At a January 10 fundraiser in Austin, state Sen. Frank Madla (D-San Antonio) described to the assembled business lobbyists and special interest groups what he considered his indispensable philosophy of bipartisan governance. “When I get to the state Capitol, I lock the Democratic Party in the trunk,” he said. Thesenator then turned to Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the evening’s “special guest,” and promised, in his trademark sotto voce tone, to never “change that philosophy.”
Comments like that won’t help Madla fend off a formidable primary challenge from state Rep. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) in a largely Democratic Senate district, which stretches from south San Antonio across a large swath of West Texas and ends just short of El Paso. Uresti’s campaign obtained a videotape of the event and giddily posted a clip of Madla’s toss-the-party-in-the-trunk remark on its Web site. Madla points out that the quote was lifted from a longer sentence, “I don’t believe that I was elected to represent only one party or the other…. When I go to the Capitol, I lock the Democratic Party in my trunk and just try to do what is right for those in my district and for all Texans.”
Still, the video starkly emphasized why Uresti says he wants to unseat the 69-year-old Madla, a 32-year veteran of the Texas Legislature who joined the Senate in 1993. Uresti and other Democrats argue that Madla has betrayed not just his enormous district, but the principles of the Democratic Party as a whole. “In the past four years, [Madla] has been voting more like a Republican than some Republicans,” Uresti said. “Tell me one thing he has done for the people in his district in the past four years. A wine bill?” (That’s a reference to Madla’s only major piece of successful legislation in the past two sessions, a bill that allowed wine producers to sell directly to the public.) While the race won’t increase the number of Democrats in the Senate, replacing Madla could make the minority party more united and powerful in the 2007 legislative session.
The Senate likely will contain 20 Republicans and just 11 Democrats next session. That’s a significant number. If all 11 Democrats stick together, they can prevent the most egregious right-wing legislation from passing the chamber. (Under Senate tradition, two-thirds of the senators must support a bill before it can come up for debate.) In the past two sessions, though, Democrats have splintered, and Madla is often the first to bolt. “There’s a beaten path on the carpet from Dewhurst’s desk to Madla’s desk because every time the Republicans need one more vote that’s where they go,” said Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso). Last May, for instance, the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage passed the Senate because of Madla’s change of heart the day before the vote.
On the campaign trail, Uresti has hammered Madla for a 2003 vote in favor of House Bill 2292, which stripped 180,000 low-income kids from the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). A Uresti direct-mail piece sent to 52,000 homes in the mostly poor, Mexican American district reads, “Something is wrong when children aren’t smiling” and lists, county-by-county, the number of children in Madla’s district dropped from dental coverage offered by CHIP. Madla has responded with a television ad claiming his vote for HB 2292 was just procedural and that he voted against the bill on final passage. (The procedural vote, however, was the important one: Madla’s defection helped rob Democrats of the 11 votes they needed to block the bill.)
Madla also backed the controversial 2003 tort reform package that capped medical malpractice awards at $250,000. Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the powerful pro-tort reform group, has given Madla’s campaign $180,000 in recent weeks, according to campaign finance records. Meanwhile, wealthy trial lawyers have been funding Uresti’s campaign. Until mid-January, Madla was out-fundraising and out-spending Uresti by a large margin. Uresti now says he is “almost matching [Madla] dollar-for-dollar.”
What Uresti calls voting Republican, however, Madla terms bipartisan cooperation to benefit his district. “[Uresti] does not understand the Senate process, and he has no real concept of how to be effective in the Senate arena,” Madla told the Observer in written responses to questions. “Members know that once I give my word, they can take it to the bank. That reputation and the relationships formed over my long tenure in the Texas Senate and the Legislature … has contributed to my being able to pass the highest percentage of bills in the Senate this past session.”
The bitterness of the Madla-Uresti race also has laid bare deep fissures among the West Texas Democratic delegation in both the House and Senate. Shapleigh is campaigning in the district against Madla—an almost unheard-of act in the genteel Senate. Their simmering antipathy boiled over last session based on Madla’s sponsorship of a single controversial bill. Senate Bill 547 would have limited voting in the El Paso water district to individuals who own property with water rights. In a bitter showdown on the Senate floor in April 2005, Shapleigh accused Madla of cynically stripping 75,000 people, mostly minorities, of their voting rights and of carrying water for longtime campaign contributors. Asked about the bill, Madla responded, “[My] constituents believed, and I supported, that, as landowners of the property impacted by the legislation, they should be the ones to vote on it.”
The bill passed the Senate and later died in the House. Yet the issue has opened a rift in the Democratic Party in West Texas. On one side are Shapleigh, Uresti, and Rep. Norma Chavez (D-El Paso), who blocked the water district bill in the House. On the other side sit Madla, Rep. Chente Quintanilla (D-El Paso), a backer of the water bill, and Martha “Marty” Reyes, who’s challenging Chavez in the primary. (She happens to be the wife of Jesus “Chuy” Reyes, the general manager of the water district.) Not to be outdone, Quintanilla himself is facing primary opposition due in part to his support of the water district bill.
This split is manifested in the two side’s financial backing. A review of campaign finance reports shows that El Paso area agricultural interests, including several individuals that sit on the water district board, have been major funders of Madla, Reyes (44 percent of her total campaign funds), and Quintanilla (34 percent), while donating little or nothing to their opponents.
Some Democrats view the intra-party scrap—especially the Madla race—as a way to solidify the power of the minority party in a Republican-dominated state. “The only power that the Democratic Party has left in the Senate is those 11 [Democratic] votes,” Uresti said. “That’s all we have left to be able to tell the Republicans, ‘Hold on a second, yes you outnumber us, but if we’re going to move this bill forward, you need to give us something for our people.'”