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Presidential Candidate Perry Bombs at National Latino Conference

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Thursday in San Antonio, the national press got one of their first honest-to-God looks at Gov. Perry’s presidential potential.

They got to evaluate his candidate charisma and rhetorical chops before a national audience that wasn’t already enamored with the self-proclaimed “fiscal conservative.”

 

And the results were brutal. 

Elected officials from across the country were in the Alamo City for the 28th annual National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) conference. A bipartisan event, this year’s conference is focused on Latino voter turnout and the rapidly growing electoral clout of Latinos. The Latino population grew nationwide from 35.3 million to 50.5 million in the last decade—a 43 percent increase, which will account for at least 8.7 percent of the nation’s voters in the next election.

Perry’s speech in San Antonio was one of his first in front of a crowd that wasn’t predisposed to loving him. There were no rah-rah Tea Partiers to cheer for Perry as they did during the last governor’s race—not even his celebrity friends Chuck Norris or Ted Nugent were on the sidelines to swoop in and save the day. Nope. This time it was a packed banquet room full of Latino elected officials from across the nation. In short, it was Perry dipping his toe into the national electoral pool of voters. Boy, did he get an icy reception.

Think watching the class president royally bomb during a high-school talent show.

During the 13-minute keynote speech all you could hear was silverware clattering on dishes as people tucked into their breaded chicken grimly chewing with their backs turned to Perry on the stage. Perry ran through his material about fiscal conservatism and low taxes. He touched on familiar themes about Texas being “the job creation capitol of the world.” And he exhorted members of the audience from other states to “come and live in Texas.”

Perry avoided talk about immigration or his controversial decision to push the banning of so called “sanctuary cities” by adding it to the call for the current special session. A vote is scheduled on the legislation in a House committee this Monday. Hispanics say the legislation that allows law enforcement to ask for citizenship status will promote racial profiling and unfairly single out communities of color for harrasment.

The grim silence was finally interrupted by light applause when Perry acknowledged at the end of his speech the growing Latino population. “It’s no stretch to suggest that the future of Texas is tied to its Hispanic population,” he said. Then Perry touted his appointments of “the best and brightest in leadership” in the Hispanic community ticking off the names of Secretary of State Hope Andrade, and Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and “my favorite” he chuckled “The head of the TABC Jose Cuevas. That is the right man for the job.” (In case you’re missing something, the governor apparently thinks that Jose Cuevas sounds like the popular tequila brand Jose Cuervo.)

Outside the Grand Hyatt, where the conference was being held, a phalanx of bicycle cops eyed about 100 protesters lining the sidewalk with bullhorns and signs to protest the Governor’s championing of the anti-immigrant legislation. San Antonio resident Claudia Sanchez said she’d helped organize the protest as soon as she heard Perry was coming to the event. “We want Governor Perry to know that we’re angry he’s targeting the minority community – a minority that will be this state’s future majority,” she said.

Motorists passing by the protest honked their horns and cheered on the protesters.

It also didn’t help Perry that San Antonio’s Mayor Julian Castro gave one hell of a speech before Perry took the stage. Castro said Latinos were at a crucial moment in history. “We are truly the new face of the American Dream,” he said. Then he turned Perry’s talking points about low unemployment and Texas being a business-friendly state on its head. “Have you ever found a shiny coin on the ground only to pick it up and find the other half is a rusted out bottom? It’s what you can’t see right now that’s so distressing for the Latino community.”

Every Texan in the room knew what Castro was talking about. Texas had just passed the most devastating budget in history slashing $15 billion in funding for education, healthcare and myriad other social programs. It was no secret that the damage could have been lessened if Perry – with an eye on running nationally — hadn’t lobbied so hard against using the Rainy Day fund to burnish his Tea Party credentials. It’s the state’s growing Hispanic majority who will suffer the most from Perry’s politicking. And the governor’s championing of a “sanctuary cities” bill only adds insult to injury.

Perhaps until today in the Alamo City, Rick Perry thought he had successfully pulled off his balancing act between the Tea Party faithful and Hispanic voters. After today’s frosty reception, he’s going to have to rethink his presidential strategy.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.