Lopez, head of liaison office, is still awed by opportunities in U.S.
BY Peter Hardin
TIMES-DISPATCH WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT
February 27, 2006
WASHINGTON -- It's corny, but the aide shadowing Gov. Timothy M. Kaine at the National Governors Association session still exclaims with wonder about opportunity in the United States.
Alfonso H. Lopez, 35, was named by Kaine to head the Virginia liaison office in Washington, where he is the "eyes and ears" for the Democratic governor and his Cabinet. Lopez is the highest-ranking official of Latino descent in the executive branch.
His father came to the United States at age 19 from Venezuela with $280 in his pocket to find a better life and a job as a busboy. He worked his way up to a management post with Marriott, earned a college degree after taking one course a semester for years and attained a successful middle-class life in Fairfax County.
Lopez thought about his father's experience recently after emerging from a session in Richmond with Kaine and Cabinet members.
"I thought to myself, my God, my father came to this country at age 19 to search for a better life for himself and his family. And I'm leaving dinner with the governor of Virginia.
"I don't think there's any other country in the world where that would happen," Lopez said.
Corny or not, it seems sincere coming from this graduate of Vassar College and Tulane University Law School, who twice served as an intern in the Clinton White House.
He has worked on a Democratic senator's staff and as a Washington lobbyist, and he's an aggressive Latino Democrat with a seemingly bright future. He's paid $115,000 as director of Kaine's Washington office, which has a staff of four.
"It's an enormous stride that the state of Virginia has taken by having someone of the talent, and just plain competence, that Alfonso Lopez has," said J. Walter Tejada, a member of the Arlington County Board. Lopez served as finance director and speechwriter for Tejada's campaign.
"He does inspire the Latino community," added Tejada. "I think he will do a terrific job."
Lopez was born in Pennsylvania. He lived in Liberia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Venezuela as a young child before his family settled in Northern Virginia, where he grew up.
"I'm half Venezuelan and half Pennsylvania Dutch," he said. Both his father and his mother, who taught in an Arlington high school, have retired.
His parents were keenly interested in politics and talked about it at the dinner table. But Lopez was bitten hardest by the politics and policy bug after he landed a summer internship at the White House in 1993, working with the Domestic Policy Council.
After getting his law degree, he worked on policy issues in Washington for Physicians for Social Responsibility; on the staff of then-Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, D-N.J.; and later as a lobbyist for the Arlington-based Alcalde & Fay firm.
His lobbying clients included the city of Virginia Beach, the Fairfax County Water Authority and an array of other municipalities and colleges.
Asked about the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal that has cast a cloud over Congress, Lopez said the majority of lobbyists play by the rules. He said he didn't personally know one "who was not completely above board."
He has learned more about issues facing other regions of Virginia and met a bipartisan group of present and future leaders as a fellow in the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia.
An Arlington resident, Lopez has immersed himself in local and community politics. He belongs to the 8th District Democratic Committee, the Democratic State Central Committee, was named 2004 Virginia Young Democrat of the Year and is president of the Democratic Latino Organization of Virginia.
When will the rising Latino population in Virginia translate into real political power? he was asked.
"We're already there, to some extent," he said. The Latino vote had an impact on the election of Gerald Connolly as Fairfax board chairman, he said, and "coming soon, it will have a significant impact on races in general in Virginia."
As for a flurry of anti-illegal immigration bills in the General Assembly, Lopez declined to say whether he thought Latinos had become a new target for Virginia politicians.
"I personally am saddened by the tone of some anti-immigrant legislation," he said carefully, emphasizing he was not speaking in his role as director of the liaison office.