Cesar Conda’s winding journey from intern to leading GOP policy wonk

Cesar Conda is a founding principal and policy advisor at Navigators Global lobbying and public relations company in Washington D.C.

Cesar Conda is a founding principal and policy advisor at Navigators Global lobbying and public relations company in Washington D.C.

By Cristina DC Pastor

In college and already a proud Republican, Cesar Conda had the ‘privilege’ of being the motorcade driver to then President Ronald Reagan during the G-8 Economic Summit in Williamsburg. More than three decades later and now a well-regarded political conservative, he would recount this episode of how he came up close with “one of my political heroes.”

“It was 30 plus years ago, and I was only 22 years old,” he said, “but I do remember driving the van in a very long motorcade with press people in it. I saw him in a photo op with the other leaders.”

Now a prominent and influential policy advisor on Capitol Hill, Conda, 54, is one of the top — and also one of a handful — of Filipino American leaders in the GOP. Conda served as Chief of Staff to Senator Marco Rubio from 2011 until he left the government in 2014. He worked all across the Hill, putting in time in the White House, the U.S. Senate, presidential campaigns, and think tanks in various roles.

While Asian Americans have largely identified as Democrats, Filipinos are among the biggest Asian supporters of the GOP. Asian Americans turned out in large numbers to support Barack Obama’s presidency in 2008, a voting pattern that began all the way from the Clinton Era in the early 1990s. The GOP is perceived to be a party of mostly white Americans promoting principles seen as “exclusionary” and anti-immigrant.

“Not at all,” said Conda in an interview with The FilAm, disputing the perception some Asians hold. “I found that Republicans are merit-based: If you do a good job, then you get rewarded. You do a bad job, then you don’t. My ethnicity didn’t matter.”

A first-generation immigrant, Conda joined the College Republicans as a student of Economics at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. “I began participating in the College Republicans which exposed me to grassroots organizing and political campaigns.”

He continued to be a member of the party even after college “not having any political connections.”

“I just worked hard and truth be told, I got lucky being at the right place at the right time,” he said.

The U.S.-born Conda comes from a Navy family. It has established its roots in the Tidewater area of Virginia, known for its rich colonial history and the numerous military bases around it.

“My Dad is from Bicol and my Mom is from Jolo. They came to America through the U.S. Navy,” he began. “Dad was an enlisted sailor and mom was a nurse. I’m the older of two siblings.”

As a Navy family, the Condas moved around from Virginia to California to Australia and back to Virginia in the late 1960s and ‘70s. They settled in Virginia Beach until it was time for Cesar to attend college.

“The Tidewater area had an enclave of Filipinos in the ‘50s and ‘60s, primarily because of the large Navy presence. The Filipino families tended to gravitate together at parties and community events. It was through these family interactions that my brother and I learned Filipino ways, such as calling all grown-ups ‘Tita’ and ‘Tito,’ respecting our elders, etc. The only thing my parents were strict about was doing well in school,” he continued.

“The core of my conservative values came from my parents and the Filipino community I grew up around which was based on the Catholic Church, family values and hard work,” he said. “In every Filipino family we knew, both the mom and dad worked. Also, being from a military family and traveling abroad, I got a sense of the importance of American engagement abroad.”

Senator Marco Rubio said ‘Cesar brings a wealth of policy, legislative, political and management experience’  as his Chief of Staff.

Senator Marco Rubio said ‘Cesar brings a wealth of policy, legislative, political and management experience’ as his Chief of Staff. Photos courtesy of Cesar Conda

With Vice President Dick Cheney (right) and Scooter Libby, a former adviser to Cheney

With Vice President Dick Cheney (right) and Scooter Libby, a former adviser to Cheney

Over the years, his political thinking evolved and deepened. He became even more enamored with the party, developing a strong belief in free market economics and limited government. He said, “Milton Friedman’s ‘Free to Choose’ had an enormous impact on my political philosophy. I also began to become fans of politicians such as Rep. Jack Kemp, who espoused an inclusive-style of conservatism, and of course, Ronald Reagan. Kemp and Reagan believed in upward mobility, entrepreneurship, and economic growth, thereby creating equality of opportunity for all Americans.”

In 1987, Conda became a Legislative Assistant to Senator Robert Kasten, a Republican from Wisconsin, clearing the way for his entry into Capitol Hill. He became a Legislative Director to Michigan Senator Spencer Abraham in 1995.

His involvement in two presidential campaigns put him in a short list of party members experienced in politics and public policy: Bob Dole’s in 1996 and Mitt Romney’s in 2008. Dole lost to Bill Clinton, and Romney was beaten by John McCain in the GOP primary.

It was while working as Assistant for Domestic Policy to Vice President Dick Cheney that Conda spoke of an overwhelming sense of racial pride. “Sitting in the Oval Office with the President and Vice President was quite an experience,” he said. “Only in America can the son of immigrants experience such a thing.”

In 2003, he co-founded with other Capitol Hill insiders a lobbying and public relations firm called Navigators Global LLC. Microsoft, Oracle, AT&T and NextEra Energy are among its Fortune 500 clients. He took a break in 2011 to run the office of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and stayed for nearly four years. By the time Rubio had ended his losing campaign for the presidency in March, Conda was back at Navigators Global, unwavering in his support for his former chief.

“Very proud to have worked for him over the years. I know Marco will remain a leader for conservatism,” he tweeted as @CesarConda.

Called a “highly regarded policy wonk” by the Weekly Standard, Conda said he is out of government now and focused on running his business and spending time with his family. He and his wife from Cebu, a doctor, have five sons ages 11 to 20.

He downplayed his influence in national politics, advising Executive and Legislative leaders, and especially one coming from the Filipino American community.

“I would say the most influential FilAm Republican is Joyce Yamat Meyer, who is Deputy Chief of Staff to House Speaker Paul Ryan,” he said. “She was Chief of Staff for Rep. Paul Ryan’s office when I was Chief of Staff to Sen. Rubio. We were the only Filipino American Chiefs of Staff on Capitol Hill.”

In the FilAm community, he is known as a champion of the Filipino American Youth Basketball Association of Metro DC, a team started nine years ago by a group of 25 Filipino families. He is the chairman of the board.

“Filipinos love basketball! It’s a great way for families and their children to interact with other Filipinos,” he said. “I used to play basketball, but my old knees cannot take it anymore. I now coach my sons’ teams.”

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