On the Bus with Leticia Van de Putte

The Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor is campaigning like hell—how far will it get her?

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte at a campaign rally on the campus of the University of Texas-Pan American, October 23, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte at a campaign rally on the campus of the University of Texas-Pan American, October 23, 2014.

It’s butterfly season in Edinburg, and little yellow wings flap haphazardly through traffic and city sprawl on their way to the Mexican border, a few miles to the south. It’s almost November, but the temperature is nearing 90. At a parking lot on the campus of the University of Texas-Pan American, Shakira is playing.

A few dozen students have gathered to hear the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio. It’s the fourth day of the “Vote Leticia” statewide bus tour, the closing act of Van de Putte’s campaign. The polls have not been promising for her effort. Van de Putte’s opponent Dan Patrick won the GOP nomination in part by stoking the fears of some Anglo Texans about what happens in border communities like Edinburg. Since then, like many of his ticketmates, he has mostly spared himself the indignities of the campaign trail, safe in the knowledge that his party affiliation is probably enough to get him through.

Van de Putte, on the other hand, probably the best retail politician on either ticket, is campaigning like hell. Wendy Davis sometimes seems stiff in front of voters. Greg Abbott does much of his talking through slick campaign ads. And Dan Patrick is very good at talking to a very particular kind of audience. But Van de Putte is just good at this, period. She’s particularly good at making those around her feel like family.

Family is the central theme of her campaign. Here in Edinburg, in front of a young crowd, she adopts a maternal air. “I will do anything to improve the lives of my children. And absolutely everything to improve the lives of my six nearly perfect grandchildren,” she says to laughter. “And so would every other abuelita. It’s about our future.”

She speaks about giving, but there’s something she needs in return. For decades, the Rio Grande Valley has had one of the lowest voter participation rates in the county. Changing that is a long-term project, but Van de Putte is here in the hope of juicing turnout as much as possible for the sake of both her campaign and the rest of her party. It’s the first week of early voting, and the candidate, along with actress Eva Longoria, do their best to cajole students to vote and then convince their families to vote, along with their friends, and their families’ friends and friends’ families, etc.

Bianca Blanco, a UTPA sophomore who’s been volunteering for Democratic campaigns, tells the crowd her dad had just “registered for the first time, and will be voting for the first time in this election.” A round of applause follows. “People who support Leticia are like us,” she tells the students. “Como tú, y como yo.”

Blanco introduces Longoria, who tells the crowd Republicans still desperately hope the Rio Grande Valley stays sleepy in election years. “There’s a lot of people that don’t want you guys to vote. For many, many reasons. Because you’re young,” she said. “You’re Latino, don’t vote. You’re a woman, don’t vote. You have to show them that your voice will be heard.”

Eva Longoria and Van de Putte at UT-Pan American, October 23, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Eva Longoria and Van de Putte at UT-Pan American, October 23, 2014.

Longoria introduces Van de Putte, who hits the message harder: “You know you can actually vote over here at the student center, all of you know? How many of you are gonna vote? Vote, vote, vote, vote!” Van de Putte points behind the UTPA’s athletic fields. “It’s right here. There’s no excuses. No excuses.”

She hits Patrick harder than usual—he’s the “past,” and she stands for the “future.” She tells the students Patrick would prioritize repealing in-state tuition for young undocumented migrants, a measure which Van de Putte helped pass. The Texas DREAM Act, as it’s called, has helped a lot of UTPA students, and there’s a round of boos.

After, Longoria and Van de Putte work a ropeline together. Van de Putte talks to the local media—Spanish language first, then English. Then, on with the grueling schedule: Alonzo Cantu, the bigshot Democratic donor, is holding a fundraiser nearby. To Corpus Christi this afternoon, for two more events. Tomorrow, five events, ending in Austin. After that, 12 more days on the bus. The schedule is ambitious, but she is ready.

But Van de Putte’s campaign has problems. Yes, there’s the fact that the campaign coach has broken down, stuck on the side of the road just north of the Falfurrias border checkpoint with a busted air compressor, leaving the bus tour busless. But a mechanic can fix that. The real problems here are existential ones, knotted and thorny, the kind of problems Democrats in Texas have been grappling with for ages. Here’s one: How do you campaign against a candidate who doesn’t campaign? Dan Patrick’s bus won’t break down—he doesn’t need one.

Here’s a bigger problem: How do you reach an audience that may not be watching? Is it even possible for a Democrat to wage a credible campaign for a statewide office in Texas, apart from the one for control of the governor’s mansion? And here’s the biggest of all, a make-or-break obstacle for Democratic success now and in the years ahead: How do you politicize people who have disengaged from electoral politics?

The bus, busted. South of Falfurrias, October 23, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Broke down south of Falfurrias, October 23, 2014.

The Republican Party seems set to maintain its statewide dominance this cycle—but that apparent continuity masks a dramatic upheaval. The period of one-party rule the state is currently experiencing has been led by the same faces over the last decade—Perry, Abbott, Cornyn and Dewhurst have each been in their current offices since at least 2002. But the new faces the state will likely see in statewide office in January, with the exception of Abbott, are products of the Ted Cruz era, practicing a kind of politics that state government hasn’t really been exposed to on a grand scale yet.

There’s Dan Patrick, who will be presiding over a Senate in which moderates have been replaced by an alleged wifebeater and tax cheat and a guy who thinks we’re living in a second Holocaust, among other fun figures. Patrick will be appointing members of the 2010 tea party class to head important committees. Then there’s the cartoonish and vaguely villainous Sid Miller, with Ted Nugent as his campaign treasurer, who’ll likely be the next agriculture commissioner. Glenn Hegar, a man who seems to know little about finance, will probably hold Texas’ purse strings as comptroller.

The most tarnished figure of all is Ken Paxton, the attorney general nominee who stands a good chance of being indicted and disbarred in his first year in office thanks to his failure to report sleazy business deals to state regulators. Paxton has spent the entire general election cycle hiding from the press. Privately, his campaign staff has told reporters that his legal troubles are due to laziness, not corruption, as if that’s somehow better. None of these men has to step foot on the campaign trail to be elected: Their victory is essentially automatic once they’ve won their primary. The state GOP is starting to feel tapped out and devoid of energy, just as the Democrats once did.

Democrats had hoped to take advantage of that this year. Their hope has been that the GOP had drifted so far right, and produced such odd and discreditable nominees, that the state’s voters would shake off their collective apathy and give the party a second look. In some ways, the Democratic machine is working better than it used to—2014’s candidate slate and campaign operation is a hell of a lot better than 2010’s, which lacked serious contenders in any office apart from gubernatorial nominee Bill White. For whatever it’s worth, all of the state’s major newspapers have endorsed the top three Democratic nominees under Davis—Van de Putte, attorney general nominee Sam Houston, and comptroller nominee Mike Collier, a pretty unusual confluence.

But not many are paying attention, it would seem, and many of those who are outside of Austin’s political coven are focused primarily on the governor’s race. In a more civically engaged state, voters might be more inclined to pick and choose between candidates across party lines down the ballot. It has felt at times over the last year as if the state’s political machinery is broken—and not because Democrats continue to be underdogs, as they likely will be for some time, but because of how few incentives the system is providing to ensure Republicans govern well. Only a minuscule fraction of the state’s voters—those that vote in the Republican primaries—have a real say in how the state is governed. In a real sense, figures like Paxton and Patrick are not accountable to most of the state’s citizens.

When Van de Putte’s bus—a very luxurious and smart-looking bus—breaks down south of Falfurrias, it feels, for members of the media embedded on the tour, as if god himself has provided them a heavy-handed metaphor for the Democratic effort this year. But it’s too easy. For one, Van de Putte’s campaign isn’t broken—it’s doing diligent work. It’s just that there’s not very much road for it to travel on. Democrats can’t get traction.

Van de Putte speaks to a rally in downtown Corpus Christi. October 23, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Van de Putte speaks to a rally in downtown Corpus Christi. October 23, 2014.

A convoy of staff cars ferry members of the bus tour from Edinburg to Corpus Christi, where, after sunset, Van de Putte will be speaking at the headquarters of the local county party. It’s one of a number of smaller “truck rallies” on the Vote Leticia tour—the candidate stands in the back of a flatbed pickup to talk to a small crowd. There’s a local band, whose thudding sound system keeps acting up and whose keyboard player keeps hitting notes while speakers are at the mic. Some in the audience are here for the band. Some are here for other candidates. Some are here for Van de Putte.

A Democrat on the campaign trail in Texas has to do a tricky thing. He or she has to find a way to effectively advocate for the idea that people are stronger together than they are as individuals—that citizens have an innate responsibility to each other, and for each other’s well-being—in a state that values individualism much more highly than most other parts of the country.

Van de Putte goes about this a couple ways. To each crowd, she emphasizes the things a well-functioning and stable government could provide them. To the students at UTPA, she touts her plan to invest in community colleges. In Corpus Christi, she speaks to the working-class crowd about the ways they depend on Austin. There’s Nueces County’s inadequate water infrastructure, which needs continued investment to fix. And “you have this big machine here called the port,” she says, and while recent oil and gas development have been good to the region, it could prove tenuous. “If we don’t build those roads, folks, people can’t take advantage of it.”

But there’s another way Van de Putte urges people to think about their obligations to each other. At each campaign stop, she relates a passed-down family story, one which is the same from telling to telling but seems to gather more urgency as the tour goes on.

The center panel depicts Van de Putte’s great-grandmother: "This aged mother, Mrs. Porfiria Estrada of 207 South Las Moras Street, crawls six blocks on hands and knees to Our Lady of Guadalupe church on El Paso street, thus fulfilling pledge made in prayers that her two soldier sons be spared. Those who assisted her spread handkerchiefs and coats on the pavement before her."
The San Antonio Light, May 8, 1945
The center panel depicts Van de Putte’s great-grandmother: “This aged mother, Mrs. Porfiria Estrada of 207 South Las Moras Street, crawls six blocks on hands and knees to Our Lady of Guadalupe church on El Paso street, thus fulfilling pledge made in prayers that her two soldier sons be spared. Those who assisted her spread handkerchiefs and coats on the pavement before her.”

“My great-grandmother made a promesa,” she tells the crowd in Corpus Christi. “Her promise was that if her sons came back from World War II safely”—one from the Pacific, and one from Europe—“she would crawl on her knees from her house to her church.” Her sons returned, and when the day came to make good on her promise, Van de Putte said, “all the neighbors knew that she was going. So as she left her house—it was about nine blocks—they’d put towels and sheets on the street and on the sidewalk so that she wouldn’t bloody her knees.”

The sheets weren’t enough to save her knees, Van de Putte said. “But those neighbors were with her. She had to complete that promise. Just as she had her neighbors help her complete the promise, I need you to help me keep my promise to the children of this state.”

The contrast between Van de Putte and Patrick is so great that it sometimes feels as if the whole race has been cribbed from a particularly hackneyed Hollywood movie, a modern-day Capra knock-off. There’s Van de Putte, smart but unfailingly warm, with a sprawling and eccentric family—her sisters have worked out a plan to ensure one of them is with the candidate at all times until the election. She spends long days on the road talking to groups large and small about education and public policy. Her husband is the president of a flag manufacturing company.

And there’s Patrick, the flinty and unpredictable religious fundamentalist and former talk-show host who’s fond of grandiose and not-quite-true proclamations—and whose primary weapon in public life over the past year has been his ability to inspire a fear of the other in the hearts of voters. Newspaper editorial boards have had a great deal of trouble finding language volcanic enough to describe the disaster they think he’d be. The Dallas Morning News memorably described handing him the gavel as like keeping “gasoline and matches handy next to a fire pit you dig in the living room,” and characterized his prospective lieutenant governorship as “potentially explosive, impact unclear.” The Houston Chronicle described him as a “needlessly provocative and outrageous…heat-seeking missile.”

If this were that Hollywood movie, Van de Putte would win in a shocking upset, by the thinnest of margins, after a montage of the ordinary Texans she’d spent so long reaching out to marching to the polls and each bringing with them dozens more. She’d take charge of the Senate, helping young Texans get a better foothold in life. Patrick, played by Jon Voight, would slink back to the Houston airwaves, impotent with rage.

For Van de Putte to have a chance to win, Patrick needs to have alienated a lot of voters, and Democrats need to bring a lot of new people to the polls. The jury is still out on the second count, but he’s played his hand pretty smartly on the first by making as few public appearances as possible. That’s left Van de Putte with less room to maneuver.

Van de Putte says she’d campaign like this whether Patrick engaged her or not. “I’m running a campaign that I think is very vigorous and I’ve thoroughly enjoying meeting people,” she tells the Observer on the bus, “But I think it’s disrespectful to the voters to hide when you’re asking them for your vote. It’s frustrating.”

Patrick, Van de Putte says, is a product of the Republican-dominated Legislature, which enables people like him to say: “My way or the highway.” Even his successes, the ones he’s proudest of, she says, are the fruit of other people’s work. “It was very long, arduous work to get the bills Dan did in [the Senate Public Education Committee] passed. I watched that process happen.” With several of his signature bills, “it was the conference committee that had to turn his legislation in a successful product.”

University of Texas-Pan American students listen to Leticia Van de Putte at a campaign rally, October 23, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
University of Texas-Pan American students listen to Leticia Van de Putte at a campaign rally, October 23, 2014.

Van de Putte says serving in the Legislature as a minority member has perfectly prepared her for leading a Republican senate. She’s worked with Republicans as far afield as tea party Rep. Charles Perry to get her bills passed in a hostile climate. Patrick has never needed to learn how to work with others, she said.

She maintains optimism about her campaign in the face of polls, which have her down by double-digit margins. There’s a groundswell that’s not reflected in the polls, she said, and is part and parcel of the Democratic Party’s rebuilding effort. “Everywhere we go, we see an amazing number of volunteers. Quite frankly, we didn’t have that four years ago,” she says. “And I haven’t seen this level of engagement in 20 years.” Republicans, she says, keep telling her they refuse to vote for Patrick.

Unlike Davis, Van de Putte is keeping her Senate seat after the election. What would the chamber be like under Patrick, I ask? Van de Putte smiles and sighs. “I don’t even want to imagine.”

Van de Putte at a rally in Austin, October 24, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Van de Putte at a rally in Austin, October 24, 2014.

A fixed bus meets the campaign in Corpus Christi, and we’re off again. On the plate today: Breakfast in Beeville, a luncheon in San Antonio, and afternoon barbecue in Lockhart. It’s Friday, a week from the end of early voting and tantalizingly close to the end of one of the state’s most brutal election cycles in recent memory.

The luncheon in San Antonio is a fundraiser for Annie’s List, a group that aims to recruit and support female candidates in Texas. When Van de Putte takes the stage, she reaches back to the beginning of her race, and to the memory of veteran Texas politico and former Annie’s List Executive Director Grace Garcia, who was killed in a traffic accident in Waxahachie in June.

“This is a really bittersweet occasion for me personally. A year ago, at the Annie’s List lunch, my dear friend Grace Ann Garcia publicly asked me to run for lieutnant governor,” she said. But it didn’t seem right. “Our family had had such a horrible year, and I didn’t think they would be strong enough to go through an entire statewide campaign.”

If anyone could have convinced her, Van de Putte said, it was Garcia. They had known each other since elementary school. “Our families go back generations. Our grandmothers lived across the street from each other for more than 50 years. Our mothers worked in the same school—my mom the choir director, Grace’s mom the school nurse,” she said. “Grace was tenacious. She was idealistic. She convinced me to run by very first race—student council president of our junior high. There had never been a girl. She was my campaign manager, and of course I won.”

And eventually, Garcia convinced Van de Putte to run for lieutenant governor, too. But when Garcia passed away Van de Putte told the crowd that “there was a moment in time that I thought, ‘How could I do this without Grace?’”

But that’s not, Van de Putte said, how Garcia would have thought. “The best memorial I can give is to help women win elections,” Van de Putte said. “If Grace was here right now, she’d say, ‘You’re in the last 12 days. Girl, you get up every morning, and you make those phone calls, and you visit with those reporters, and you give it all you got.’” This was no time for quitting. Women at the luncheon open their checkbooks—”We’ve still got a lot of TV to go”—as the candidate exhorts the room to “double down.”

As the candidate slips away from the podium to rapturous applause, a mariachi band takes the stage. Back on the trail for San Marcos, Lockhart and Austin. Tonight, she’s off to Houston, while the bus, hopefully in better shape, leaves for El Paso.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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