It’s a weekday afternoon, and Bernie Moreno takes a break from his travels across the state for an interview about his campaign to replace Rob Portman as Ohio’s next senator.
The charismatic native of Colombia who forged a career in the auto industry that started as a General Motors intern and ascended to one of the most successful dealers in the nation, banters before the interview begins. There is light-hearted talk about the tough questions that will follow, and then Moreno casts a more serious tone.
“No question should be off the table in any interview. As candidates, we should be willing to answer the toughest of questions because D.C. is fundamentally broken, and it won’t be fixed by sending the same type of people there,” Moreno said. “We elect leaders, and they get sucked into the D.C. bubble. We send people to Washington without knowing who they are. Since this Senate race will determine what direction this country takes, it’s important for voters to thoroughly vet each candidate.”
Moreno is part of the wide-open Republican pool to fill Sen. Portman’s seat that includes Cleveland investment banker Mike Gibbons; former state representative and state treasurer Josh Mandel; IT staffing firm founder and entrepreneur Mark Pukita; former Ohio GOP chair Jane Timken; author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance; and Ohio state senator, baseball franchise owner and attorney Matt Dolan.
Currently, the U.S. Senate is split 50-50 between the two parties, but the Democrats hold a razor-thin majority because Vice President Kamala Harris, who serves as president of the Senate, holds the tie-breaking vote. The GOP can regain the majority by gaining one seat, but Republicans are defending 20 of the 34 open seats in 2022. Ohio is one of the key battleground states along with Alabama, Missouri, North Carolina and Pennsylvania are the others.
“If we’re going to protect this country from the socialist left, and keep this precious idea built on the concept of freedom, then we need outsiders who back up their words with action,” Moreno said. “I consider this campaign a job interview. We have not held our elected officials accountable, and we have let them believe they are in charge when our elected officials should be working for us.”
When he was 5, Moreno boarded a plane for America with his mom, five brothers and sister. Born in Colombia, he hailed from a country surrounded by the socialist ideology of radicals like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
“They promised to give everyone all they needed and solve all their problems,” Moreno said. “Now, we see the same threat rising here.
“There is no other country that respects the sanctity of life, liberty and religious freedom like the United States,” Moreno added. “We are and have always been the last, best hope on earth and we need to protect this. Only in America could a young boy that legally immigrated to a new country run for the Senate.”
Moreno believes his story of legally immigrating to the United States, and his Latino heritage, will allow him to successfully combat attacks from the far left, and differentiate him from his fellow candidates.
“Think about it,” Moreno said. “The Democrats have this narrative that says Ohio is primarily made up of a bunch of white-supremacist, racist hillbillies who hate every ethnic group in the world and are afraid of them. But wouldn’t it be something when they elect a senator to represent them in D.C. who was born in Colombia, South America, who had to learn English, who had to become a U.S. citizen? It breaks that narrative apart.”
In September, Moreno visited the U.S.-Mexico border in Del Rio, Texas. The border town gained national and international attention after the arrival of some 15,000 Haitians seeking asylum in the U.S. Their arrival has compounded the problems and criticism facing President Biden as he tries to cope with the immigration crisis at the nation’s Southern border.
“What we’re seeing is an overrunning of our border,” Moreno said. “Unless we seal the border now with the U.S. military, which is the only choice we have, which is what I’ve been calling for, for months, we’re just going to see a total collapse of our Southern border.”
The immigration issue is “deeply personal” to Moreno.
“It took me 13 years to become a U.S. citizen. I had to wait in line. My message to everybody who wants to come to America, especially on our southern border, is you have to wait in line,” Moreno said. “You can’t break our laws to come here. We cannot have people cutting the line.”
A long-time lover of cars, Moreno dreamed of working for General Motors and wanted to run the company. As a 14-year-old in Fort Lauderdale, he penned a letter to the chairman and CEO of General Motors, Roger Smith, describing how he eventually wanted his job, and offering viewpoints on how the company could be turned around amid struggling profits and the negative reputation of its models.
Smith was impressed with the correspondence and responded with a three-page letter addressing Moreno's strategies, which included consolidating Chevrolet and Pontiac and making aluminum engines to reduce overall car weight and boost fuel economy.
Moreno attended the University of Michigan—where he met his wife of 32 years, Bridget—because of its proximity to Detroit and the automotive industry. While at Michigan, he founded the university's Automotive Industry Club.
He started his career as a GM intern and eventually worked his way to vice president of a major New England auto dealer. He moved to Cleveland when he purchased a struggling Mercedes-Benz dealership on the city's west side in 2005. At the time, the dealership managed to sell only four cars per month. Not long after Moreno’s arrival, the dealership eclipsed more than 100 car sales a month. In just one year, Moreno's dealership earned the prestigious "Best of the Best" award from Mercedes-Benz and earned that award for the next 10 consecutive years. Under Moreno's leadership, the dealership became the largest volume Mercedes-Benz dealership in the Central U.S.
Moreno formed the Bernie Moreno Companies and expanded his auto dealership portfolio to brands such as premier AMG, Sprinter, Porsche, Infiniti, Aston Martin, Maserati, Rolls Royce, Buick and GMC. The Bernie Moreno Companies achieved $1 billion in annual sales before the founder began divesting of his auto-dealership portfolio and reinventing himself and his business.
He spearheaded a new goal to transform Cleveland into a national epicenter for blockchain technology. He started Ownum, which is a technology-software incubator that develops blockchain-based businesses that help government agencies enhance efficiencies and build revenue opportunities. Moreno launched a campaign called "BlockLand" with the objective to make Cleveland a global center for blockchain technology and a hub for blockchain businesses and research.
Moreno decided to run for Senate because “this country gave me every opportunity on earth to succeed. It’s a very special country, and I see this country heading in a very, very bad direction.”
“I’d say we’re heading over a cliff, and it’s the same cliff that most countries have fallen over, whether it’s authoritarianism, socialism, communism, Marxism—it’s all the same,” Moreno said. “Between now and the last two or three decades, we really took a hard swing to the left. D.C. is broken because we keep sending the same kinds of people to D.C.—people who say one thing and do another. I didn’t want to just be angry about it, so I chose to put the jersey on and jump in the arena.”
Moreno surprised many in the political world when he announced that his campaign generated close to $2.25 million in contributions in the second quarter. The figure was more than any other Republican candidate in the Senate race in his/her first reporting quarter as a candidate for elected office. He has said he will not accept money from corporate or union PACs.
“There are a lot of opponents in this race who talk about ‘woke corporations’ and how bad they are and how they’re doing the wrong thing and ‘these big corporations are a mess.’ Yet they take their money,” Moreno added. “To me that’s very, very, contradictory. It’s hypocritical. I’m calling on all of my opponents to return the corporate and union PAC money that they’ve taken and be consistent. Your rhetoric has to match your actions, and, if it doesn’t, then the voters are going to see you for what you are, which is a hypocrite.”
So far, the narrative in the Ohio Senate race revolves around former President Donald Trump. Candidates have repeatedly expressed their unwavering support for a man who remains popular Ohio.
It is unclear whether Trump will endorse a candidate in the Ohio Senate race, and Moreno has faced backlash from some conservatives for his criticism of the former president in 2015.
“In 2015, of all the people running for president, the only candidate I really knew well was John Kasich, and I wasn’t going to support him for president, so I was shopping,” Moreno explained. “Josh Mandel was somebody I knew. He said to me, ‘Hey, listen, I know you’re not going to support Kasich, I want you to meet Marco Rubio.’”
Moreno met Rubio, liked him, and raised more than $1 million for him in Ohio. Rubio, Moreno said, even donated to his campaign in the second quarter.
“In 2015, there was another candidate—Donald Trump. I didn’t know anything about Donald Trump other than what I saw on TV,” Moreno said. “I thought he was a liberal. I thought he was a Democrat. I thought he was somebody who I saw pictures of with Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer. I thought he was somebody who was not a serious candidate, who was making a mockery of the Republican primary.”
Moreno remained quiet publicly, and he wrote a personal private email to a fundraiser for the Republican National Committee, who asked him which candidate he would support when Rubio dropped out.
“I said that Trump was a lunatic and a maniac, and I didn’t think he was a conservative. But I’ll tell you this, when President Trump became our nominee, I was at the convention. I was there every day,” Moreno said. “I was fully supportive of President Trump. What I knew beforehand and after seeing what he did in office was different. I was wrong. My opinion of him evolved because I kept an open mind. He is the most conservative president of my lifetime.
“He stood up to everyone who rigged the system against outsiders, and he fought for Americans every step of the way,” Moreno added. “He was attacked more than any other elected official, and yet accomplished amazing achievements for the American people. We need to protect his victories.”
Moreno’s National Steering Committee includes a plethora of Trump allies, including Ric Grenell, ambassador to Germany and acting director of National Intelligence in President Trump’s cabinet; Lana Marks, former U.S. ambassador to South Africa; Ed McMullen, U.S. ambassador to Switzerland for President Trump; Jamie McCourt, U.S. ambassador to France for President Trump; Ja/Ron Smith, Ja’Ron Smith, former deputy assistant to President Trump for Domestic Policy and former director of American Innovation for the Trump administration; and Chris Cox, founder of Bikers for Trump.
Moreno met Grenell a decade ago, and the ambassador encouraged him to run for Senate then, Moreno recalls.
“I knew other people who had said that to me, but I never really considered it seriously, only because I’m a relatively private person, and my wife is an extremely private person,” Moreno said. “I enjoy being an entrepreneur; I enjoy creating businesses; I enjoy creating opportunities for people. And I really thought that there would be others who would take care of business, so to speak, in D.C., but what I’ve concluded is that there’s not.”
Moreno says he is the only candidate who spoke out against the statewide lockdowns last year, warning of the harm they would do to the economy. He called for an end to mask mandates in schools.
Moreno is adamant about “cracking down on China and getting our great private companies to build a supply chain made right here in America." He says he refused to sell the Chinese-made Buick Envision because “it was the right thing to do.”
He is concerned about cancel culture and even offered $1 billion to purchase the Cleveland Indians baseball team to prevent the franchise from changing its name to the Guardians. Republican State Senator Matt Dolan, whose family owns the Indians, is one of Moreno’s opponents in the U.S. Senate race.
If elected, Moreno vows to serve in the Senate for no more than two terms (12 years).
“I hope I inspire other entrepreneurs and business owners to run for public office at every level. Our founding fathers never envisioned for politics to be a career. This is intended to be a citizen-led government, and it is important to return to that,” Moreno said. “I think, as voters get to know me, they’ll know that I’m a serious person, that I have a serious track record, and that I’m doing this for Ohio, not for myself.”