Finding Marisa Perez: In Search of Texas’ Most Elusive Primary Winner

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Patrick Michels
Marisa Perez at her first campaign fundraiser, after decisively winning the Democratic Party's nomination for the State Board of Education seat in San Antonio.

Getting elected to state office is sweaty, expensive, soul-sapping work—except when you’re Marisa B. Perez, who upset incumbent State Board of Education member Michael Soto with two-thirds of the vote in the May Democratic primary, without spending a dime or breaking a sweat.

Ask her how she did it, but don’t expect an easy answer. Two weeks after the primary, the unknown candidate had given zero interviews about why she ran or what she’ll do on the SBOE. But she’s almost certain to win in November because her district, which runs from San Antonio to the border in Hidalgo County, is so heavily Democratic.

The mysterious Perez has filed one finance report with the state, listing no money in or out of her campaign. Her campaign’s Facebook page had four posts as of mid-June, with no word on what she’d do if she was elected. (The only clue was this: “Allow me to be the proper vehicle for your voice and bring a new era of communication and representation.”) Reporters across the state are wondering, as the San Antonio Current put it, “Who the hell is Marisa B. Perez?”

After leaving messages with every listed number I could find for Perez and her campaign treasurer, and unable to take a hint, this reporter drove from Austin to San Antonio in search of the elusive candidate. This is what I had to go on: Perez, 27, is a graduate of San Antonio’s Edison High School and the University of Texas at Austin. She’s a social worker with Texas Child Protective Services, which could offer a little insight into what she’d bring to the board.

There was another brief clue from a videotaped campaign forum in May (like so many elusive characters, you’ll find proof that she exists on YouTube), Perez described her intentions thusly: “I am new to politics. I am not new to humanities. I’m not new to social service,” she said. She said she’d like to provide mental health training to teachers and counselors—a fine idea, though not something that falls under the scope of the SBOE.

I pulled up in the parking lot of the hulking brown three-story complex on San Antonio’s southeast side where Perez works, and casually glanced around. Naturally, there are security precautions in place at the Department of Family and Protective Services. After finding all the back entrances locked, I found the guards at the front door pleasantly disinterested when I walked right past them. But I was joined on the elevator by a helpful but skeptical employee who promptly marched me back to the metal detector. (She hadn’t heard of Perez either.)

At the front desk, I requested an audience with the presumptive board of education member, and the receptionist managed to get her on the line right away. After a thrilling moment—I was watching someone talk to her—I was told Perez was just stepping into a meeting. “She can call you right back,” the receptionist told me. I held my breath.

She never called back. Dejected, I drove back to Austin.

Back at the office I phoned Michael Soto, who lost to Perez, and was still trying to make sense of his primary loss.
“I have to chalk it up to the vagaries of a downballot race in a colossal district,” says Soto, a Trinity University English professor. The vote left him “surprised,” he said. Elected to the board in 2010, Soto was widely endorsed by parents’ and teachers’ groups. Soto’s race was mostly ignored while more exciting SBOE races, pitting religious conservatives against moderates, dominated the news coverage.

“It appears to be more of a sociological phenomenon than anything that would be explained by issues,” Soto says. Research shows that in education races, Latina women fare better than men in Hispanic districts. The number of voters who knew anything about Perez or Soto was dwarfed by the number who voted overwhelmingly with their gut, for Perez. “It’s impossible to know because she really didn’t campaign. But perhaps my opponent will end up being a phenomenal member of the board,” Soto says.

“We honestly don’t know much about her,” says Dan Quinn, spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, which follows the SBOE closely. “We would love to meet her.”

That’s a common sentiment. “What’s your platform?” one woman asks on Perez’s Facebook wall. Edgewood ISD board president Joseph Guerra added a post too, asking to meet with Perez. There’s no reply to either on Facebook, and Guerra says he hasn’t heard back from Perez either.

Then late last week, Perez announced she’d be holding her first campaign fundraiser outside an auto parts store next to her old high school. I decided to make a second foray into San Antonio to find Perez. When I arrived around noon, the candidate was introducing herself to a pair of teachers, shaking hands enthusiastically and planning to keep in touch. Under a pair of tents behind her, friends and family members sat talking, and selling hot dogs and drinks for a $5 donation. (Later that afternoon, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte would also drop by to speak with the candidate.)

Perez apologized for not returning my calls,  saying the campaign has kept her too busy to answer all the calls she’s been getting. Even on election night, she said, she was out of town working, ferrying kids across the state. “I was on the phone every 20 minutes keeping up with the stats,” she said.

Perez said her main focus now is making herself accessible, to be “a recognizable face in the community.” It would seem she has a long way to go. But Perez did say she made a campaign stop in the Rio Grande Valley before the primary, and guesses she must have left an impression with those teachers and parents. Otherwise, she’s not too interested in talking about specifics—either about her out-of-nowhere primary win, or about the work she’ll face on the SBOE. Judging by how hard she was to track down, though, I felt lucky to come away with this much. Our brief Q&A is below:

Were you surprised by the election results? Because they were so overwhelming…

I’m just very excited and very blessed, and very thankful for the support I got. I went out there, I met a lot of people, I took a trip down to the Valley and spoke to some teachers there, and was able to garner a lot of support from the local teachers, just people out in the community and was able to let them know that I want to be a face that people recognize, I want to be there as an advocate. it was well received apparently, and i’m just very happy about that.

Presuming you win in November, what are your plans for what you want to do on the board?

The U.S. right now is changing, the U.S. is a melting pot and my goal right now is representation. It is imperative that I go out and meet people, that I’m a recognizable face in the community, that people know I’m going to listen to them and in Austin, vote in their best interests. Because ultimately we’re all working for the same goal: better education in Texas. Especially since Texas is the largest state continentally here in the U.S., it’s important for us to establish that precedent in spreading a strong, solid foundation for education, and that’s my goal.

In that candidate forum, you said you wanted to create a better public-private partnerships. What did you mean by that?

It’s very important for me to get the business community involved in education as well, and there’s so many ideas that we can work together with. If we can establish a mentorship program, I can work in collaboration with school districts and superintendents and serve as that bridge of communication, and hope that we can establish sponsorships and other initiatives.

Have you been surprised by all the attention from the media since you’ve won?

It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s not my focus right now. My focus is campaigning towards November and hoping that we can solidify that win. So I know things will be said, but it’s the nature of politics and it’s not anything that I’m going to take personally. For me the most important thing is getting out there, and having people who know who I am and recognize me when I’m out there.

Patrick Michels is a reporter for the Texas Observer and a former legislative intern. He has been a staff writer and web editor at the Dallas Observer, and a former editor of the Texas Independent. He has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and is a competitive eating enthusiast.