Tony the Tiger

Texas Dems think Laredo oilman Tony Sanchez is their savior. But then so did George W. Bush. Can they both be right?

The enigma known as Tony Sanchez, Jr. presents Democrats with the same challenge faced early in a courtship by lovers who don’t yet know one another. Sanchez, the Dem’s likely gubernatorial candidate in 2002, provides an inscrutable love object upon which the party’s forlorn and disappointed supporters can project all of their fantasies and all of their fears. Presumably, in the tumultuous affair ahead, as the next gubernatorial campaign actually gets underway, Sanchez and his would-be constituents will learn more about each other. Whether or not they will ultimately care for one another remains to be seen. But in the meantime, it’s fascinating to watch Texas Democrats swoon over the unknown heartthrob down in Laredo.

It’s clear enough why the hearts of Democratic powerbrokers go pitter-pat at the idea of Sanchez running for office. In March, a pride of Democratic lions–including former Lt. Governor Ben Barnes and former Texas Comptroller John Sharp–traveled down to Laredo to visit with Sanchez at his ranch in Webb County. (The visit was first reported by Texas Weekly.) People who attended the meeting described it as a brainstorming session, during which they kicked around issues expected to be at the forefront of the 2002 race. “It was a nice meeting of people with a whole lot of expertise in public policy and state government talking about public policy and state government,” said Kelly Fero, Sanchez’s spokesman.

But Sanchez is a wealthy oil man who’s never run for public office before, and policy isn’t supposed to be his strong suit. At other meetings, with potential supporters, Sanchez has hung large maps of certain well-populated Texas counties up on the walls of the conference room in his Laredo office, from which he runs Sanchez Oil and Gas and helps manage the International Bank of Commerce. The maps were prepared with the help of Austin consultants Bill Emory and Peck Young, as well as California pollster Paul Maslin, Austin political hand Glenn Smith, and Kelly Fero. They are a county-by-county analysis of what might happen in 2002, when most observers of the political scene expect there to be an epochal shift in Texas voting patterns.

The state’s rapidly changing population statistics are the main reason for Sanchez’s appeal as a top-of-the-ticket candidate. Recent census figures document a surge in the number of Hispanics that exceeds even the most generous past predictions; originally, it was predicted that Texas would become a “majority-minority” state in the year 2008, but the latest figures suggest that transition may now take place as soon as 2004. As of last year, Hispanics constituted 32 percent of the 20.8 million residents of Texas. The implications for politics are plain. In the 2000 elections, Hispanics made up 16 percent of the total electorate; some political analysts are now saying that by 2002, that number may swell to 20 percent. “There are about 1 million registered Hispanics who vote regularly,” said Kelly Fero. “There are about another 1 million Hispanics who are registered but don’t vote regularly. Then you have, in the top 30 biggest counties, another 2.1 million Hispanics who are eligible, but aren’t registered.” Those 4 million Hispanics who might take part in the election could determine its outcome, Fero said.

Tony Sanchez (Photo courtesy of The Austin Chronicle) The Democrats are not the only party to recognize the significance of these statistics. By 1998, Republican political guru Karl Rove was already instructing George W. Bush to reach out to Hispanic voters by speaking in broken Spanish whenever he could. The Bush team saw that not just Texas but the entire Southwest was tilting Hispanic, and tilting fast. Capturing the Latino vote is the key to the future dominance of one or the other of the political parties–at both the local and the national level. As the Washington Post reported in April, Rove has already convened a group to plan Bush’s re-election bid, and the primary goal will be capturing more Hispanic votes. Without them, according to Rove’s own calculations, Bush cannot win.

The Democrats are playing the same game–and the stakes are enormous. “I support him big-time,” said Henry Cisneros, the former Clinton Cabinet member and Mayor of San Antonio, of Sanchez. “He has a chance to make an historic breakthrough. It would be the first time that a Latino would receive the nomination of the Democratic Party for the office of Governor of Texas.” Not merely the Governor’s office is at issue; so are the outcomes of every other statewide race in 2002, and the way that Texas swings in 2004. “For Texas to have an Hispanic Governor take over at the beginning of the new millennium would have huge implications for the whole country, not just Texas,” said Glenn Smith, who recently left the Austin political consulting firm Public Strategies to work for Sanchez. “It could absolutely change the tone and the outcome of the 2004 [national] election.” Party registrations are running so close that putting a Hispanic at the top of the ticket could tip the balance in favor of the Dems. Especially if Sanchez was willing to spend up to $30 million of his own money on the race, as has been reported, he could easily affect the outcome of every race on the ticket.

As is often noted, Republicans hold every statewide office in Texas. This means that there is an entire generation of Democratic luminaries who are now stuck in law offices, plotting their comebacks. To them, Sanchez looks like their best shot. Men like John Sharp, who is planning to run for Lieutenant Governor again, know exactly what happens when there is a candidate with an identifiably Hispanic surname on the ballot. In 1994, when Dan Morales ran for Attorney General, 34 percent of eligible Hispanics made it to the polls; in 1998, when Morales didn’t run, only 23 percent voted. And Morales’ name appeared much further down than Sanchez’s would. When asked what impact he thought Sanchez running for Governor might have on turnout in the Hispanic community, Cisneros said: “Oh, it will be historic. It will be a 100-year-flood. It will be a crusade.”

At this point in the courtship, however, many people in Austin political circles are beginning to wonder just who it is they’ve gotten involved with and what his intentions may be. If only because he has yet to articulate publicly why he wants to run, it’s not clear what Sanchez brings to the race, aside from increased turnout. The Sanchez candidacy runs the risk of appearing to be all about strategy and not at all about issues. In fact, the Sanchez candidacy sometimes seems like it’s all about John Sharp.

In 1998, Sharp lost his bid to become Lt. Governor to Rick Perry by a mere 70,000 votes, out of more than 3.6 million cast. By all accounts, Sharp is hungry to run again. Clearly Sharp and Sanchez have been coordinating their efforts. Sanchez spokesman Ferro used to perform the same function for Sharp. Early news coverage of the race has hit on a potentially troubling theme: that Sanchez might come to be viewed as more of a vehicle for Sharp to get elected once again, rather than a political phenomenon in his own right.

Which raises an equally troubling question: What kind of Faustian bargain may Sharp and the Democrats be striking to get back into power? Tony Sanchez has been a lavish supporter of George W. Bush. During the last election, Sanchez even worked as a Pioneer, raising more than $100,000 for the Bush cause. According to the watchdog organization Center for Public Integrity, the Sanchez family has given Bush a total of $323,650 over the years, making them the third most generous patrons of Bush’s political career, surpassed only by the contributions of Enron Corporation of Houston and MBNA Corporation of Delaware. Sanchez, like Bush, is an oil man, and that loyalty, more than any particular party affiliation, has probably defined his political leanings. It’s easy to predict one criticism Sanchez will elicit: The fact that the flailing Dems have turned to a Bush money-man (even if he is a registered Democrat) to save them speaks volumes about just how desperate the party has become.

The Democratic spin machine is already in full gear. Supporters of Sanchez argue that he wasn’t so much pro-Bush as he was anti-Ann. “I think his support for Bush was an aberration,” said Cisneros. “He has a long history of supporting the Democratic party. He had a fight with Ann Richards, I don’t know the details of it…. But in his view, he wasn’t able to support her.” (The battle between Richards and Sanchez supposedly concerned the location of the International Bridge in Laredo.) While plausible, this anti-Ann line doesn’t quite explain away the generosity Sanchez showed to Bush, once he switched sides. At best, he’s extremely pragmatic, and at worst, a Republican in sheep’s clothing.

Many political insiders see Sharp as the prime mover behind the 2002 ticket and Sanchez as a vehicle. In fact, Sanchez may not even have been Sharp’s first choice, in terms of Hispanic standard-bearers. Rumor has it that Sharp first approached Henry Cisneros about running. “John’s a friend, and we went to A&M together,” Cisneros told the Observer. “He lightheartedly, jokingly encouraged me to consider at various points, and that’s about the extent of it.”

As the story has been retold, Cisneros supposedly told Sharp that because the Republican grip was so strong, he didn’t think he could take the Governor’s seat from incumbent Rick Perry. Sharp supposedly responded that even if Cisneros were to lose, he could nonetheless help Sharp win.

“I don’t remember him saying anything like that,” said Cisneros. (Sharp didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.)

According to Fero, the portrait of Sanchez as Sharp’s instrument is wrong, racist, and Republican propaganda. “There is a concerted effort on the part of the Republican Party to do anything they can to try to scare Tony Sanchez out of the race before he even gets into it,” said Fero. “They know that if they allow him to get into the race, they are going to be dealing with a brushfire that will soon get beyond their control. So they have to assign nefarious motives, and one is that John Sharp and Kelly Fero are behind this candidacy.”

“Tony Sanchez is a 58-year-old businessman who has always been involved in politics, at both the local and the national level. And frankly, in my opinion, it is offensive and a racial stereotype to hint that there has to be a gringo behind the curtain pulling the strings.”

It is true that this will not be Sanchez’s first foray into public life. He has served as a member of the Parks and Wildlife Commission and currently sits on the UT Board of Regents. But those positions, while politically powerful, are relatively low profile. Most likely, the idea that Sanchez is not his own man is simmering because he has yet to go on the stump. Once he formally enters the race, and begins to deliver speeches about how he is a self-made millionaire and the first in his family to go to college, the perception is likely to diminish. In the end, it may well turn out to be that the opposite is true–Sanchez may be a more independent candidate than the Democrats bargained for. His spat with Ann Richards suggests that Sanchez is not the kind of man who will go along with somebody else’s agenda, unless it dovetails with his own. Other incidents confirm that he doesn’t back down from a fight: After Bush appointed Sanchez to the UT Board of Regents, Sanchez accused Don Evans, the board’s chairman at that time, of racism. He made the charge in a letter protesting the fact that Evans was not considering enough Hispanic candidates to head the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. Sanchez won that fight, convincing the regents to appoint his hand-picked candidate.

Come November 8, 2002, it’s possible that John Sharp may wake up as Lieutenant Governor and realize that he’s got himself quite a sparring partner over in the Governor’s Office. The bad news is that if Sanchez wins, it hardly seems as though this will constitute the kind of redemption from eight years of Republican philosophy that liberal voters might have longed for. The good news is that if Sanchez wins, so will other Democrats. And from the time he’s spent in the public spotlight thus far, it’s likely that Sanchez will be an outspoken advocate of greater opportunity for Hispanics. Presumably he’ll also be fighting for the interests of the border, after years of Anglo-authored policies have given the region short shrift.

Fero won’t say much about Sanchez’s plans for the campaign, but it seems clear that he’s going to play the border card a lot. And Sanchez’s supporters are positioning him as passionate about education. One other element of the team’s strategy is also apparent. Fero intends to use Sanchez’s affiliation with Bush as a form of inoculation against attacks. “You’re going to hear the other side saying, ‘Watch out for this guy, he’s got bandoliers criss-crossing his chest and he’s going to be leading the brown wave,’ and other racist sorts of things,” said Fero. “But it’s going to be hard to push that message when Tony Sanchez was good enough for George Bush to pick for the Board of Regents. You’re going to hear that Tony Sanchez is nothing but a drug-running, money-laundering, influence-peddling, brown guy. But an awful lot of that money wound up in George Bush’s bank account.”

It’s a weird argument to make in favor of a Democratic candidate, but maybe it will serve as an effective defense. (Can you say jujitsu?) If Sanchez does run, it’s going to be fascinating to see how far a native Spanish speaker with a real border pedigree can go. It would be a great irony if Karl Rove’s ultimate legacy wound up being that he paved the way for the demise of his own party and the election of the first Hispanic governor in the history of Texas. But by having the rich, white scion of an American political dynasty make national headlines by reaching out to Hispanic voters–and thereby prodding the Democrats to follow suit–he may have done just that.

Helen Thorpe is a writer in Austin. She has written for numerous state and national publications including Texas Monthly, New York Times Magazine, and the New Yorker.

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Published at 12:00 am CST