WATERTOWN, Mass. – Gabriel Gómez would have looked like a typical politician as he sat down for an interview at his campaign headquarters, were it not for one telling detail: The thick black running watch he displayed on his left wrist, tied together with pieces of bright pink and white duct tape.
“I run too much and sweat breaks the band,” said Gómez, 47, who ran in the Boston Marathon as his family waited for him near the finish line — lucky for him, he finished just a couple of minutes before the bombs exploded. “My band always breaks and I have to use my kids’ tape.”
It seems a fitting metaphor for a fragile city trying to “hold strong,” and for a newcomer on the scene, carefully piecing together a political identity.
Gómez, who is running as a Republican for a U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts, touts himself as a fiscal conservative but social moderate: He’s for spending cuts but supports gay marriage; he’s pro-life but says that Roe v. Wade is “settled” law. He supports the immigration reform bill set forth by Sen. Marco Rubio and seven other bipartisan senators.
I’m a first-generation American. I learned Spanish first. I’m a military guy. And I’m not a career politician.
But he says that most of his political views are based on personal and professional experience. His nervousness is sometimes obvious when his hands visibly tremble, but he seemed at ease as he chatted about how he grew up speaking Spanish.
“Even to this day, my dad still won’t speak English to me,” said Gómez, who would become the first Latino senator from Massachusetts. “To his credit, he was very opinionated about making sure we always spoke Spanish in the house.”
His parents immigrated to Los Angeles from Colombia in the mid-1960s. Gómez’s life since then reads like a string of successes, at least on paper: NAVY pilot and SEAL, Harvard Business School graduate, profitable businessman with a wife and four children.
Gómez is capitalizing on his unique background and on the frustrations of Americans with the political gridlock in Washington and is making himself out to be a fresh-faced candidate, a “new Republican,” who is “not a politician,” as some of his campaign ads claim.
“I’m a first-generation American,” he said. “I learned Spanish first. I’m a military guy. And I’m not a career politician.”
Some voters find his background refreshing, in particular, some veterans, who respect Gómez for his military service.
“I think he’s a good fit,” said George Nicholson, commander of the Quincy Veteran’s Council. “He’s his own man and that’s the kind of politician we need.”
The GOP found a similar appeal in Scott Brown, said Robert Boatright, professor of political science at Clark University.
“I had thought [Gómez] would do better in the primary; he doesn’t really seem to be distinguishing himself that much,” Boatright said. “He’s the closest thing they have to a Scott Brown type of character. He’s like a wildcard.”
There is effectively no Republican party in Massachusetts, said Boatright.
“For the past decade or two it has been a vehicle for people who have a good story to tell,” he said. “That’s why Mitt Romney and Scott Brown won.”
But a compelling story may not be enough for the state’s Latinos, who overwhelmingly lean Democratic. And Gómez’s roots matter less in the April 30 primary than they would if he were to make it to the general election, said Alejandra St. Guillén, executive director of Oíste, a statewide Latino advocacy organization.
“If he were to win then he could leverage his background,” she said. “The thing is, Latinos don’t just vote for Latinos, they have to relate to something.”
At a U.S. Senate forum in March hosted by the United Healthcare Workers union, Gómez was a no-show — as were the other Republican candidates. The event drew over 500 people from different unions across the state, according to organizers.
Most Latinos at the event said they wouldn’t vote for Gómez, even though he is Latino, because of his party affiliation.
“As a Latina, I have nothing against him,” said Antonia Córdoba, who is from El Salvador. “For me, he represents a party that is against immigrants. I wouldn’t vote for him.”
Gómez’s absence at the event disappointed some attendees.
“He’s not well-known, but Latinos are always excited to see our representatives come out and always hope that someone with his background would better reflect the Latino experience,” said Juan López, liaison to the Boston City Council.
Gómez said that despite his success — an investment banker and entrepreneur, he has earned $8.5 billion over the past five years and owns a home worth $2.1 million in Cohasset, a wealthy suburb of Boston — he has worked hard for what he has and is running so that other Latinos can also pursue their dreams.
“The reason that I’m running is because I want them and their kids to have the same opportunities I had,” he said.
St. Guillén, the activist leader, said that if Gómez were to win, the GOP would be wise to put its weight behind him, especially given the party’s need to outreach to the Latino community. And, even if he loses, it’s impressive that he came out of nowhere to run for a statewide seat, she said.
“We know that he’s wealthy and I’m sure that helps, but money doesn’t buy elections. You really have to have a level of appeal to voters, which he obviously does,” she said. “Given more time, he could definitely become a major political player.”