At their convention in Dallas, Texas Republicans are haunted by race.
“Hey press, are you getting this? This is some good shit!”
The shout came from a burly, tie-wearing Republican delegate at the state convention in Dallas. He was standing in line, late on the convention’s final day, to comment on a hotly debated immigration plank. And his wake-up call was warranted. Like most of the 12,000 Republicans in the main auditorium of the blandly cavernous Dallas Convention Center on the second weekend of June, reporters had been lulled nearly to sleep by the squabbling convention’s endless delays. The official proceedings on Saturday hadn’t been gaveled open until 13 minutes before the scheduled close of the convention. For nearly six hours we’d watched endless parades of statewide and congressional candidates and watched video clips from Dr. Zhivago, a Jimmy Stewart Western and a history lesson about the War of 1812. But when debate finally began, Texas Republicans’ race problem bubbled straight to the surface—and things got real thick, real fast.
The convention’s first day had largely gone according to script, all shiny and telegenic. There was the long-awaited make-up moment between Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (see “Talk of Texas”). There was the delegates’ ritual hissing-of-a-moderate, this year directed at House Speaker Joe Straus. (Hutchison, the traditional target, had skipped out after her event with Perry.) And there was Perry’s televangelistic acceptance speech, in which he sounded at times like he was still run- ning against Hutchison: “Electing my opponent will accelerate the Washington takeover of our state,” he said, as the delegates roared their agreement. “We’re engaged in a struggle for the very heart of the state.”
But there is also a struggle for the heart of the Texas Republican Party. Coming into this convention, there were questions about how the new Tea Partiers would fit in. But for a party with a platform that already read at times like a 1960s-era John Birch Society manifesto, there wasn’t really too much suspense about that. The Tea Partiers did help defeat incumbent party chair Cathie Adams, replacing her with Steve Munisteri of Houston, who founded Young Conservatives of Texas. But what dominated the proceedings was the pressing realization—among some—that if Republicans remain overwhelm- ingly Anglo, they won’t be dominating Texas politics for long. While the Texas GOP appears poised for a fourth straight sweep of statewide offices this November, there is a cloud hanging over it all. Call it Victor Carrillo’s ghost.
In the March primaries, Carrillo, an incumbent Republican Railroad Commissioner, was defeated by David Porter, a less-qualified candidate who’d run no discernible campaign. The outcome became a symbol of Texas Republicans’ “Hispanic problem.” The commissioner made no bones about his belief that there was racial bias to blame.
Carrillo did not attend the convention—he was, most conveniently for everyone, overseas. But as immigration debates broke out, the shadow of Carrillo’s defeat seemed cast across the convention hall.
On Friday morning, Gov. Perry had boldly announced to the Hispanic Republican Caucus that he aims to win 50 percent of this year’s Hispanic vote. “This is the home of a Hispanic in America: The Republican Party,” Perry enthused. But only about one-third of the caucus crowd was Hispanic, according to The Dallas Morning News. And there was a notably awkward moment when Adams, the party chair, explained her reasons for wanting more Hispanics in the GOP tent: “I want to include you. Why? Because you are Americans.”
That kind of talk would not surprise Steve Navarre, who was manning a table in the convention’s exhibit hall for the Conservative Hispanic Society. “I don’t believe the Republican Party has done anything at all to promote Hispanic involvement in the party,” Navarre says.
Gov. Perry has been supportive of his group, Navarre says. But from most Republicans, “There’s a lot of lip service.” He doubts Perry will come close to getting 50 percent of the Hispanic vote. (In 2006, he won 31 percent.)
But soon, Republicans will need some of that vote in the worst way. More than three-fourths of the state’s population growth over the next 30 years is projected to be Hispanic, compared with only 4 percent Anglo growth. The Republican Party doesn’t have a single Hispanic state legislator. The inroads the party made among Tejanos during George W. Bush’s campaigns for governor and president have been eroded by the slogan “secure our borders,” and the voter-ID and “tough on immigration” bills floated by Republican legislators. The harsh anti-amnesty language in the state platform doesn’t help.
This year, the platform only got harsher. After heated debate over a proposal to allow military service as a pathway to legal status, the delegates approved a platform that included a call for Arizona-style legislation “empowering state and local law enforcement agencies with authority and resources to detain illegal immigrants.” A minority report from the platform committee, opposing mass deportation, never even came up for debate. But the debates that did break out—including a proposal to refer to “illegal immigrants” as “illegal aliens”—exposed the delegates’ anxieties and misunderstandings.
“Why does the illegal population choose to remain illegal?” one Anglo delegate asked during the fight.
Other delegates like Dianne Costa, former mayor of Highland Village, held forth eloquently about the party’s need for inclusion. She argued that while the delegates may say they oppose mass deportation, without offering any pathways to legal status, that was exactly the message they sent. And she noted how difficult it is to recruit new Hispanic Republicans with such policies in the platform. “You’re sending me out with no tools,” she said.
The speaker after Costa, an Anglo man who identified himself as a former Marine, informed the delegates that gangs like MS-13 have invaded the U.S. military. “We cannot allow illegal aliens to serve in the U.S. military,” he declared.
So much for those “tools” Costa was hoping for. If anything, the 2010 platform ended up moving Texas Republicans further to the right on immigration. Costa saw one small measure of progress when the notorious 2008 platform’s section heading on the immigration plank—“No amnesty! No how. No way.”—was removed.
How worried were Republican leaders about the impression their platform debate—and the headlines saying they supported an Arizona-style law—made on Hispanic voters? Just three days after the convention, the Texas GOP released its “first Spanish- language video,” Soy Tejano Republicano(a). Hispanic Republicans, including Costa, read from a script that sounds more like an extra-lengthy pledge of allegiance than an outreach effort: I am a Republican because I believe in America’s exceptional place in history and the future. … I am a Republican because I believe that America is the shining city on a hill …
“Hispanic Texans tend to be conservative,” commented new party chair Steve Munisteri, “and believe in the same things that Republicans believe in.”
Charlie Garza, a State Board of Education candidate who served on the platform writing committee, agrees. Latinos, he says, have “been told for so long they’re Democrats, I don’t know they know the difference.” Republicans, he said, “have failed to educate. What if they were told, ‘Your party is pro-abortion. Your party is anti-family’? If it were put in that perspective, they’d fly to us in droves.”
Costa, who’s turned her whole family Republican, also agrees—to a point. “If you look at our values,” she said of Hispanic Texans, “they are really aligned more with the Republican Party. Hispanics are very united on issues of abortion, small government.” The problem Hispanics have with Texas Republicans, she said, often stems more from style than substance. “Sometimes the language that’s used to describe the illegals, it just bothers us,” she said. “If you want to educate them, you don’t attack them; you attack the problem.”
If Costa’s warnings go unheeded, it’s anyone’s guess whether Texas Republicans can make the inroads they’ll need in the Hispanic community. It was the question, still unanswered, that lingered as Republicans filed, four hours late, out of the Dallas Convention Center and into a future their party had not yet embraced.