Alberto Cardenas, who escaped from communist Cuba when he was 12, was elected Wednesday as the new chairman of the American Conservative Union, the first change at the top of the prominent conservative organization in more than a quarter-century.
Mr. Cardenas, a prominent Miami lawyer and a former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, also becomes the first Hispanic to lead a major national conservative organization.
"I'm honored and humbled to be accorded this responsibility by an ACU board whose members, in many cases, were movement conservatives before I was and who dedicated their lives to the Founding Fathers' principles of limited government, self-reliance and personal freedom," Mr. Cardenas said.
He takes over from David A. Keene, who has served as chairman since 1984. Mr. Keene, 65, informed the ACU board some time ago that he would be stepping down in advance of his expected election as president of the National Rifle Association in April.
With the three-day conservative conclave getting under way Thursday, CPAC organizers also announced that tea party-backed Florida Rep. Allen West, Florida Republican, regarded as among the most outspoken members of the giant freshman GOP congressional class, has been given the coveted closing address slot Saturday.
"Congressman West epitomizes the core conservative values CPAC attendees treasure: a basic belief in human freedom, traditional values and a love of country based on an appreciation of the nation's founding documents," Mr. Keene said in a statement.
Mr. West, who served in the military in Iraq, has already displayed a talent for attracting attention and gaining support among conservative activists. In defeating Democratic Rep. Ron Klein in November, Mr. West became the first black Republican congressman from Florida since 1876 and is one of just two blacks in the House GOP caucus.
With the vote of the 31-member ACU board, Mr. Cardenas, 63, takes over just as the CPAC gathering faces a sharp internal struggle over the presence of a pro-gay-rights Republican group called GOProud as one of its sponsors. A number of social conservative groups are boycotting this year's gathering in protest.
The Washington Times reported Wednesday that a group of prominent conservatives have circulated a private memo urging that the movement's founding principles be recast explicitly to exclude groups such as GOProud from the Reagan coalition of economic, security and social conservatives.
Mr. Cardenas will not formally succeed Mr. Keene as head of the ACU until the CPAC's conclusion at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel on Saturday. More than 11,000 activists from around the country are expected to attend this week, according to Mr. Keene.
In 1975, Mr. Keene tapped Mr. Cardenas, a pro-life Catholic, to be Florida co-chairman of Ronald Reagan's first campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. Mr. Cardenas later won election as chairman of the state's GOP and is credited with helping lead the party's resurgence in the state, which now boasts a Republican governor and a rising party star in freshman Sen. Marco Rubio.
Mr. Keene's political career began as national chairman of Young Americans for Freedom. He served as a senior aide to Vice President Spiro Agnew in the late 1960s and as executive assistant to then-New York Sen. James Buckley in the 1970s. He also served as an adviser to the presidential campaigns of Mr. Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole.
Mr. Cardenas and Mr. Keene are long-time friends and political allies — both supported the 2008 GOP presidential nomination campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, in a letter to fellow ACU board members, called Mr. Cardenas "a committed conservative with a remarkable life story."
Mr. Cardenas, some of whose relatives died at the hands of Cuba's Castro regime, gained new prominence as part of a U.S. delegation attending the swearing-in of a Latin American president during the George W. Bush administration. Then-Cuban President Fidel Castro was also in attendance, and when he arose to speak, Mr. Cardenas jumped to his feet and turned his back on the communist leader and held that posture throughout Mr. Castro's remarks.
Mr. Cardenas later confronted Mr. Castro directly, shouting "asesino" — Spanish for "assassin" — at the Cuban strongman as he passed by. Mr. Castro's security detail confronted Mr. Cardenas, but were stopped short when he flashed his U.S. delegation credentials at them.
Mr. Cardenas was an employer of — and has been a friend and mentor to — Mr. Rubio, a fellow Cuban-American.
Mr. Cardenas and his wife of 32 years, Diane, have five children.
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