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The Chosen One

Why Linda Chavez-Thompson wants to be lieutenant governor.
by Published on
photographs by Matt Wright-Steel
Left: Linda Chavez-Thompson Right: Ronnie Earle

In a nondescript strip mall tucked between used-car lots and fast-food restaurants in southwest San Antonio, Linda Chavez-Thompson is plotting the course of her latest improbable journey: becoming Texas’ first Latina lieutenant governor.

A petite, 65-year-old Democrat with a long history as a grassroots union activist sounds like an unlikely candidate to lead the chummy, largely Republican and male Texas Senate. But this is the same woman who went from picking cotton for 10 cents a day in Lubbock to executive vice president of the 13-million-member AFL-CIO—the first woman and minority to attain such a powerful position in the largely white and male-dominated union leadership in Washington, D.C.

Chavez-Thompson knows how to deal with a boys’ club. She’s been doing it since 1967, when she took her first union job as a secretary in Lubbock. The office had air-conditioning—a major perk for somebody who’d been working in the fields since she was 10—and paid her $1.40 an hour. She was the only woman and the only Spanish-speaker at the local chapter of the Laborers’ International Union. It was beyond her imagining that she’d be a powerhouse in the AFL-CIO’s national structure 30 years later.

“The labor union of old was male, pale and stale,” she says. “My coming in as the highest-ranking woman and woman of color gave the labor movement a new voice, a new face, and a new initiative to help people believe that the labor movement could change their lives.”

Texas Democratic leaders hope that Chavez-Thompson, with her compelling personal story and knack for grassroots organizing, can do the same thing for their party. Powerful Democrats did everything but get on bended knee to recruit her to run for lieutenant governor.

The phone calls began in earnest in December, after Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a San Antonio Democrat, decided not to run. Former Congressman Martin Frost, former state Comptroller John Sharp, and state Rep. Eliot Naishtat of Austin were among those who phoned a skeptical Chavez-Thompson to convince her she’d be the perfect candidate.

Chavez-Thompson had retired two years before, returning to Texas to spend time with her two grandchildren and “chill out,” as she puts it. But since settling in San Antonio, she’d hardly been living a leisurely life. She joined San Antonio’s VIA Metropolitan Transit Board, worked part-time for the union and debated Latin-American labor policy at conferences. “My calendar was packed every single day, and I loved it,” she says. “My retirement never really panned out.”

The arguments Democratic leaders pitched were compelling: She had a name and reputation that would garner Latino votes, and she would draw more female voters. Plus, she was a shoo-in to fire up the small but energetic union vote.

“It was presented to me as the people’s agenda,” she says, “where working people would benefit if I became lieutenant governor. I started seeing it as a larger cause because I believe very strongly that Republicans have looked out for the wealthy interests in the state and listened more to highly paid lobbyists than to the people. They don’t want better worker’s compensation, or unemployment insurance, or a system where we pay less homeowners’ insurance.”

After three weeks of mulling it over, she decided to take the plunge. Chavez-Thompson made it official on Jan. 4, the filing deadline. A few hours later, she got a phone call from former Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who had filed to run on Dec. 18. “He asked whether anyone had spoken to me about running for state comptroller,” she says. “I said no, that I’d just filed for the lieutenant governor’s race.”

Despite the initial awkwardness, Chavez-Thompson and Earle agreed not to “make disparaging remarks about one another during the race,” she says. She’s taken the same tack with her other Democratic competitor, Austin deli owner Marc Katz. “I’m running for lieutenant governor and not running against Katz or Earle,” she says.

It’s no secret that Texas Democrats have sought for years to harness the state’s burgeoning Latino vote. Democratic leaders are betting that a Latina labor organizer near the top of the ticket will attract voters who have felt disenfranchised. Those voters will, in turn, boost the Democrats’ strongest prospect for winning a statewide office, former Houston Mayor Bill White, in the governor’s race. White has already made several trips to South Texas; he surely wouldn’t mind having Chavez-Thompson at his side.

Chavez-Thompson, who also serves as a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, rejects the idea that her candidacy is about bringing Latino votes to White.

“Hell no,” she says, then stops herself. “I’ve been told I need to modify my union tendency to speak plainly.” She laughs. “But, heck no. It’s not about me being used. I would say I’ve been one of the loudest voices in the national party that we need to see more faces that look like me running for office.”

That need is pressing in Texas, where Latinos comprised 63 percent of population growth in the last decade. By 2040, the Latino population is expected to triple in metropolitan areas, from 5.9 to 17.2 million. In rural areas, the number of Latinos is expected to double, from 777,000 to 1.6 million, according to the Texas Office of Rural Community Affairs.

Voter registration among Latinos has grown in the state, with 2.4 million registered for the 2008 elections. “Demographics are destiny,” says Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg. “If one party gets two-thirds of the Latino vote, they’ll start winning every statewide election.” In 2008, exit polls showed Barack Obama winning 63 percent of the Latino vote in Texas. In 2004, George W. Bush won the majority.

Many state Democratic leaders were flummoxed in 2002 when their racially diverse “Dream Team” ticket led by wealthy businessman Tony Sanchez failed to galvanize Latino voters. Matt Angle is a Democratic strategist and director of the Lone Star Project, an analysis and fact-checking service. He worked to persuade Chavez-Thompson to run and says that in the last decade, candidates have realized that a Latino surname doesn’t automatically translate into Latino votes.

“They have a responsibility to communicate to voters why they should support them,” he says. “I think there is a higher level of understanding of that now than in the past.”

Chavez-Thompson knows that her odds of winning are long. No Democrat has won statewide since 1994. She began raising money for her campaign only eight weeks before the primary. Her goal, she says, is to raise $250,000. David Dewhurst, the Republican incumbent who awaits the Democratic nominee, has a personal fortune of more than $200 million—and strong support from big-business interests in the state.

“If I become the candidate,” she says, “I’m sure his contributions will double because people who are interested in keeping him in office don’t want me in office.”

Still, Chavez-Thompson’s life story has been about accomplishing seemingly impossible goals. The daughter of field hands in Lubbock, she was forced to drop out of high school during her sophomore year to work in the cotton fields and help support her large family. Even before that, she says, “I didn’t know what it was like to have a summer vacation. At the age of 10, I worked 10 hours a day, five days a week, for 30 cents a day in the hot West Texas sun. When there wasn’t work in the fields, I cleaned houses.”

In her 20s, Chavez-Thompson married and had two children. She left her union office job in Lubbock to lobby for workers’ rights at the state Capitol. Then she moved to San Antonio. With a clipboard in one hand and a baby on a hip, she organized government workers in an environment hostile to unions. It wasn’t uncommon for workers to snub her, she says, not just because she was with a union, but also because she was Latina.

By 1988, she’d become the first Latina to be appointed vice president of a seven-state region of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. With the AFL-CIO losing membership, she focused her energies on recruiting women and minorities, which had previously made up a tiny slice of the union. Known for her negotiating skills, she began to be sought out nationally as a speaker and expert on grassroots organizing. She was elected executive vice president of the union in 1995. In 1997, she was appointed to President Bill Clinton’s Race Advisory Board.

Chavez-Thompson often refers to her hardscrabble childhood in her speeches—and now in her campaign pitch. “I’m not a millionaire like David Dewhurst,” she likes to say. “Most Texans are not millionaires. I know what it’s like to go to work every day and try to provide for your family, but the further you go the further you get behind. I’ve worked some of those bottom-of-the-barrel jobs like hoeing cotton and cleaning houses.”

She knows that her union background will be used against her, but says she won’t run away from it. “If I make it out of the primary, they are going to label me a union goon,” she says. “But if you look at the issues I’ve fought for my whole life, it’s about working families having a better standard of living. If you have a union job, you more than likely have health insurance, vacation days and sick leave so you can take a day off and not have to worry about how you’ll pay your bills at the end of the month. If someone wants to hold that against me, then let them.”

Angle calls Chavez-Thompson a “three-fer candidate: She’s a highly accomplished woman, she’s a Latina that can resonate with the growing Hispanic population in Texas, and she’s someone who is driven by public service.”

She’s still getting used to being a politician. In a back room in her campaign headquarters, which doubles as a storage area, she answers questions while sitting on a folding chair behind a card table. On the wall next to her, she’s taped up a picture of her chihuahua-terrier mix, Piquin, to personalize the space. She’s fielding calls on three cell phones. These days she spends a majority of her time on the phone, she says, trying to raise money so that she can get out her message statewide.

“It’s always been easy to raise money for people and causes that I believe in,” she says. “But I have a really hard time calling people to raise money for myself. It’s still a work in progress for me to tell people what a wonderful person I think I am and, by the way, can they send me money.”

A few nights after our interview, I catch up with Chavez-Thompson at the first forum where all three Democratic lieutenant governor hopefuls would be speaking. The setting is not much fancier than her office: a roller rink in East Austin where several Travis County Democratic clubs have gathered. While other candidates and their staffers mill around the lobby, shaking hands and passing out fliers, Chavez-Thompson stands by herself in a holding area with a few other candidates, awaiting her turn at the podium—located near a “skate at your own risk” sign. Chances are, she knows, many of the Democrats in Austin have never heard of her, while her two opponents both live here.

Marc Katz is the first candidate to speak, drawing some laughs when he trots out his oft-repeated joke about creating a deli sandwich modeled on Lt. Gov. Dewhurst: “It’s baloney on white bread.” Up next, Ronnie Earle begins with a lengthy parable about pulling children from a river, which eventually morphs into a metaphor for the state’s failed social policies.

Chavez-Thompson doesn’t open with a homespun homily or a crowd-pleasing joke. After briefly introducing herself, she cuts to the chase, chiding Dewhurst. “He’s taking care of the fat-cat lobbyists while driving down wages for all of us,” she says. “My name is Linda Chavez-Thompson, and I am not a dime-store cowboy, and I don’t have the support of all the fat-cat lobbyists. … I plan to be a different kind of lieutenant governor.” Then she outlines her platform, emphasizing higher education, better skilled workers and lower homeowners’ insurance rates.

In the question period, a woman asks Chavez-Thompson how she’ll make the transition from labor leader to lieutenant governor. “You’ve got 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats, so you better know how to negotiate,” she says. “I would say, let’s set an agenda. Let’s try and build and pass good legislation for the benefit of all Texans. And if you want to have a catfight, then let’s leave it until the end.”

The audience applauds as Chavez-Thompson steps off the plastic crate she has used to reach the microphone. Within minutes, she’s out the door and headed back to South Texas, where she hopes to convince more skeptical Democrats that there’s one more surprising chapter yet to be written in her unlikely life story.

Mr. Clean

Why Ronnie Earle wants to be lieutenant governor

In his 32 years as Travis County district attorney, Ronnie Earle earned a national reputation as a prosecutor unafraid to take on Texas’ most powerful elected officials. He brought charges against 18 politicians, including the current Republican candidate for governor, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and—most notably—former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Earle once famously filed charges against himself for missing a campaign-finance report deadline. He paid a $212 fine.

In December, 11 months after he left his district attorney post, Earle filed to run for lieutenant governor. The 67-year-old has been running a maverick campaign, raising his own money, and working without a full-time campaign manager. On March 2, he faces Linda Chavez-Thompson and Austin deli owner Marc Katz in the Democratic primary. The winner will square off against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Here are excerpts from an interview with Earle by Observer investigative reporter Melissa del Bosque.

Texas Observer: Why do you want to run for lieutenant governor?

Ronnie Earle: I didn’t make it a year through my retirement before I started getting upset about what was going on in Texas state government. I am alarmed about the extent that big business and large money interests and the lobby influence what happens to the people of Texas through the legislative process.

I believe everyone has an obligation to do what they can to make democracy better. That’s my basic belief. Democracy is a precious thing that requires everyone’s participation to flourish. We ought to do what we can to make sure that democracy does not diminish.

What makes you the best candidate for the job? I have more experience in state government than anyone else. I was staff assistant in the governor’s office under John Connally. I was a municipal judge in Austin for some years and worked closely with police, and was a member of the Legislature elected to two terms [in 1972 and 1974]. I was district attorney for 32 years. I have learned a great deal about state government—both how it operates and how it should operate. I know its failures as well as its successes. I know how to make responsible and wise decisions about strategies that will take Texas toward prosperity, public safety and equal justice under the law.

Why did the Democratic Party leadership recruit Linda Chavez-Thompson to run against you? It wasn’t the Democratic Party, it was a small handful of party insiders. That’s all I’m going to say about it.

You are considered a hero by many for having prosecuted Tom DeLay. But do you worry that Republican senators will consi
er you too partisan to lead them? Will they run for the hills if you become lieutenant governor?
(Laughs.) Well, the hills of Austin are never far away. During the time I was district attorney, I prosecuted something like 18 elected officials. Fourteen of them were Democrats, and four were Republicans. So much for partisan accusations. I’ve been called names by both Democrats and Republicans.

Do you think Republicans might try to strip some of the lieutenant governor’s powers if you are elected? I’m not concerned about it. I think most Democrats and Republicans are tired of hyperpartisan politics. Most senators are fair minded and don’t want to part so radically from a tradition that has worked well for Texas for so many years.

If Kay Bailey Hutchison were to become governor, do you think you could work with her? Well, I can work with anyone. The point is, what is in the best interest of the general public? That’s been my guide for my entire career. You are an employee, and your job is to do what is in the best interest of the boss, and the public is the boss.

So you think you could have lunch with Sen. Hutchison and say, “Let bygones be bygones and let’s work together”? (Laughs.) I don’t do a lot of thinking about that. I think most about what would be best for the public. And if the public decides to elect Kay Bailey Hutchison, then I think it’s best for us to work together in the public’s interest.

Do you worry about your ability to appeal to women and minority voters? My record stands on its own in terms of my appeal to women and minority voters. I’ve been a leader in seeking equal rights for women and for minorities throughout my career, in both the people I’ve hired and the positions I have taken.

Do you think your history as a prosecutor in Travis County will hurt or help your chances of winning? It will hurt me with the people that don’t like to recognize the rule of law, and it will help with people who do believe in the rule of law. As I said earlier, I have prosecuted far more Democrats than Republicans. What I did in office was apply the law, and the law criminalizes the abuse of power. For much of my time in office, the Democrats held power, which is why I have prosecuted more Democrats. My job was to prosecute those who broke the law.

What reforms will you institute to make the Senate a more functional and transparent body? It’s ultimately up to the Senate. I don’t want to arrive with any preconceived notions. I would initiate a dialogue with the senators to see if we couldn’t reach a shared conclusion.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you wish a reporter would ask you? Hmm … let me think for a moment. The biggest question right now, I think, is since when did a corporation become a person? I am referring of course to the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court [in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission]. I am strongly opposed to labor unions or corporations contributing money to political campaigns.

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.