Bush’s new Buddy Fernando Mateo Raises a Fortune

There is Fernando Mateo, standing with a crowd of demonstrators in Union City, N.J., protesting the death of a 17-year-old Latino boy killed by local police officers. There he is again, in front of New York City Hall, addressing a group of 2,000 livery cab drivers chanting and blocking the sidewalks, demanding that Mayor Michael Bloomberg roll back hack fines.

And there is Fernando Mateo, on a private plane with the Mayor en route from the Dominican Republic, getting photographed on the tarmac, advising him on how to win back the Hispanic vote. And again at Governor George Pataki’s elbow, as top officials of the Republican National Committee open an office on a broiling summer afternoon in Washington Heights. And again in a private midtown hotel suite with President George W. Bush, who greets him with all rolling “r’s” and long “o’s”: ” Ferrrrrnandoooo !”

Fernando Mateo, president of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers, is a Bush Pioneer, which means he has raised at least $100,000 for the President’s re-election campaign. And he’s well on his way to becoming a Ranger, an even more elite group-only 23 people so far-who have raised a minimum of $200,000. In all, there are only 68 Rangers and Pioneers.

Mr. Mateo doesn’t exactly fit the profile. Mr. Bush’s biggest fund-raisers tend to be the wealthiest of wealthy white men. During the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, they were housed at the $400-per-night Westin Hotel. They spent their time in luxury skyboxes, attending catered breakfasts and private receptions and enjoying the perks of being a V.I.P.

Next year, when the Republicans come to Manhattan to re-nominate Mr. Bush, Mr. Mateo can expect to travel in such circles.

“I raised $400,000 for Governor Pataki in the last election,” Mr. Mateo beams from behind a pair of designer sunglasses that he never seems to take off, not even indoors. “I have raised $103,000 for President George W. Bush-no, $108,000. I hope to reach at least a quarter of a million dollars before the end of the year.”

Because of the way fund-raising records are kept, these numbers are impossible to confirm. If true-and no one from either camp is disputing them-they represent an extraordinary output for a man who made virtually no political contributions before the mid-1990′s. Even then, on those rare occasions when Mr. Mateo wrote checks, they went to people like U.S. Representatives Charles Rangel, Nydia Velazquez and Nita Lowey-Democrats all. One recent analysis, by the Center for Responsive Politics, found that 81 percent of Mr. Mateo’s federal contributions were to Democrats.

But now, Mr. Mateo has emerged as an influential and effective fund-raiser for Republicans, at least those named George-Mr. Pataki and Mr. Bush.

Fernando Mateo was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in a family of 10 children in the projects on the Lower East Side. As a young man, he started a small carpet business with his father and passed out his business cards in those very projects. Eventually, he moved uptown to a showroom across from the Citicorp building, selling high-end carpets to residents of the Upper East Side. His other businesses have included construction companies and a money-transferring operation, Mateo Express, a sort of Western Union to the Dominican Republic, which he has since sold.

Mr. Mateo adamantly refuses to identify all of his businesses, which are privately held. But there’s no doubt they are successful. He now lives in the affluent Westchester suburb of Irvington, where homes routinely sell for $2 million.

The G.O.P. couldn’t have ordered up a better example of the self-made entrepreneur than Fernando Mateo. In the eyes of Republican leaders, he is proof positive that they are a big-tent party, hostile neither to minorities nor the poor.

“Fernando Mateo is a leader in the Dominican and Hispanic communities because he has a keen understanding of the issues that are of importance to the Hispanic community at large,” said Mr. Pataki’s spokeswoman, Mollie Fullington. “The Governor considers Fernando a friend.”

Indeed he does. The two met in the late 1990′s, when a rash of murders of livery-cab drivers left the Dominican community gripped with fear and rage. Seeing an opening, the Governor called Mr. Mateo, and the two worked together on legislation to protect the drivers. After the bill’s signing, Mr. Pataki and his communications director, Michael McKeon, lunched with Mr. Mateo- “Freddy,” Mr. McKeon calls him-at the Mirage Restaurant on Dyckman Street. “That was really when it all began, there at that lunch,” recalled Mr. McKeon, now a consultant who does pro bono public relations for Mr. Mateo’s nonprofit causes, including the taxi federation and Hispanics Across America.

In 2001, Mr. Pataki swore in Mr. Mateo as president of the taxi drivers’ group. The following year, Mr. Mateo organized a “Fiesta Pataki” to raise money for the Governor’s re-election campaign.

Mr. Pataki wasn’t a hard sell in the Dominican community. He often visitsWashington Heights, and his health-care program for children is popular in Hispanic neighborhoods.

For Mr. Bush, it may not be so easy, which is where Mr. Mateo comes into play. In poor communities-and the Dominicanimmigrant community is among New York’s poorest-Mr. Bush is widely seen as a friend to the rich. Many see the Justice Department’s post-9/11 security crackdown as anti-immigrant. When the Republicans opened their headquarters in Washington Heights, a spirited group of Democratic protesters from the neighborhood nearly drowned out parts of their press conference-a very unusual occurrence at a carefully scripted G.O.P. event.

Selling Bush

But Mr. Mateo has found his opening. He is raising money from the Dominican entrepreneurial community, the owners of supermarkets, travel agencies and chains of bodegas. “If you are a politician, he’s a great guy to have on your side,” said public-relations executive Andy Morris, who worked with Mr. Mateo in the early 1990′s on the innovative “Toys for Guns” program. “He’s very good at aggregating a lot of people who can write checks within the campaign-finance limits.”

“You have a lot of small mom-and-pop businesses. That’s Republican belief, and that is why our community is responding,” Mr. Mateo said. Perhaps-or perhaps it’s because of Mr. Mateo’s relentless energy. For him, ideology is less important than who will pay attention to him, and to the Dominican community. “They’re responding more to seeing the Governor, talking to him, holding him,” he said, when asked why some Dominicans were supporting the G.O.P.

For Mr. Mateo, political recognition has always been tied up in his causes. There was the Mateo Institute for Training-a “very different M.I.T.,” as the Associated Press called it-a prison-based program that offered job training and a position in one of Mr. Mateo’s construction firms. Mr. Mateo appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show twice to talk about the program, and it was designated one of President George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” in the early 1990′s.

“He is a very savvy, smart, tough self-promoting businessman and public voice,” said Mark Green, the former Mayoral candidate. “He is a Republican, but he’s principled within his own principles. He loves success, and loves to leverage his charisma and his contacts to get things done.”

Mr. Mateo became friends with Mr. Green when they worked together on the “Toys for Guns” program, which encouraged city residents to surrender their weapons, no questions asked, in exchange for toys. Mr. Mateo has also worked with Democrats on issues ranging from hurricane relief to compensation for the Dominican families that lost loved ones on American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed shortly after taking off from the John F. Kennedy International Airport in the fall of 2001. He was at all the press conferences and in all the photos.

It was Mr. Pataki-himself a Bush Ranger-who introduced Mr. Mateo to Mr. Bush at a February 2002 fund-raiser at Mayor Bloomberg’s townhouse. “The Governor told the President I was one of his biggest supporters-never mind being Hispanic, just in general,” Mr. Mateo said. “And the President said to me, ‘Great job.’ And I said to him I would love to see him come eat rice and beans and plantains in Washington Heights, so he can see what our community is about. And the President said in Spanish, ‘ Buena idea ‘-good idea.”

And then the President invited Mr. Mateo to a White House Christmas party, where Mr. Mateo suggested that he start a Dominican Independence Day celebration at the White House. Mr. Bush did, on Feb. 27. Laura Bush hosted it.

Mr. Bush appointed Mr. Mateo to a position with the White House Scholars Commission. The commissioners get a special pin, which Mr. Mateo routinely sports on his lapel.

Mr. Mateo has been telling Karl Rove, the President’s political adviser, that Mr. Bush needs to come to Washington Heights so the Dominicans can “put their arms around him.”

At the moment, however, Mr. Bush has yet to eat his rice and beans and plantains. Of course, he’ll be in town in September of 2004. Who knows?