Maybe I’m just dumb, but the Texas Republican Convention confused me. Not because there was no wireless internet, or because I kept getting lost in crowds of red-clad, hat-wearing people, or even because a pervasive smell of cheap Chinese food made me crave gallons of soy sauce. Nope. The confusion came full force as delegates debated the party’s core values and those who, over the next two years, they hoped to make its core voters.
Thursday, before the governor got a standing ovation for emphasizing the need to “secure our borders,” the Perry campaign announced it intended to get 50 percent of the Hispanic vote in November. Ten hours later, the committee charged with writing the party platform had a bit of a mess on their hands: 11 of its 32 members supported new, less stringent language on immigration. (You might need to read that twice.)
On Saturday, when the committee submitted its proposed platform for the rest of the convention delegates to approve, there was a bit of a surprise: Those 11 members filed a minority report—included in the delegates’ packets without actually being in the platform—that suggested new language. “We have never supported and oppose a policy of mass deportation,” their alternative language read. “We support a realistic solution which permanently secures our borders and humanely resolves the legal status of illegal immigrants. We recognize that many illegal immigrants were brought to this country as minors.”
The words, in some ways, appear as a nod to those focused on courting the Hispanic vote. But how best to do that is still up in the air. The party has shown more interest in the Latino voters—Perry has talked more about appealing to the demographic and Quico Canseco, who’s running for Congress against Democratic incumbent Ciro Rodriguez, has gotten widespread support. But many still remember incumbent Railroad Commissioner Victor Carrillo’s bruising primary defeat to almost-unknown candidate David Porter. Carrillo alleged his loss came from GOP primary voters unwilling to support a Hispanic last name. (Carrillo was not on stage when the Railroad Commissioners came to the convention stage and in my two days there, his name never came up.)
Not an easy environment to rev up support. Just ask Steve Navarre, one of the leaders of the Conservative Hispanic Society (the “Hispanic version of Empower Texans” he calls it.)
“Liberals and Democrats take Hispanics for granted,” he told me. “And the Republican party? They don’t want anything to do with it because they don’t understand it.” Navarre says the party has “fallen completely flat” in courting Latino communities, and while he’s a big Perry supporter, he doesn’t see a way for the governor to get that 50 percent of the Hispanic vote in November.
Charlie Garza, a member of the platform committee who did not support the minority report, said the proposal was unnecessary. “Everyone understands that it isn’t about deportation and as long as they understand that [the report] will go nowhere,” he told me before the meeting.
He was half right. When the entire convention convened to vote on the platform, the minority report didn’t come up. But immigration did. And mass deportation, in a way.
As the delegates lined up at microphones to debate the platform, there were questions about the small concessions made in the official platform. Among the questions: Should military service offer undocumented workers a pathway to citizenship, or should those here illegally only be able to get right with the law by leaving and getting back in line? Not so surprisingly, the question provoked significant debate.
Some of it was generally suspicious of the immigrants in question. “Why do the illegal population choose to remain illegal instead of following our legal path to citizenship?” asked one delegate. “Why do they refuse to assimilate to the American way and to speak the language of our land? Why is all of their focus and energies on having us change our laws than to obey our laws?”
Rep. Leo Berman, the Tyler Republican who spends a good amount of the legislative session ensuring that undocumented workers receive no benefits in any state program, wanted to make sure the convention used the term “alien” instead of immigrant. “An immigrant,” he told his fellow Republicans, “is someone who comes here legally, willingly pays our taxes, willingly learns the English language, willingly adopts our customs and then raises their right hand and swears allegiance to our country.” Put your hands over your hearts, people.
As speakers assured the softer-on-immigration crowd that they weren’t for mass deportation—just no “amnesty”—one speaker received overwhelming applause for a different message.
“This policy right here is mass deportation,” said Dianne Costa, the former mayor of Highland Village who’s now the North Texas chairwoman of the Latino National Republican Coalition. “Let’s take the emotions out of it. It’s not even practical. I’m telling you I’m so disappointed because this almost reminds me of the other side.”
Costa talked about the difficulty of convincing Latino voters that Republicans have a message for them. What, she asked, are we offering them? As she stepped away from the mike, she looked at one of the women cheering her on and shook her head. “We are never going to get the Hispanic people to understand,” she said.
Evidently, her job will still be difficult. Military service was too much for the Republican delegates to swallow as the sole “pathway to citizenship” allowd in the party platform. They voted it out of the document.
Debate over the platform raged on long beyond the expected 4 p.m. close of the convention—almost four hours beyond. After any chance of a more “inclusive” platform was gone, delegates lined up at the four microphones to argue the wisdom of initiatives and referenda, the need for term limits, and a proposal to substitute the 2008 platform for the 2010. The crowd screamed its “yays” and “nays” with increasing volume. As the process continued, one man looked at those of us hunched over our laptops and screamed “Press! You getting this? This is good shit!”