A version of this story ran in the July 2012 issue.
At the Texas Democratic Convention in Houston in early June, Gilberto Hinojosa of Brownsville, a former Cameron County judge and county Democratic chairman, was elected to lead the state Democratic Party. He’s the first Hispanic to lead either major party in Texas. That his election comes less than two years after the 2010 U.S. census is no surprise to me. This is the era of Tejanos taking back Texas through the power of sheer numbers. But will numbers translate to electoral gains for Democrats? Latinos, historically, have been apathetic about voting. Hinojosa says that’s the result of a flaw in the party’s strategy of late, its focus on so-called independent voters when Democrats should be courting the state’s sleeping demographic giant.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that [Hispanic turnout] is where we’re getting beat,” Hinojosa says. “Anything you want to look at with regards to the Democratic Party, it comes down to that. We’ve got African-Americans, the LGBT community, Asians, women. The one that’s under-performing in greatest numbers and the one that makes up the greatest number of [potential] voters is the Hispanic community.”
Hinojosa decided that his 23 years of living and working in Brownsville—with a population more than 90 percent Hispanic—as well as several years spent working as a legal services attorney for migrants and a member of the Democratic National Convention executive committee in Washington, D.C., was worth something to his party.
After the devastating 2010 elections, Hinojosa spent 18 months traveling around the state and developing what he believes is a winning strategy for Democrats.
That includes illustrating to Latinos just how badly not voting affects their everyday lives, whether through cutbacks in education or separation of families through a broken immigration system or engagement in wars America has no business fighting.
His plan is to tell people that much of what’s wrong in the state is a result of allowing the Republican Party to gain an overwhelming majority.
“People in our community need to understand that we are the party that helps people in a lower socioeconomic status. Public education programs, civil rights, women’s rights, minority students going to college—that was all done by Democrats.”
Hinojosa has walked the walk. The first in his family to go to college, the Rio Grande Valley native went from The University of Texas Pan-American in Edinburg to Georgetown University’s law school in Washington D.C. Graduating in 1978, he worked in legal aid until establishing a private practice in 1995.
The experience gave Hinojosa an appreciation for the subtle differences between Latinos in different areas of the state. For example, Hispanics in the Rio Grande Valley, he says, are not as concerned with immigration as those in the major urban centers. “You didn’t see these huge demonstrations in South Texas that you saw in the big cities,” he explains. He plans an approach Democrats haven’t tried before: tailoring different messages to Latinos in different parts of the state. He hopes a fresh message from the party, more engagement in Hispanic communities, and more grassroots get-out-the-vote efforts will spur Latinos to the polls. Latino turnout in Texas is much lower than in heavily Hispanic California, Colorado and Nevada. In 2008, just 37 percent of Texas Latinos who were eligible to vote went to the polls, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—below the national average of 49 percent and far below the 58 percent of California Latinos who turned out. That has to change for Democrats to win elections in Texas.
Hopefully Hinojosa will succeed in influencing Blue Dog Texas Democrats, many of whom are Hispanic, to remain the party of the people. Of the three Democrats in the Texas Senate who voted for the anti-woman, pre-abortion sonogram bill, all were Hispanic. Of the five Democratic Texas House members who voted for it, three were Hispanic. That any of the Dems voted for it is disappointing.
Ultimately, Hinojosa knows the Dems have a secret weapon with Latinos—the angry rhetoric coming from some Republicans.
“What helps more than anything else is the [members of the] Republican Party who are so anti-Hispanic, to the point of being bigoted,” he says.
At the end of the day, that could be Hinojosa’s most powerful tool.