Saturday, Aug. 11, 2007 | Immigration has proved to be a divisive topic for Americans, as exemplified by Congress’ inability to reach a compromise on the issue this summer.

The issue is equally divisive within the Republican camp, where businesses hungry for laborers butt heads with hard-line conservatives preoccupied with everything from national security to the country’s cultural fabric.

Now, a man who is all too familiar with the issue stands in the middle. Tony Krvaric, a Swedish immigrant, was tapped in April to lead the Republican Party in San Diego County, where proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border makes a subject that is conceptual in other corners of the nation an everyday reality.

It took Krvaric more than a decade to gain citizenship in the United States — a span of time that dwarfs the following four years it took him to rise through the party’s ranks to become its top local spokesman.

He has one year to put together a team of local candidates for what he calls the most important election in San Diego’s history. Krvaric spoke with about that intricacies of that challenge, and his inspiration for taking it on.

Before you became involved in conservative American politics, you were steeped in a very different environment.

I was born and raised in Sweden. My parents were born in Yugoslavia at the time, in Croatia. So they grew up under Communism, my father didn’t think that was good enough so he fled under Josip Broz Tito and came to Sweden in the ’60s.

So we upgraded from Communism to socialism, which was a step up certainly. It was a great upbringing. It was a social democratic type of government, a big government, and intrusive government in my opinion.

And how did you know you wanted to come to the United States?

At age 14 — this was 1985 — Ronald Reagan was president. I was inspired by Ronald Reagan’s message of hope, optimism, the free market, to be all you can be. I wrote a letter to President Reagan, scribbled on a piece of paper, saying, “Hey Mr. Reagan, can I get an autograph? I think America is swell,” or something corny like that.

My mom had to take me to the post office to mail this little rinky-dink letter, because god knows how many stamps you needed to mail something to the United States. I could have been mailing something to Mars for all intents and purposes.

I forgot about it and four months later I received one of those don’t-bend envelopes. The mailman had to knock on the door because it didn’t fit into one of those government-mandated-size mailboxes. It was from Reagan, it was a form letter, and there was a signed photo. I don’t know whether he signed it himself or not, but to me he signed it. It could have been a bunch of ladies in the basement of the White House signing all this stuff.

So Reagan recruited you to the United States?

I received that and I made a vow to one day move to the United States, become an American, and pursue my American dream.

I came here in 1992 as a legal immigrant and became a citizen in 2003, which then really sparked my political passion. I felt like I had a stake in the game, if you will. I got involved in the local Republican Party, became active, volunteered a lot, and had the privilege of being elected successor to (former local party chairman and current state chairman) Ron Nehring in March of this year.

Did you always know you wanted to get into politics or was it when you became a citizen that flipped the switch for you?

That flipped the switch. My values were always conservative values, but as far as getting involved, that was something that happened when I became a citizen and swore that oath with 500 other people at Golden Hall. There was an Iraqi immigrant that spoke there who spoke about how he came here — they always have someone inspiring speak there. That’s what triggered that passion.

Immigration has been a hot topic, here and nationally. The Republican Party itself is much divided between business groups and anti-immigration activists. There is also a tendency to generalize all immigration issues into a debate about “illegal immigration.” Do you think the Republican Party is receptive to the issues of immigrants?

We don’t make the distinction — legal and illegal — and I think that’s unfortunate. The Republican Party is the party of legal immigrants. I came here because of values the United States presented to me: hard work, self-reliance, small government, and so on.

I’m all for people immigrating. Heck, I immigrated here. And I was welcomed into the Republican Party without any question. If you really wanted to come to the country, play by the rules, and go through the legal process: fantastic.

That said, the process needs to be reformed. It was very cumbersome to get here legally. I will admit that. That’s not a reason to not follow the system, but the system needs to be reformed.

In 2006, there was a backlash against Republicans. Democrats were swept into power in both the House and the Senate. How does your party stop the Democratic Party’s momentum and gain some of your own next time around?

I don’t think the other side has really accomplished much. I don’t think the Democrats won that as much as Republicans lost it. I do think the Republicans have gotten the message though, and we will have a Republican president in ’08.

What allows them to get that back? What are the issues you think will get voters back on your side?

On the biggest scale, it’s the war on terror — whether you fundamentally believe that there’s a war that wants to eradicate our way of life. The vast majority of Americans do believe that and recognize that and look for a leader who also recognizes that. For Democratic candidates, I don’t think we see any of them putting out a platform for how to deal with things unless it’s “Let’s pull out next week, next month or next year.”

On a broad level, it’s the war on terror. But there are other things. Are we going to increase taxes? Are we going to increase government in people’s lives? Or, are we not?

Front and center in the war on terror is the fighting in Iraq, which has grown increasingly unpopular. A number of Republican politicians have broken from their support for the war. Do you expect those Republican presidential hopefuls will have to follow suit and break from the president on this in order to be electable?

I don’t know what the candidates will do. I think the American people want to know there is a strong leader who is going to stand up to the terrorists. There are terrorists out there who want to change our way of life and destroy the freedoms we enjoy in this country. Whoever articulates and convinces the American people best, that they can deal with that, I think that will be a huge piece of who gets the vote.

What about the local values here? It seems the San Diego County Republican Party has shifted its emphasis away from tackling broad social issues toward working to increase its fundraising and candidate recruiting for local elections. What has been the response of the typical Republican activist here? Are there some who are disappointed with placing those new priorities over the traditional conservative issues?

It’s interesting. In America, we have two big parties. In Europe, you have ideologically pure parties. They each get 3 percent or 4 percent or 7 percent or 11 percent of the vote and then, after the election, they get together and they form a coalition government of 50 percent plus one.

In the United States, we have coalitions within parties. You have two big blocs, the Republicans and the Democrats, so it doesn’t mean every person agrees with everything in each respective party’s platform.

Recognizing that, what we’re focusing on locally is to be a permanent campaign organization, to make the ground as fertile as possible for Republican candidates to win and put Republican ideas into action.

We’re not here to police Republican elected officials or anything like that. They’ll be accountable at the ballot box to the voters. We’re trying to make sure there are as many Republican voters and Republican volunteers here as possible to put Republicans into office, from the mosquito abatement district up to president.

The prospect of coalition politics has surfaced in the news recently. It’s been speculated that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg could run for president, gain electoral votes as an independent, and pave the way for a scenario where he and one of the partisan candidates form a coalition. Do you think coalition politics could work here, or is it inherently a contest between two teams every time?

People have surfaced every so often to challenge that, for better or for worse. So we’ll see.

People can generally organize around ideas, or around a charismatic figure, or around a religion. We’re not organizing around a religion. And people can organize around a charismatic figure, but that’s not a lasting recipe, which is why people tend to organize and coalesce around ideas. Those are broad Republican ideas and broad Democrat ideas.

Time will tell, but I’m betting that it won’t change.

What about the state’s stance to not allow independents to vote in the presidential primary? However, the party is banking on some of those independents to turn out in the general election to vote for the GOP ticket. Doesn’t the party suffer from not having those ideas expressed early on in the process?

It is not that hard and there is not that big a hurdle to join the Republican Party. If you want to decide who the nominee should be, join the party. And we feel we have several Republican candidates that people can identify with. If some people want (Mitt) Romney, and they join because of Romney: fantastic. We have multiple spokespeople out there, and they are the reasons for joining the Republican Party. Is (Rudy) Giuliani your type Republican, someone you can identify with? Then join the Republican Party because of him, and he can be your leader.

Do you have a favorite presidential candidate right now?

Whoever the people nominate, we will be behind them 110 percent.

And 2008 is going to be the first election under your watch. Will you be changing the party’s approach to these local races?

It is a well-oiled machine, but it needs tending to all the time. We’re not making any changes. The plan is to register as many Republicans as we possibly can in critical parts of the county and recruit volunteers, specifically in critical parts of the county but certainly throughout the county. We’re not making any drastic departure, we’re just continuing the work that Ron Nehring set in place.

Locally, it seems like the city races, which are officially nonpartisan, have become increasingly partisan races because of the stronger influence of the parties through campaign expenditures.

Every race is a partisan race, as far as I’m concerned.

Does that put your candidates and your endorsed officeholders in a bind when they have to balance their constituents’ concerns and issues with the demands of your party, which is spending a lot more money on their campaigns than the people in their neighborhoods?

I don’t think there’s a conflict. Republican ideas serve every American best, so I don’t see a conflict there. It invites elected officials around the county to participate more in the party and be involved.

How about member communications? By law, the political parties are allowed to spend an unlimited amount plugging a candidate to their registered members. This has allowed businesses, groups and individuals to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars that are in turn spent on behalf and in coordination with candidates who are otherwise limited to receiving a few hundred dollars from any given individual. Some, like the city’s Ethics Commission, claim this is just a way for the donors with deep pockets to skirt those limits.We’re talking about a fundamental right — one of the things that inspired me to come to this country in the first place — to the freedom to associate and the freedom of speech.

For someone to imply that a member organization should be prohibited or regulated from communicating with its own members is absurd. Whether that be the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the labor unions, the NRA or any organization is fundamentally un-American.

Your party has already made its decision to endorse Mayor Jerry Sanders’ reelection next year, even though businessman Steve Francis, who won the Republican endorsement in 2005 and is actively involved in the state and local Republican Party, has not ruled out running. Why the early endorsement?

Jerry Sanders is a sitting incumbent Republican mayor and the stakes are as high as they are, so we wanted to get that endorsement out of the way. Now we can focus on the City Council elections. Four [of the eight council districts] are up and we need to pick up three of those.

We will consider those district elections in November. Whoever those endorsed candidates are, we are going to go full-hilt behind them. We want to see reform candidates who will be supportive of the mayor’s reform agenda.

Does that mean Steve Francis should sit this one out?

The party has endorsed Jerry Sanders. Steve will obviously do whatever Steve chooses to do. Obviously we’re hoping there is no challenger to Jerry Sanders, we have a lot of other races that are important, and I would love to work with Steve Francis or anyone else to move the ball forward in San Diego.

Finally, the one city race we haven’t talked about yet is the city attorney. Mike Aguirre, a Democrat, is only currently being challenged by another Democrat, Dan Coffey. He has taken on a number of your constituencies, be it developers or other businesses, during his tenure. Isn’t that also crucial election for the Republican Party?

I think there’s no question that Mike Aguirre needs a challenger. He is a detriment to the city at this point. There will be a challenger to him from the Republican side.

— Interview by EVAN McLAUGHLIN

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