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New blood

A moderate, Latino Republican fights for a state seat

On a Saturday in May, David Rodriguez saunters down a soft hill in a quaint Gwinnett County neighborhood. The first-term Lawrenceville city councilman is clad in shorts and sneakers and has just finished his first canvass of the day as he campaigns for the District 104 state House seat.

Rodriguez's quest is to add another Latino voice to the state House; some in the community even view him as a future leader. He looks up and is surprised to see that his opponent — first-term state Rep. John Heard — is working the same street. Except Heard is zipping around on one of those futuristic Segways, dressed in khakis and a polo shirt. When Heard spots Rodriguez, he rolls up to him. "What have I done to make you upset enough that you'd run against me?" Heard asks.

Rodriguez is taken aback by the sudden confrontation, but manages to cite a law that Heard backed which speeds up the time in which developers can get building permits. Rodriguez thinks it gives developers a license to run wild.

Heard responds that he thinks the law unclogs the government bureaucracy. "You do a good job on city council," the incumbent says. "I support you there, and I do a good job in the state Legislature. You coming in as a freshman, you're cutting your water off."

"I can do a great job, too," Rodriguez replies. "I hate it when people tell me that I'm not going to be able to succeed because that just makes me get fired up to succeed."

"There are 180 people down there and you won't be able to succeed," Heard says. Then he leans forward on his Segway and zooms away.

Rodriguez shakes his head and walks back to the car. He's fuming. He remembers people telling his father, fresh from fleeing Cuba when Castro came to power, that he couldn't succeed because he didn't speak English well enough. His father hadn't listened, neither will Rodriguez. "I won't be ineffective," he says finally. "You're going to look at my term and see some great stuff."

In Georgia's conservative political arena, David Rodriguez is a middle-of-the-road Republican who, on most issues, could probably be just as comfortable as a Democrat. But Rodriguez, by heritage, is a Republican version of a yellow-dog Democrat. When President Kennedy didn't follow through with the Bay of Pigs invasion, many Cuban-Americans, like Rodriguez's father, felt betrayed. "Cubans are pretty much by definition Republicans," he says. "Kennedy didn't take out Castro. For that, many Cubans felt they could never support his party."

Rodriguez's candidacy has taken on added dimension in the Latino community because it is aching for voices in elected office. The community's most vocal legislator, state Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta, is stepping down. State Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, is facing opposition, and state Rep. David Casas, R-Lilburn, has taken heat for the perception he has turned his back on the state's Hispanic population.

Many point to Rodriguez as a potential leader who can help give them the kind of statewide voice that Zamarripa has provided. "I can be credible because I'm part of that community," Rodriguez says. "I've got the capabilities to represent the minority side that has no voice."

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, says Rodriguez has impressed him with his leadership. "He thinks for himself first and foremost," says Gonzalez. "He brings perspective to the table."

Rodriguez faces an uphill fight against Heard in heavily conservative Gwinnett County, however. He holds some traditional Republican views — he supports the state's newly minted immigration reform law, he wants to reduce taxes and disapproves of abortion unless a woman's life is at stake. But he sits on the board of GALEO and has an anti-development platform.

A 38-year-old computer consultant, the battle he led against Wal-Mart whetted his political appetite and he unseated a 26-year incumbent when he was elected to the city council in 2003.

Rodriguez was born in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1968 to a Dutch mother and a Cuban exile father. When Rodriguez was 4, his family moved to Tampa, and his father took multiple jobs as an auto body tech. At night, he attended school, ignoring teachers who told him his English wasn't good, that he should "just do something with his hands."

The low-paying jobs and cost of school caused the family to struggle. They qualified for welfare, but Rodriguez's father wouldn't apply for it. "You work for what you get," Rodriguez says. "You don't go out and ask somebody for a handout. That wasn't [my father's] nature."

Rodriguez earned dual degrees in computer science and electrical engineering from Eckerd College and Georgia Tech. He graduated on a Friday in September 1992 and married his wife, whom he met during a Christian Fellowship meeting several years earlier, the next day.

By 1996, Rodriguez had acquired three master's degrees. After taking a job at a Norcross-based manufacturing company, the couple moved from Midtown into their brick two-story home in Lawrenceville. Rodriguez is a technical specialist for Microsoft.

Rodriguez's introduction to the political arena began in 2001, when he learned that a massive apartment complex was planned next to his neighborhood. Rodriguez and his wife were angered that the leafy woods and large lots that enticed them to move to Lawrenceville were being ruined by development. So they posted flyers and started a grassroots movement against the apartments. To their surprise, about 650 people joined their fight and the rezoning request was squashed.

After that success, Rodriguez next took on a Wal-Mart planned for a location about half a mile from his neighborhood. "I was sick of the good ol' boy system hurting homeowners," Rodriguez says. "I wanted to change that."

On the night of the meeting, the council chamber was so packed that people spilled into the hallway. For several hours, council members listened to homeowners dressed in yellow protest shirts who asked them to vote against the Wal-Mart development.

In the end, the council voted to approve it. "You can't just have all these people telling you to vote this way and then vote the opposite way and think you're going to stay in office," Rodriguez says.

So with an $800 campaign budget, he ran for Lawrenceville city council and unseated 26-year incumbent Sonny Brand in November 2003.

As his two-year council post winds down, Rodriguez has decided to take on a bigger good ol' boy system — state government. In his campaign against Heard, Rodriguez has focused on development issues, saying it has created traffic nightmares and school overcrowding and the loss of the sedate lifestyle that first attracted people to Gwinnett County. "That's all happened because of overdevelopment," Rodriguez says. "I want to stop that."

On a recent morning, Rodriguez unloads red and white campaign signs from his Volvo station wagon as he prepares to go door-to-door. Thick bandages cover his left hand, which underwent surgery in mid-May after a mountain biking accident, and beads of sweat trickle down his brow as he lugs the signs to the garage.

Then comes a perfect Republican Gwinnett County moment. Jeannie Rodriguez grabs several water bottles and a thick clipboard that outlines today's stops: Lawrenceville's Grayland Hills neighborhood in the morning and Pendleton Park in the afternoon. She places them in her hybrid Prius.

Inside the car, Rodriguez spots their umbrella. It has an array of colors that look close to the gay and lesbian community's rainbow colors. "Is it a bad idea to have a rainbow-colored umbrella in the car?" Rodriguez asks.

"Yeah, I'd take it out," his campaign manager replies. "Just in case."

Rodriguez and his wife ditch the umbrella, climb in the car and slowly back away from their home, landscaped by roses and pinwheels that their 2-year-old son collects.

Minutes later, Rodriguez bounds up a few porch steps and shakes hands with a homeowner. He chats with the man, and scribbles down his e-mail address on the clipboard. Then he marks the man as a yes and makes a note to come back and put a campaign sign in his yard.

"On to the next one," he says.