At last June’s state Democratic convention, Leticia Van de Putte was all set for the kind of klieg-light moment that ambitious pols lust after. The longtime legislator from Bexar County had been tapped to deliver the big “unity” speech, meant to reconcile the Obama and Clinton factions and introduce Hillary’s concession extravaganza.
Because she’d been one of the New York senator’s most vociferous backers, Van de Putte’s words would carry extra weight with both sides. At least that was the theory. Until she ad-libbed thusly: “[A]nybody who’s been in a relationship knows that you eventually stop fighting, you get back together. You know, my husband Pete and I have six children, and as [he] says, ‘Oh, the make-up sex is really good!’ ”
Cue a low embarrassed murmur, with 12,000 heads swiveling around to gauge each others’ puzzled reactions.
Perhaps this indelible memory helps explain the less-than-giddy response in mid-February when Van de Putte confirmed that she was pondering a run for governor next year. Only a few progressive bloggers yee-hawed, welcoming an alternative to the party’s slim pickings thus far-humorist Kinky Friedman and former Bush ambassador Tom Schieffer, who’ve spent much of their time protesting that, yes, they really are Democrats. (Kinky’s always been one, he explained, just not “the kind of Democrat that goose-steps to the polling box.”)
Van de Putte has had her scary moments at the podium-and in the Capitol, where she’s also blurted out some ill-advised observations. But the 54-year-old Latina, who bolted into the spotlight by leading the “gang of 11” Democrats on their 45-day New Mexico walk-out to protest the Republicans’ redistricting plot in 2003, has solid experience and the sort of national profile (friend of Pelosi, co-chair of the ’08 Democratic National Convention, past chair of the National Conference of State Legislators) that could make her a contender. With a bit of careful coaching.
Between now and next June’s primary, of course, any number of intrepid Democrats might volunteer for the duty of taking on either Gov. Rick Perry or U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Among the current players, Schieffer fits the old-school Democratic mold: bland, pro-business, Lite Republican in the Lloyd Bentsen mold. (Hey, it worked in 1970!) Friedman will likely generate as few votes as guffaws. With Tejanos expected to outnumber Anglos in the state by 2020, Van de Putte looks more like the future-a future in which sanguine Democrats believe they will regain ascendancy in Texas politics by demographics alone.
That future, however, is dicey at best. Tejanos haven’t yet taken to voting in big numbers; in 2008, they accounted for only 20 percent of Texas voters-and 35 percent of the state’s population. And Democrats have not made the sale: While Latinos gave Obama a huge boost in other states, 35 percent in Texas went for John McCain. Texas Democrats, says Marisa Trevino, publisher of
LatinaLista.net, “really have a false sense of security.”
Of course, right-wing Republicans have been going out of their way to boost the other party’s prospects with their immigrant-bashing. At some point, though, Texas GOP leaders will be forced to confront the bitter reality: They can’t keep winning without plenty of Latino votes. In the meantime, Democrats have a precious chance to woo the young Tejanos who will define the state’s political future. Whether or not Van de Putte becomes a prime-time player, one thing’s clear: If Democrats look backward in 2010, they might just blow that chance. But we are talking about a party that has elevated blowing it to an art form.