News Column

Five Presidential Candidates Are Boycotting Univision Debate Over Rubio

Oct. 5, 2011

Marc Caputo

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Five Republican presidential candidates are boycotting a proposed Univision debate due to allegations that the Spanish-language media giant tried to strongarm Sen. Marco Rubio, a vice-presidential shortlister, with a controversial story about a relative.

Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman and Michele Bachmann issued statements Tuesday saying Univision needs to make amends before they would appear at the debate, tentatively scheduled two days before Florida's Jan. 31 primary.

The five made their separate announcements throughout the day at the behest of three Florida Hispanic Republican lawmakers who noted that Rubio's office and Univision insiders said the network publicized an embarrassing story about the senator's brother-in-law because Rubio wouldn't do an interview on the show Al Punto, which has espoused a liberal line on the hot topic of immigration.

Univision has called the allegations of a quid-pro-quo "absurd," and said that the July story of the 24-year-old drug bust was reported fairly and accurately.

But the five candidates apparently believed the reports from Rubio's office and the Univision insiders, which were first revealed in a story in The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald on Sunday. The four other GOP candidates couldn't be reached for comment.

"Governor Perry will not consider participating in the January 29, 2012, Univision debate until your network addresses this ethical breach and takes action to correct it," communications director Ray Sullivan wrote Univision. "With NBC and Telemundo also hosting a debate the same weekend in January 2012, we will have ample opportunity to engage with Spanish-speaking Americans."

Romney didn't write a letter to Univision, but issued a statement from spokesman Ryan Williams that said: "We have not received any invitation from Univision for a debate, but we are troubled by these allegations and would not participate in any such debate unless and until Univision satisfactorily addresses this situation."

Late Tuesday, Cain's campaign issued a statement through Longwood state Rep. Scott Plakon, who said the recent Florida straw-poll winner is "out. Until Univision resolves this, he won't participate in the debate like the other candidates."

Huntsman's campaign manager, Matt David, was more measured than Perry's campaign in his letter to Univision. But he said the candidate stands firm.

"Unless Univision resolves this issue in a timely and satisfactory manner, Governor Huntsman will not give consideration to your network's debate currently proposed for January, 2012," he wrote. "We ask the other Republican candidates to join us in this decision and will work with them to identify another forum to debate issues that are important to Americans of Hispanic descent in Florida and across our nation."

The fact that the five candidates are standing by Rubio highlights his special status in the national Republican Party. The candidates have all said they'd like to have the 40-year-old child of Cuban immigrants as a running mate.

So Univision's report on Rubio's brother-in-law became an attack on the candidates.

"This issue was brought to Michele's attention and she has a great deal of respect for Senator Rubio," wrote Alice Stewart, a Bachmann spokeswoman. "We reserve our right to participate in the Univision debate pending a positive resolution of this matter by Univision."

The stance of the candidates puts them directly at odds with the most powerful name in Spanish-language media in the United States. Headquartered in Doral, Univision -- whose Miami affiliate, Univision 23, is a news partner of El Nuevo Herald -- boasts of top prime-time ratings in such cities as Los Angeles, San Antonio and Miami, regardless of language.

It reaches 95 percent of the 13.3 million Hispanic households in the United States, where Latinos are the fastest growing demographic.

A top concern: immigration, which is politically toxic for both the right and the left.

In the Republican primary, Perry has already been stung for having a moderate stance on immigration -- one that incidentally tracks Rubio's sensibilities when it comes to helping the children of certain illegal immigrants with college tuition.

Rubio, too, has been criticized by fellow Hispanics for opposing the so-called Dream Act, which would allow certain children of undocumented immigrants to become legalized U.S. residents. Rubio has said portions of the act are akin to "amnesty."

Relative to other high-profile issues, Rubio has remained quiet about immigration, Meantime, Univision personalities such as Jorge Ramos have advocated for the Dream Act. Ramos hosts one of Univision's most-watched public-affairs shows, Al Punto, which Rubio has repeatedly declined to appear on.

As frustration with Rubio mounted among Univision's higher-ups, the network's new investigations team began looking into the drug arrest of his brother-in-law, Orlando Cicilia in 1987, when Rubio was 16.

Ana Navarro, a top Florida field director with Huntsman's campaign and a friend of Rubio, contacted Univision in July in an effort to have the station stop the story.

Navarro said she told the network that the old drug arrest and Cicilia's subsequent incarceration didn't merit two days of Univision coverage because it was an old report, had no current news value and involved such a distant relative of Rubio.

Rubio's staff and Univision insiders say the network's news president offered Rubio a deal: Appear on Al Punto and the station would soften the story. Rubio declined. The story ran on July 11.

Lee and other Univision officials vehemently deny the allegation of a deal and say the drug-bust story was newsworthy and fair.

Navarro said Ramos, also a friend of hers, knew nothing of the deal.

"Jorge Ramos was out of the country when this happened," she said. "He has the highest journalistic ethical standards. He would be completely mortified by any strong-arming that involved his show. He's a tough interviewer. But he's fair."

Three of Rubio's friends and political allies -- U.S. Rep. David Rivera, state House leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera, and Miami-Dade Republican Chairman Erik Fresen -- called for the Univision boycott in a letter Monday to the Republican National Committee and the campaigns.

"This attempt at extorting a respected Republican elected official like Senator Rubio, who is also a proud American of Hispanic descent, is offensive and unacceptable," they wrote. They called on Univision to apologize and to fire Lee.

"We respectfully decline your request to issue a public apology or to request the resignation of our President of News, Mr. Isaac Lee. Lost in the inflammatory language being used by you is that our story was truthfully and accurately reported," Univision said in a written statement issued before midnight Monday.

"More importantly, Univision takes exception to the false assertion that it attempted to 'extort' Senator Rubio in any way, shape or form," the statement said. "At no point in time did anyone from Univision offer to kill or soften the story regarding Senator Rubio's brother-in-law in exchange for appearing on any Univision news program."

Still, the controversy has proved problematic for Univision. The subject came up in a meeting Tuesday between Univision president Cesar Conde, and the Republican National Committee's chairman, Reince Priebus, and Co-Chair Sharon Day. Day, who's trying to increase Republican outreach to Hispanics, said the meeting was already scheduled. She confirmed that the subject of Rubio and the debate came up, but she declined to elaborate.

Lopez-Cantera, a Perry backer, said he was pleased that the Republican candidates decided to send a message to Univision.

"This type of behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated by our leaders."

Source: (c) 2011 The Miami Herald

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