Boots on the Ground

Veteran Rick Noriega stands up to Bush, Cornyn, and the Iraq war.


This article has been updated. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn was eligible for the draft during the Vietnam war, though he did not serve. Last update: December 19, 2007

Rick Noriega, the Democratic Houston legislator and candidate for U.S. Senate, is tall, trim, handsome, and bald. The National Guard lieutenant colonel, 49, was working a small crowd of San Antonio Democrats and donors this past September with both the habitual shoulders-back posture of a career soldier and the fluid ease of a onetime junior college infielder. “I’m nobody’s Don Quixote,” he told me in a later interview, acknowledging the odds against his turning out Texas’ incumbent junior senator, Republican John Cornyn. “I’m too old to go off tilting at windmills. But I’m fed up.”

Though Noriega addresses many issues, the heart of his campaign is the mess that George W. Bush, neocon ideologues, and apologists like Cornyn have made of the war in Iraq. The challenger’s campaign logo, and metaphor, is a dusty pair of Army combat boots-a pointed distinction between himself and Cornyn. On seeing American hostages humiliated in Tehran by Iranian militants in 1979, when he was 21, Noriega joined the Guard as a private in a burst of conviction that he had to do something. He was a corporal when he won an ROTC scholarship at the University of Houston. Nearing 30, after a decade of work for the Texas Insurance Commission, he was accepted by the John F. Kennedy School of Public Affairs at Harvard. After graduate school, he came back to Houston, ran a losing race for the state House of Representatives at 32, worked as an aide of Houston state Sen. John Whitmire, got a job lobbying the Legislature for a public utilities firm, then ran again for the House and won in 1998. After 9/11, by then a major, Noriega was called up in 2004 and sent to Afghanistan to command an infantry unit with a lineage that goes back to the Alamo.

Rick Noriega

Democrats know why they want to vote politicians like Cornyn out of office. But not since Ann Richards have Texas Democrats fielded a major candidate who inspired them to weather a long, uphill fight and in the end turn out to vote. Could this great-grandson of Mexican immigrants be the one? Noriega has a compelling story. But can he get it told to hundreds of thousands of people, including the necessary independents and crossover Republicans?

Cornyn, whom Bush nicknamed “Corndog” when Bush was Texas’ governor, barks at anyone, including GOP Senate colleagues, who dares criticize the president’s rationale and conduct of his self-proclaimed War on Terror. Cornyn has toed the administration lines on Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and torture. But Cornyn, a 55-year-old native of San Antonio, was too young to have to make any personal decisions about service in Vietnam, and in the post-draft era he plunged into law school and a practice defending against medical malpractice suits, setting his sights on a district court seat that became his springboard to a GOP career. He was elected attorney general in 1998 and U.S. senator in 2002, pulled along in both races by Bush’s popularity in Texas and the guidance and grooming of Karl Rove. For all his hawkish bluster, Cornyn has never had to risk his neck under fire or even stand for a military inspection.

Since Noriega wears fatigues and boots as a reserve member of the Army, he cannot afford to overstate his rebukes of his commander-in-chief. He doesn’t have to. Today Bush has little support for his vision and execution of the war outside stalwarts of the Republican Party. Noriega’s chance at winning his race for the Senate depends on cultivating widespread disgust with this administration, even in the GOP bastion of Texas, and convincing voters that Cornyn, in the interest of his own survival, has careened even further than Bush toward extremism and bile.

On Capitol Hill, Cornyn has won (or been awarded) committee assignments on armed services, the budget, ethics, and the judiciary. Those forums offer a wealth of free exposure on national television. As Bush’s partisan, he has argued like some magisterial, lantern-jawed prelate in the Inquisition. On his home turf, he hasn’t projected the stature of Kay Bailey Hutchison, much less a Lyndon Johnson or Ralph Yarborough. His negatives are high for an incumbent, his name recognition low. In acknowledgment of the fast-approaching day when this presidency is history, Cornyn has lately broken not only with Bush, but with his Senate mentor John McCain by seizing on the issue that ultraconservative Republicans believe can turn back the tide begun by the 2006 elections-resentment and fear of illegal Mexican immigrants. The nativism is a strategy of short-term gain that will come back to haunt the Republican Party when a majority of Texans are of Latino heritage. For now, Cornyn heads into his race with nightly snarls of agreement from pundits like Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs, and a campaign war chest of $6.6 million provided by a who’s who of corporate interests. And white males have a history of being the voters most inclined to participate in Texas general elections.

Noriega and son, Ricky Jr.

As Noriega worked the room of La Margarita Restaurant that noontime in September, his fundraising total since joining the race three months earlier had reached only $531,000. He could not be certain he would even get the chance to oppose Cornyn in the 2008 election. First he had to overcome an amiable San Antonio trial lawyer named Mikal Watts, who had put $7.5 million of his own money into a Democratic primary race and had raised over a million more from donors. For the San Antonio fundraiser, Noriega’s team had circulated invitations with an A-list of local Democratic sponsors-chief among them Henry and Mary Alice Cisneros. “This is a very impressive list,” noted a crusty partisan who asked a longtime friend seated at our table if she would pass on a crumpled pair of $100 bills to the candidate. “But they’re not here.”

I was acquainted with the woman who’d been asked to pass on her friend’s $200. She had been at the forefront of the city’s progressive battles for many years. I poked a chip at salsa and mildly asked her what she thought of the San Antonio lawyer in the race. Given her knowledge of politics and its players, her reply mystified me. “I don’t know anybody who’d ever heard of him.”

The Democrats who were curious about Noriega had taken seats in a crescent around the back of the room. Carla Vela, who chairs the Bexar County Democratic Party, stood and complimented Noriega but stressed that their position in the primary had to be firmly neutral. After the introductions, Noriega quit the podium and microphone because the distance between himself and his audience would have been a fair throw to first base for the shortstop he once was at Alvin Community College. The National Guard battalion that Noriega commands is headquartered in San Antonio; a number of members had come downtown in support. Noriega began, “We live in the most wonderful nation in the history of the Earth.” A few people clapped, doing no damage to their hands.

Noriega said he wanted to share the story of a woman who in 1916 was an economic refugee of Mexico. “She crossed through Eagle Pass, Texas, and found her way with her son to Houston. Her son died, and she raised her grandchildren. One of her grandchildren went off to the Army, joined the 82nd Airborne. He came back to Houston and fell in love with a girl from Magnolia Park. They married and had three children. Neither of the parents graduated from high school, but they dedicated their lives to those three children, and all three of them graduated from college. The middle child went off to the East Coast and got a master’s degree at Harvard. He also followed his father’s footsteps into military service. He enlisted as a private, and over the years he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. And he has the opportunity to stand before you today and say that he is a candidate for the United States Senate.”

Just then, a loud cell phone went off at the table of the Bexar County Democrats. Vela announced “an emergency at the office,” they all clambered to their feet, and in odd concert they bolted for the stairs. “Leave a check at the door,” Noriega called after them, laughing gamely.

Lurching back on message, he introduced a Mexican-American firefighter in the audience and said they’d been sharing memories. The man is a first sergeant in the battalion Noriega commands. In 2005 they were training Afghan soldiers outside Kabul, and because of that country’s long war against the Soviet Union, those austere plains are some of the most heavily mined terrain on Earth. One day some soldiers who lived in the next tent over from Noriega’s were scouting for new training sites and set off one of those old Russian mines. Noriega had been in telephone or e-mail contact with his wife almost daily, but combat fatalities impose on their units a 72-hour blackout of all communication back home, so the victims’ next of kin can be properly notified. Melissa Noriega, who served in her husband’s legislative seat while he was overseas and is now a popular Houston City Council member, saw the crawl of newsprint across the CNN screen that four American soldiers had been killed on a training mission outside Kabul. She knew it had to be her husband’s battalion.

Melissa Noriega

“This man,” Noriega said of John Cornyn, “does not understand what it’s like for families when a heart sinks every time the phone or doorbell rings, when a wife and mother is cleaning the house because she doesn’t know if all at once their relatives might be coming for a funeral.” The room got very quiet. “I’m running,” Noriega went on, “because this senator has never had to walk the walk. I’m proud of the people I served with over there. Some went straight from peacekeeping in Kosovo to an all-out fight in Anbar. Many have been back over there two or three times, and it’s my responsibility to make sure the ones in my command are trained and ready to go back in the breach in about 36 months. Because if my soldiers are not properly trained and something bad happens to them, I’m the one responsible. If something bad happens …” Noriega again spoke the name of the firefighter and first sergeant, then left a very long pause. People set down glasses of water and tea and gave the politician a closer look. His eyes gleamed; the tears were real. Then he regained his composure and finished off with trite clichés of what they could all accomplish together in this campaign.

That day Noriega acknowledged Mikal Watts only with an indirect remark that a checkbook is not a qualification. The woman at my table had never heard of Watts because, it turns out, the state’s political press corps might have more accurately described him as a San Antonio newcomer who made his mark and fortune as a Corpus Christi lawyer. In Nueces County politics, he won special Democratic favor in 2006 by pouring contributions into the winning race for the Legislature of Juan Garcia, who as a Harvard law student was a roommate of Barack Obama. Also in 2006, Watts raised over $1 million for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. New York’s junior senator, Charles Schumer, was among those who encouraged the lawyer to think about making the race. But over the summer the Houston Chronicle produced a copy of a 2001 letter in which Watts had advised a legal adversary to settle a personal injury lawsuit because Watts’ firm had made “heavy” donations to pertinent appellate judges, “all of whom are good Democrats.” Then Watts found himself ensnared in a Corpus Christi imbroglio involving a flamboyant, Ferrari-driving plaintiffs’ advocate named Mauricio Celis. Celis claimed to be a licensed attorney in Mexico, but suddenly was indicted on multiple felony counts of aggravated perjury and practicing law in Texas without any kind of license. A state grand jury also indicted him for flashing a Duval County deputy’s badge-impersonating a peace officer-when Corpus Christi police showed up in response to reports that a woman had run naked down the street from Celis’ mansion. Watts, who has been close to Celis, explained in an abrupt announcement that he was withdrawing from the race so he could spend more time with his family. In just over a month, his free-spending campaign went from cocky ascent to a pelican’s plunk in the Gulf of Mexico.

Conventional wisdom has since emerged that Watts’ exit from the race was a calamity for Noriega, not a godsend. People who vote in Democratic primaries were perceived to be moving toward the Hispanic legislator already. Unlike some other ethnic Democrats, in the statehouse Noriega has spurned the tradeoffs offered by Speaker Tom Craddick. He supports women’s right to choose, while Watts had been booed for making anti-abortion remarks. Noriega was getting a lot of media that he didn’t have to pay for. If he had beaten Watts head to head, his campaign team and the press might have cast him in the race against Cornyn as a first-round giant-killer who prevailed despite the trial lawyer’s wealth. Now, this spinning goes, Noriega is a virtually certain nominee (he has gained one opponent, Ray McMurrey, a schoolteacher from Corpus Christi whose issue is public financing of campaigns). No longer in the news, Noriega is looking at month after anonymous month of scrabbling for Democrats’ hundred-dollar bills while Cornyn salts away more millions and feasts on the free TV exposure that his committee assignments in Washington send his way.

At least on a couple of levels, the Watts implosion may have been a lucky break for Noriega. Apart from the overwhelming advantage in resources, Watts and his team of strategists thought he could win by casting Noriega as a utility lobbyist who valued that industry’s pollution and profiteering more than an average families’ ability to pay the bills and protect their health, especially as regards air quality. Since 2000 Noriega has also accepted $9,500 in contributions from Houston GOP financier Bob Perry, who helped fund the “swiftboat” ads against John Kerry. Yet it’s hard to believe Bob Perry would support and fund Noriega against Cornyn. (A Perry spokesman declined to comment.) And on the candidate’s past as a lobbyist and now marketing manager-on-leave from his job with CenterPoint Energy Inc., at least one government ethicist gives Noriega high marks. “The word that comes to mind for me is ‘integrity,'” said Tom Smith, the veteran Austin director of the watchdog group Public Citizen (and not a man inclined to lavish such language on Texas politicians). “Since Rick’s been in the Legislature, when I tried to bring him around to our positions on utilities, he’d say, ‘Look, sorry, I’m recusing myself. I’m not going to mix policym
king with my business.’ And he’s gotten after me for not
being aggressive enough on some environmental issues-especially toxics in the Ship Channel.”

Soon after Noriega returned from Afghanistan in 2005, Houston Mayor Bill White enlisted him to coordinate assistance and shelter of evacuees from the Katrina and Rita hurricanes-an item on the candidate’s resumé that doubtless wins him more respect than his seat in the Legislature. White is now a strong supporter of Noriega’s Senate campaign. Other Harris County heavyweights in Noriega’s corner include former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and his son Paul Hobby. “If we’re going to win,” Noriega told me, “we have to carry Harris County.”

The Houston and Dallas metropolitan areas now account for half of the electorate in Texas. Noriega’s campaign consultant, James Aldrete, said the key is running well in suburbs like those in Fort Bend County, where Tom DeLay used to reign, and Collin and Denton counties in the Dallas media market. “Democrats in recent races have been almost afraid to raise their heads there,” Aldrete said. “It won’t be that way with Rick.”

Rick Noriega

But, I asked, how does an understaffed and money-strapped campaign also hold the recent Democratic base-Austin, San Antonio, and the border? He was silent for a moment, then quipped, “Bush is the base.”

Aldrete was referring to polls that suggest Democrats-in their fury over Bush, Cheney, Rove, the war in Iraq, DeLay, and GOP bungling of government in general-are by several percentage points more motivated to turn out in 2008 than Republicans. But the question remains: How can Noriega hope to overtake an opponent who starts out with an advantage of $12 to his $1?

In November Noriega was a featured guest at the Democratic presidential debates in Las Vegas. He was auditioning for help that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will deal out this summer. Noriega made a good impression with his friendly grin and soldier-athlete bearing. But Texas is a huge state with multiple media markets and not one Democrat holding a statewide office. Noriega will have to spend about $11 million to campaign from now to November and air TV and radio ads in the crucial last month of the race. To get help from the national party, Noriega must convince their strategists that he can raise most of the money from individual donors, who in federal races are limited to a maximum gift of $2,300. If he fails, they will say it’s a shame and invest in the race of a candidate in a smaller state where the odds are better and Senate races are not so expensive.

“There are four kinds of candidates these days,” Noriega told me. “One is rich and can just pay for it. Another is a celebrity who can wow voters into going along. A third is knowledgeable and works hard, but the experts say, ‘Ah, that one can’t raise the money,’ and it becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Texas Democrats haven’t seen the fourth kind since Ann Richards ran for governor in 1990-a candidate that people get behind because they know this is a good person and the outcome matters, and winning is something they’re determined to bring about. That’s the model for the race I’m running.”

Then there is the issue of ethnicity. In 2006, when Bush ordered National Guard troops to provide logistical and surveillance support to the Border Patrol in a gambit called Operation Jump Start, Noriega volunteered and was soon driving his pickup toward the Rio Grande, where he commanded the Laredo sector. “Yes, we need border security,” he said of that experience, but he told me that Operation Jump Start was driven by politics, not policy. He said that along with his grim view of the administration’s execution of the wars in the Middle East, the border experience tipped the balance toward his challenging Cornyn.

“Some people are just anti-immigration,” he said with distaste. “After 9/11, this outlook disguised itself and tucked itself inside the fear factor and national security. These people got inside a Trojan horse. They really don’t want to reach a national consensus on immigration because they see it as a wedge issue.” He accused Cornyn of grandstanding and playing to those fears. “Our government can’t even meet the demand for passports. He wants to send several million people back where they came from and then bureaucratically process them back here as workers. How’s he going to do that? In buses? Boxcars? Nobody who lives on the border wants the wall that Republicans are so determined to build. Everybody knows it won’t work. There are issues of farmers’ and ranchers’ access to water. And the symbolism of that wall and a militarized border is all wrong. It’s not what we ought to be doing in America.”

I observed to Noriega that when Cornyn first ran for the Senate, in 2002, his polished Democratic opponent, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, got $4.5 million in help from the national party. Kirk actually outspent Cornyn-but he still lost by 8 percentage points. The same year, John Sharp talked Laredo banker Tony Sanchez into making a self-financed run for governor, under the theory that the resulting flood of Hispanic turnout in support of a native son would raise the boats of all Democrats. Hispanics didn’t turn out, Rick Perry creamed Sanchez, and that election was the peak of Republican domineering in Texas.

Noriega left another long pause, then said, “I think in Texas we’re in a totally different circumstance now than we were in 2002. For one thing, Bush was very popular then. This will be the first time in 28 years that Bush or his father haven’t been on the ballot or holding high political office. I know,” he said, turning back to Cornyn, “that some people are not going to vote for me because of my name, because I’m a Democrat, because I’m bald. But real folks are subject to periodic job performance reviews. Do we rehire someone who voted against providing children with health insurance? Do we rehire someone who claims we’re winning the war in Iraq? Do we rehire someone who voted against allowing the government to negotiate with the pharmaceutical industry so that we can have cheaper medicines? I don’t mean to personally disparage John Cornyn. But has he done a good job? If you believe he has, then he’s your Huckleberry.

“A lot of people are saying we can do better than this, that we have to change. I think I can go into East and West Texas and appeal to people’s common sense and judgment. And, frankly, I believe I can do a better job. I know this contest is David against Goliath. But like Wilt Chamberlain used to say, nobody really likes Goliath. I can assure you I’m going to get after it. We’ll find out next November what Texas is ready for. I know I’m ready.”

The Austin-based writer Jan Reid is the author of 10 widely varied books. They include The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock (University of Texas Press), The Bullet Meant for Me (University of Texas Press), and, with coauthor and former Observer editor Lou Dubose, The Hammer (PublicAffairs), the definitive investigation of the rise, fall, and disgrace of Tom DeLay.