.

Estela Hernandez sounds the most hopeful of all about 2016, and Oklahoma’s prominence in the primary process: “This is a chance for us in Oklahoma to shine and provide a great platform for our presidential hopefuls. I am excited to be part of it.”