Gabriel Gomez runs on practical, apolitical experience
In a life of seizing opportunity, he reaches for one more
The biography of Senate candidate Gabriel E. Gomez reads as though it might have been compiled by a team of Republican consultants trying to craft the perfect candidate.
Harvard Business School degree. Latino heritage. Military service. It’s all there.
In an age in which all politics is personal, Gomez is running a campaign unusually focused on biography. Although the 47-year-old Republican often seems hesitant and uncertain on the stump, voters are inspired by his personal story — the son of Colombian immigrants who became a Navy pilot and a SEAL, then a private equity investor who coached youth baseball in Cohasset.
His GOP Senate rivals in next week’s primary, state Representative Daniel B. Winslow and Michael J. Sullivan, offer more familiar narratives, They are both lawyers who spent years working in various branches of government.
“I’m exactly what the American dream is all about,” Gomez, of Cohasset, said in a debate on WRKO earlier this month. “And the reason I’m running is I want everybody to have the same chance I had when I was a kid.”
Gabriel Eduardo Gomez was born in Los Angeles to Colombian immigrants, but he was not a kid who came from nothing.
His father had been educated in the United States — first at the University of Pittsburgh, later at Stanford University, where his employer had sent him for a master’s degree.
On the campaign trail, Gomez says that he learned to speak English only when he went to school. By that time though, his father was vice president of exports for the world’s largest dealer of hops, traveling the world while his mother stayed home with the boys.
The eldest of Julio and Gloria Gomez’s three sons grew up comfortably in Washington state in a town where, as he put it, “we were a typical middle-class family, except that our name was Gomez.” Everyone but the youngest son grew up to be a Republican. Everyone in the family played tennis.
In high school, Gabriel and his brothers were athletic and competitive, waking up at 4:30 a.m. to practice tennis before school, recalled his brother Julio Gomez Jr., who is 19 months his junior. Gabriel got the best grades and in high school would have friends over for math meetings, said Julio, now a pilot for American Airlines. The third brother, Carlos, is a tour guide.
The family didn’t know anyone in the military, Julio recalled, but Gomez’s tennis prowess earned him the attention of Naval Academy recruiters. Gomez was Washington state tennis champion in 1983 and won a Northwest Pacific award for sportsmanship. That put him on the radar of Bob Bayliss, then the tennis coach at the Naval Academy.
“I tried not to recruit prima donnas knowing they were going to have a tough time,” said Bayliss, referring to the military rigors that first-year students there would face, in addition to academic and athletic pressures. “He passed all the tests with flying colors.”
After graduating the academy with a bachelor’s in systems engineering, Gomez had enough standing to have all his options open in the Navy, including flight school.
“I was lucky. I was qualified to do anything,” said Gomez.
The movie, “Top Gun,” had just come out. He was sold.
For his first four years in the Navy, Gomez served as an airborne early warning pilot, flying either a dual prop early warning aircraft or a cargo plane.
Then he wanted more adventure.
“It wasn’t that I wasn’t challenged. I was definitely challenged,” said Gomez. “But I had the strong sense that I really wanted to be a SEAL and I started thinking, ‘look, I don’t ever want to look back and feel I have any regrets.’”
So Gomez took a gamble and decided to train as a Sea-Air-Land officer (SEAL). His commanding officer tried to talk him out of it, warning that “less than 20 percent of those accepted for SEAL training actually made it through. And if I didn’t make it, I would lose my pilot wings,” Gomez said at his campaign kickoff. “I did it anyway.”
According to Naval Special Warfare Public Affairs, the rate of those who survive SEAL training is actually slightly higher, 25 to 30 percent of trainees. But Gomez not only made it through Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, considered one of the military’s most physically and mentally grueling programs, he became his class leader.
Gomez has the distinction of having been both a Navy aircraft pilot and then a Navy SEAL, but it’s not precisely clear how rare the distinction is. In a letter he sent Governor Deval Patrick in January, seeking an appointment to the open Senate seat, Gomez claimed he’s one of just two such servicemen. Gomez’s campaign spokesman said he was reiterating what he’d been told during training. But the US Navy Personnel Command could not corroborate Gomez’s claim, saying that sort of data is not tracked.
Gomez’s SEAL experience took him to deployments in Peru, Bolivia, and the Caribbean. It also led him to his future wife.
He met her at a party in St. Lucia, where he was deployed as a platoon commander. Sarah L. Hall was a Peace Corps volunteer in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Gomez said. Now married for 17 years, the couple has four children, Olivia, 13, Zander, 11, Antonia, 10, and Max, 8, who attend private school in Hingham.
Marriage made the military man rethink his career, his mother, Gloria, recalled in an interview.
“He said to me, ‘as much as I love the Navy, I’m going to have to quit,’” his mother said, citing his inability to talk about his work as a SEAL and his months-long detachments overseas.
But by then, he’d set his sights on another mission: business school. Military experience is considered a valued leadership asset when applying to Harvard Business School. Five percent of the students in Gomez’s 1997 class hailed from the military, according to a business school spokesman.
“Everything he tried,” his mother said, “he made it.”
He was recruited by a fellow veteran, an Air Force fighter pilot, to work for an investment banking firm. “He and I bonded pretty early during the interview process,” Gomez said.
It was his military experience that often attracted those he encountered in the investment world. Gomez went to work in mergers and acquisitions at Bowles Hollowell Conner, a Charlotte, N.C., investment banking firm founded by former political adviser Erskine Bowles. He had the Harvard MBA pedigree but with a radically different resume and rugged life experience that many admired. Gomez was seen as confident and earnest, with a sense of humor.
“The vast majority that got recruited into his job were people that had worked on Wall Street and Gabriel had not,” said a former Bowles Hollowell colleague, who did not want his name used. “He was just a very different and interesting person.”
His military experience proved alluring again in 2001, when he was recruited to work in Boston for Summit Partners, a private equity firm, again by someone impressed with his boldness.
“I was intrigued that he took the kind of risk that he did,’’ in switching from pilot to a SEAL, said Joseph Trustey, a managing director involved in hiring Gomez. “We make investments in people who take risks.”
After three years at Summit, Gomez went to work at Advent International, another private equity firm. It was lucrative work: Tax data provided by his campaign show that Gomez earned $8.5 million over five years at Advent, from 2007 to 2011.
But for all his financial success, during his nine years at Advent, Gomez never made partner. His biography lists a handful of companies he worked with, but in most cases he served on their boards after they were bought or sold by Advent. He wasn’t actively involved in acquiring or selling the investment, which is generally how people measure their success in the field of private equity.
Advent listed one deal in which it said Gomez helped lead the investment: Synventive Molding Solutions in Peabody, which the firm bought in 2005 and sold last summer for $335 million.
Asked about any other deals he had worked on, Gomez cited Lululemon Athletica Inc., the popular yoga-wear company based in Vancouver. Advent led a $93 million investment in the company in 2005. Advent and another firm made about seven times their money after Lululemon went public in 2007.
Advent executives declined numerous interview requests about Gomez and his time there, saying in a statement, “We have a policy not to take a position with respect to elected officials, including people who are running for office.”
But Tom Stemberg, the founder of Staples and a partner at Highland Capital Partners, which also invested in Lululemon, said he is supporting Gomez after checking him out. Gomez was considered skilled at business development and calling on companies that might want to do deals, Stemberg said. In addition, Stemberg’s son, a naval officer after college, said Gomez had a strong reputation in the Navy.
“I’m backing him because I admire what he’s done in his life,’’ Stemberg said. “Based on my research, I think he’d be a terrific senator.”
After 11 years spent at two of Boston’s top private equity firms, Gomez is clearly well-liked, referred to familiarly as “Gabe.” But beyond the walls of Advent International and Summit Partners, he has remained relatively unknown. When he started seeking fund-raising support from prominent Republican contributors this spring, he had to introduce himself to private equity executives at TA Associates, a Boston firm whose senior partners have been major Republican contributors in the past.
Likewise, Gomez kept a fairly low profile in the community of Cohasset, the South Shore seaside town where he and his family own a $2.1 million home facing the historic town common.
In Cohasset, one of the rare Massachusetts communities where Republicans outnumber Democrats, Gomez was discovered politically in 2003 by Polly Logan, the so-called “grand dame of Massachusetts Republican politics” who had long groomed promising candidates.
But there was a problem: There was already a Republican in the race for selectman in 2003, challenging the Democratic incumbent and pushing for spending restraint.
“Gabe came out of nowhere, basically,” said Janet Fogarty Kelley, who was then chairwoman of the Republican Town Committee. “It’s my understanding she got him to run where he was the third candidate – and a very good candidate, too. But the vote was split and the incumbent got reelected.”
Gomez came in dead last.
“He took it. He understood. He didn’t dwell on it,” said his friend, Gary Green, who also served in the Navy and went to Harvard Business School. “Gabe said, ‘I didn’t win, I put my best foot forward.’ ’’
Asked what he learned from his first foray into politics, Gomez jumps back to his political message, saying that he learned, “you just have to be yourself.” On the trail, he said, people who meet him “get to know the real me. ... They get to know what has formed my opinions, my experiences. I have a very broad range of life experiences.”
As may befit someone with such a varied resume, Gomez does not fit into tidy partisan lines. Though a Republican, he contributed to President Obama in 2008 and even gave to liberal Democratic Senate candidate Alan Khazei in 2009.
Gomez was also embroiled in a heated political dispute last August with a controversial group that was accusing President Obama of politicizing the killing of Osama bin Laden and endangering troops for political purposes. The Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund released an inflammatory 22-minute video that featured one of the group’s leaders, who had in the past asserted that the president wasn’t born in the country.
Gomez said he has no regrets about being a figurehead for an extreme group, even now that he’s involved in politics himself.
“Like anything else, I can’t control who all those guys are,” he said. “I’m not part of that group. I was just asked to go on a radio and TV show and talk about two points.”
Those issues, he said, involved the president “taking too much credit and disclosing the sensitive information.”
The switch to politics could be Gomez’s boldest leap of faith yet. He quit his lucrative job to run, saying he’s “convinced that we’re going to win.’’
Risk, he noted, has only ever brought him opportunity.
But the political arena that Gomez has entered can be quite intimidating, even for a former SEAL who just ran the Boston Marathon (he was unhurt in the bombings).
His visible nervousness on the trail seem out of character for a guy whose brother describes him as “docile and mellow.”
Gomez is undeterred.
“If I were to listen to people all the time when they say, ‘hey, this is a really high challenge, this is a high climb, the bar is pretty steep,’ then I wouldn’t have gone to the academy. I wouldn’t have become an aircraft carrier pilot,” Gomez said. “I wouldn’t have become a Navy SEAL for sure. And I probably wouldn’t have applied to Harvard.”
“You don’t want to look back and have any regrets because things are too hard,” he said.