Much Ado About Nada

Sanchez and Morales Make Debatable History


Dallas, Texas ––

By the end of the English portion of the “historic” Democratic gubernatorial debate in Dallas last March 1, the Spanish-speaking journalists camped out at the studios of KERA-Dallas/Fort Worth, where the event was held, were itching for a shot at candidate Dan Morales. Most had audibly groaned when, in his opening statement, Morales had accused his rival Tony Sanchez of “driving a wedge between our citizens based on race and ethnicity.” In particular, the former attorney general lashed out at “my opponent’s insistence that we elevate Spanish…to a status equal with English.”

The irony of Morales attacking the Spanish debate, which followed an hour after the English encounter, was not lost on the Hispanic journalists. For the cash-starved Morales campaign the event provided a bonanza of free media coverage. “Half the people in this room wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Spanish debate,” noted Gustavo Mariel, a television journalist for Telemundo.

Indeed, in addition to all the Spanish-language media that came, the historic nature of the occasion–the first ever U.S. gubernatorial debate in Spanish–caught the attention of The New York Times, the Boston Globe, CNN, and the Christian Science Monitor, among others. Then of course there was the fact that holding a debate in Spanish had been Morales’ idea in the first place. The candidate had floated the concept at a press conference on January 7 in Dallas, but then ignored the pleas of Spanish-language networks to set up the event.

When, after the debate, Morales came out to the hallway where the media horde awaited, a cacophony of questions in Spanish greeted him almost immediately.

“Don’t you believe that multi-lingual people can have more work opportunities?”

“Don’t you believe in bilingual education?”

“Do you think people should have to speak in English?”

While Morales agreed that bilingualism was not necessarily a bad thing, he repeatedly fell back on his mantra: “In Texas, we speak English as our primary language.”

Then he turned and attacked Sanchez. “He is attempting to appeal to one ethnic group and pit it against another ethnic group. That is bad for our party, for our state, and for democracy. I think Mr. Sanchez ought to be ashamed of himself.”

Reactions from some pundits and columnists on Morales’ stance were swift. One editorial page editor compared Morales to former California Republican Governor Pete Wilson, who is credited with alienating the Hispanic electorate in that state through anti-immigrant positions. Many analysts questioned whether Morales’ attack on the Spanish debate was in fact a cynical effort to court conservative Anglo Democrats. Morales denied the accusations.

The dispute also benefited multi-millionaire frontrunner Sanchez. It allowed him to promote himself as a man of the people who just wanted to give the Hispanic population and their culture its due. The false argument over Spanish versus English consumed so much time that it essentially allowed Sanchez to sidestep detailing real proposals, beyond a fuzzy feel-good endorsement of education and a promise to “scrub the budget.”

When it came time for the border banker to meet the press, he puffed himself up into the protector of Texas Latinos everywhere.

“Is [Morales] a racist?” asked Martin Berlanga, a Texas-based correspondent for Univision.

“Clearly he is,” replied Sanchez in Spanish. “He has belittled the Hispanics of Texas. He should be ashamed to do this. It is my opinion that he has insulted [them].”

Predictably by the end of the night, both sides were declaring victory. The Sanchez camp was elated that their man had stood up to Morales’ prosecutorial intensity in his first debate ever and survived without any major gaffes. Now they could dodge the claim he had never debated and return to the safety of focus group-primed political advertising. Morales had launched so many missiles at Sanchez that his people felt certain some had hit. As of press time it remains to be seen whether the Morales gambit of impugning the Spanish debates will pay off and capture enough English-First Democrats to cancel out all the Spanish-speaking Hispanics he no doubt alienated.

As for accent and delivery, again both sides professed to be pleased, but Sanchez obviously had the edge. While it seemed clear that Morales had to limit his attacks in Spanish because he is not as comfortable with the language, his accent is serviceable. Sanchez is much more appealing in Spanish. He adopts a folksy, warm, good-humored persona that is reminiscent of a Mexican patrón and stood in stark contrast to Morales’ cold, bureaucratic language.

But in the end, the whole sorry dogfight seemed to underscore the reality of a U.S. political culture that breeds small-minded thinking, a dearth of imagination, and a phobia of specificity. The controversy, as well as its opposite, a certain self-congratulatory complacency – Handshakes all around! We just made history!–both served to obscure, rather than highlight, the very real problems facing many Hispanics in Texas.

Complicit in this obfuscation, of course, were most of the media, ever pleased to reduce political campaigns to horse races, and always more than happy to indulge in the titillation of mudslinging. In this regard, the Spanish media is no better.

Many Spanish-language stations in the state didn’t even carry the debate live. Nine of Univision’s fourteen stations ran the debate, all but three broadcasting it an hour later, outside of the more lucrative primetime spot. (They opted to stick with the salacious Univision soap opera Salomé which runs in that time slot.) Telemundo, with the exception of its Amarillo affiliate, chose to do a special program of excerpts and analysis the following Sunday.

“All the press is focused on this [controversy],” observed Patricia Estrada, Spanish news director for Metro Networks, a Dallas radio news service. “It’s not irrelevant, but it’s not a priority either.”

The priorities are partly on display in the January 2001 update of “Bordering the Future,” the Texas Comptroller’s report on the 43-county Texas border region, which is home to the poorest Hispanics in the state. The area still has the highest poverty rate in Texas. It still has the largest percentage of adults without a high school diploma. It still lags far behind in per-capita spending on elementary and secondary education compared to the rest of Texas. Infant mortality is still unacceptably high. How Texas will go about paying to improve these statistics in the face of an estimated $5 billion revenue shortfall is a good question, but not one that Morales or Sanchez addressed with any depth–in either language.

For her part, Hispanic broadcaster Estrada wanted the candidates to talk about real issues like drivers’ licenses for non-citizens, what will happen with affirmative action as the Hispanic minority grows larger, how to pay for health insurance for children, and how to make education available to all Texans.

“These are much more important issues than who speaks better Spanish,” she noted.