Republican of the People

Can Debra Medina's grassroots rebellion dethrone Texas' Republican royalty?
by Published on
photographs by Brandon Thibodeaux

On a Saturday afternoon in Burleson, even the hottest politician in Texas has trouble scoring a table at Babe’s, a popular fried-chicken joint.

Her name is called after 15 minutes huddled around an industrial heater against the frosty, early-February breeze. Then there’s a snag. “Is your whole party here yet?” the young hostess asks sternly. “We can’t seat you until all four are here.”

“Then it’s a party of three,” Debra Medina says, flashing a grin at husband Noe and the reporter—me—who’s been chasing her around North Texas. “Good Lord,” she says, hustling us through the door while peeking at the time on her BlackBerry, “let’s get inside while we can.”

A member of Medina’s skeletal staff, the fourth in the party, is mired in Metroplex traffic. As usual, it’s up to Medina to keep things on track. She’s used to it. The first-time candidate has been running a shoestring campaign for a year now—fueled by little more than a wing, a prayer and a radical libertarian platform. She’s running against two of America’s most powerful and well-funded Republicans, Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. As late as December, her grassroots insurgency looked predictably hopeless, with Medina sittting at 4 percent in polls of likely GOP voters. But commanding performances in January’s two televised Republican debates have vaulted her into contention, confounding every political expert in Texas. A few days after lunch at Babe’s, a new poll would show Medina just four points behind Hutchison for second place and an April runoff with front-running Perry.

It’s been a dizzying, meteoric rise for this trained nurse and small-business owner from Wharton County. Asked earlier in the day what her last week had been like, she’d flashed a smile and said, “I don’t know where I’ve been, literally. We’re getting invitations from all over the state.” Then she tackled a Dallas forum in her trademark style: strident, folksy and bookish, all bundled together into an oddly compelling package. “This is, really, a war. I think we use the word ‘campaign’ a lot without realizing that that’s a military term. But that’s where we are in this race, trying to prosecute this war in a way that’s going to result in victory on March 2. I am going where the fires are hottest and talking to people and recognizing that this really isn’t about me. We are where we are today because there are a bunch of Debra Medinas across the state who’ve had enough, and they’re engaging in the battle.”

Medina had $68,000 cash on hand on Feb. 1, compared with her opponents’ war chests of more than $10 million apiece. She drew donations in January from some 1,400 Texans—more than three times the number of folks who gave money to “Kay and Rick,” as she likes to call them. “I absolutely believe that we’ll make the runoff,” she says. “This race is going to be won with shoe leather and elbow grease.”

The right-wing fairy tale that is Medina’s campaign began in late 2008. While her only elected office had been chair of the Wharton County GOP, Medina had attracted attention from hardcore conservatives around the state with a guerilla run at the state party chairmanship in 2008, which ended in a lawsuit and a restraining order against her by party leaders. She also helped run Ron Paul’s Texas campaign in 2008 and chaired the state chapter of his Campaign for Liberty in the aftermath. In that capacity, she starred at an “End the Fed” rally in Houston in late 2008. There she hollered eloquently through a bullhorn, organizing the troops behind Paul’s bill to audit the Federal Reserve—a move that, she said, would be the logical first step toward abolishing the “illegal” federal bureaucracy.

Soon afterward, dissident Republicans and libertarians began pressing her to run. She was skeptical, but says that her daughter Janise, a 24-year-old interior designer in Houston, talked her into playing David to the two Goliaths of Texas Republicanism. “She said, Mom, you’ve been talking about these things for 20 years,” Medina recalls. “Why not step up and fight the good fight?”

If not for the explosion of the Texas tea-party movement on Tax Day 2009, no amount of fighting spirit and shoe leather would have taken Medina anywhere in this race. “We started getting invitations to these tea parties,” she says, “and I’m like, guys, that’s four days before my daughter’s wedding. I can’t be running around making speeches—but, then, I can’t miss this.”

With a fast-growing army of volunteers, she organized “Medina for Texas” teams to talk her up at 45 tea parties around the state. She gave rousing addresses on tax day in Round Rock, Waco and Burleson, where she was introduced to the frying talents of the cooks at Babe’s. She’s waited nine months to get back here—and nothing, not a waiting reporter from National Public Radio, not Metroplex traffic, not hundreds of shivering folks up the road in Cleburne anticipating her appearance, could stop her from getting some more of this chicken.

“I don’t get to eat much real food these days,” she says, projecting her South Texas drawl—swallowed vowels and dropped g’s—over the piped-in country music as we slide onto benches around the table. “Now, this place, you sort of order family style.” She turns to Noe: “How about catfish and fried chicken?” He nods and orders while she talks about her unlikely campaign. Noe’s a quiet fellow who helps run his wife’s medical-billing business and steers clear of politicking. “It’s too dirty for me,” he’d told me earlier, chuckling. “I like to stay in the back.”

Debra Medina is wondering aloud how long Rick and Kay will ignore her as she creeps up on them in the polls. “I don’t think we’ve seen much indication that either one of them even acknowledges that we exist,” she says, stirring Sweet‘N Low into iced tea. “So far, they’ve just kind of kept at each other, and they’re proving our case for us. In all of the media they’re running, she’s telling all of Texas how bad he is, and he’s telling all of Texas how bad she is, and I’m going, ‘Yeah, they’re right: They’re both bad!’”

Medina laughs. Despite the alternately studious and fiery persona she projects on the stump, she laughs a lot when she’s offstage. A sturdy-framed, plain-faced 47-year-old, Medina is an ardent Southern Baptist whose first galvanizing political issue was abortion (unlike most libertarians, she’s against it, no exceptions). In other ways, she fits the tea-party profile. She wants Texas to nullify federal laws, toss the EPA out, slash health care funding, abolish property taxes in favor of sales taxes, and allow law-abiding citizens to pack heat without licenses.

But she also has an independent streak that perplexes and delights her fans. In Dallas this morning, she’d momentarily stumped the audience by calling for a moratorium on death sentences in Texas. She talks at length, over lunch, about her disgust with the border wall running through South Texas, which “does nothing but consume private property and waste resources.” She speaks passionately about bringing her husband’s fellow Hispanics into the Republican fold, saying that Perry’s failure to do so “almost makes me cry.”

“Republicans have a conversation with the Hispanic community starting in September of election years,” she says. “Democrats have those conversations all the time. And we’re surprised at how they vote?”

At any other political moment, Medina would surely be much too much, even for right-wing Texans. Too radical; too off-script; too downright strange. Last summer, she gave a now-notorious speech at the Texas Nationalist Movement’s “Sovereignty or Secession” rally at the state Capitol, declaring, “We are aware that stepping off into secession may in fact be a bloody war,” and adding, “We understand that the tree of freedom is occasionally watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots.”

When I bring up those comments, she asks, “Did you get them in context, not just the tree of liberty part?

“I was trying to say to that audience, that was a militia kind of audience, hey people, we need to remember that revolutions are bloody. If you wanna go down the route of secession, yes, in fact, from time to time the tree of liberty is watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots, but let’s not forget: That’s a bloody war. Before you set us off on that course, how ‘bout we try nullification and interposition first? Because otherwise we’re gonna lose lives in that battle. And there are times when that’s a cost that we all pay, and willingly pay. But if we don’t have to, let’s don’t.”

She swivels around to Noe. “Did you get pepper?” she asks. “It’s a little sweet,” she says, referring to the sugary green beans and creamed corn. “Good, though.”

On this same Saturday, the first national Tea Party Convention is winding up its lavish proceedings, with folks who’ve paid $549 to pack the fancy ballroom of a Nashville hotel to hear a six-figure speech by Sarah Palin. The scene in Cleburne, the next stop for Debra Medina’s road show, is a study in contrast.

A couple of hundred folks have been hanging out since morning in the front lot of the Forrest Chevrolet dealership, chatting and huddling under blankets andlistening to local right-wing rabble-rousers. Most are wearing “Medina for Texas” stickers on their hunting vests and puffy jackets. It’s a guns-and-camo crowd, white and working class, folks too sensible or too strapped to make the trip to Nashville.

When Medina takes the plain, pinewood podium, holding forth under a big American flag hanging from the ladder of a local fire department truck, she’s got no teleprompter, no crib notes on her palm. She also has no simple, crowd-pleasing anecdotes to feed the folks. But in her peculiar way, she fires them up like nobody else could.

“While I’m the one with the microphone in my hand,” she says with appealing sincerity, “I want you to know that I know we’re in this fight together.

“I really do believe that there is wisdom in the minds of men, and that it’s really important for me as a candidate for governor to get out among the people to talk to you, to look you in the eye, to listen to your concerns, and to together finesse the solutions that we need for Texas.

“I have said at many, many events: Private-property ownership and gun ownership are the essential elements of freedom. We must allow men and women to keep that that they labor for. When a nation, when a government, when a state takes from people what they’re working for, they quit working, and they quit producing, and the whole society suffers.”

After a digression into the bad example of Russia, Medina continues: “Texas has the 13th-largest economy in the world. We get government off the back of Texans, we’re not gonna have an economic crisis. We’re not gonna have an energy crisis. We’re not gonna have an immigration crisis.” Folks whoop and clap and call out: “Medina, Medina!” and “Tell ’em!”

“Do not allow the seeds of fear and doubt to take root in your life,” the candidate says soberly. “This is a time unlike any other time in our history, when we’re gonna stand up and accomplish a revolution without shedding a drop of blood. … Don’t be fearful that it can’t be done. Take courage from people who have gone before us and laid out how important that is. This is not a state of can’ts. This is a state of cans, and we will, by golly!

“The United States has always been a giving nation. We have never lacked for volunteers when something needed to be done. And yet today, many of us struggle to be able to help our neighbors like we would like to. Because our government has created such a weight on our back that we can hardly take a step.”

Amen!” a burly man in a mud-streaked vest shouts.

“You get the weight of that government off our back, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder and do as this sign says”—Medina points to a “Nullification Now” sign held by a man—“we start to nullify illegal federal actions. We begin again to stand as a sovereign state in this federal union that our founders established. You know, the one where we’re supposed to have a very limited government and 50 independent, sovereign states! We don’t all look the same. We are an independent state. Texas will take care of Texas. Texas agriculture! Texas energy! Texas health care! Texas will take care of Texas!”

Just as she’s hit the heights of crowd-pleasing tea-party rhetoric, Medina veers into a lengthy story about a man she met in Austin named Bruzzone. The name, she says, was different from the many Hispanic names she encountered growing up in Beeville: “the Garcias, the Gonzalezes, and even a few Medinas.” I look around the crowd, where I see only two nonwhite faces, and folks look a little surprised. What’s the punch line? Why are we hearing a story about Hispanic people?

“He said he was from Cuba, his family had been there for four generations. I have often thought that when the -isms—socialism, fascism, communism, Marxism—come to America, we think they’ll come with purple spots, and we’ll recognize them. And here sat Mr. Bruzzone looking like any other average Texan. I said, Mr. Bruzzone, if I had taken a picture of you standing on the street in communist-dictatorship Cuba three years ago, and I took a picture of you today in the constitutional republic of Austin, Texas, tell me the difference between the man in Cuba and the man in Austin. And he said: ‘The man in Cuba had no dreams.’

“I think in Texas we’re perilously close to a place where our children have no dreams. We either stand arm-in-arm and we begin to defend again this constitutional republic, or our children have no dreams.”

This is odd, I’m thinking—about as far from classic right-wing immigrant-bashing as you could get. But the folks in the front lot of Forrest Chevrolet eat it up. When Medina finishes, dozens cluster around her, telling her their stories and asking questions as she smiles and nods and looks them in the eye and listens intently.

Medina is not Palin, with her scripted zingers, or Perry, with his pandering swagger. She’s your rank-and-file Texan’s smart big sister, talking to you like she figures you can take in something a little more challenging than usual.

“We always like to poke fun at the other side,” says Philip Martin, communications specialist with the Texas Democratic Trust and a blogger for the liberal Burnt Orange Report who was one of the first to recognize Medina’s potential. “But the really absurd and ridiculous people are the ones with blind loyalty to a leader like Rick Perry or Kay Bailey Hutchison. I give Medina’s supporters credit for not allowing Perry to pull the wool over their eyes. The Republicans who support Perry are sheep. I’m scared of Medina’s supporters, but they are independent thinkers.”

There are more of them than anybody imagined possible. They love it when she calls Obama a socialist and warns of creeping fascism. They love it when she infuriates Republican regulars by saying she won’t support Perry or Hutchison if one of them beats her. “You walk the talk, and you’ve got my full support,” she says. “These folks have not been walking the talk for a long time.”

Medina embodies a post-partisan conservative politics—party loyalties matter a whole lot less than staunch, anti-government ideas and a certain earthy genuineness that no incumbent politician can hope to muster. She’s not framing a message; she’s speaking her truth.

When I leave her in Cleburne, Medina is still chatting with well-wishers. The NPR reporter is still waiting. After she finally gives him that interview, she and Noe will drive five hours south to their small ranch in DeWitt County, where he’ll hay the cattle and they’ll stay overnight with an aunt and uncle. Then they’ll head back to Wharton and spend Sunday and Monday fielding requests, fine-tuning itineraries, and trying to catch up on their medical-billing business. On Tuesday she’ll hit the trail again for another series of 16-hour days, one small campaign event after another, and—most likely—continue to climb in the polls, o
e aggrieved voter at a time. Her opponents will keep spending millions to assail one another on the airwaves and wonder: Where in God’s name did this Medina woman come from?