South Texas: Where the Votes Are

With two prominent Latino candidates and new efforts to drive up turnout, can Democrats finally conquer South Texas?


Four months before the election, in a decaying mall in Corpus Christi, I caught a glimpse of the future: the changing of the old guard in South Texas Democratic politics and the transformation that’s occurring in the very nature of the state’s political campaigns.

On the surface, it wasn’t a dramatic scene. When County Chair Rose Meza Harrison opened the Nueces County Democratic Party headquarters just after 5 p.m., she and a few volunteers went right to work, arranging folding chairs for volunteers trickling in until more than three dozen people were there. The headquarters décor was contemporary Democrat: yard signs, posters, and handwritten notes on newsprint pages from large pads taped to the walls. With the election so distant, the group seemed unusually enthusiastic, talking about their upcoming fundraiser, assigning people to functions and committees for voter-registration and get-out-the-vote drives, and pondering how to frame their local message: education, economic development and good jobs.

They were also young for a group of South Texas Democrats. Among the most energized participants were about a dozen college-age students, originally inspired by Obama’s presidential victory and now part of the Young Democrats, a group that hadn’t existed here in years. Everyone knew that getting “Obama surge” voters—especially young people and racial minorities—back to the polls would be critical in November. There was discussion about expanding e-mail and texting lists, and doing drives to reach people on Facebook, and assembling larger Twitter followings (no one asked what Twitter was). In a region where Democratic politics has long been machine-driven, run by patrones (bosses) who not only controlled who ran for office, but how they ran, this kind of grassroots organizing is striking. And in this midterm year, at least three other groups are on the ground in South Texas, registering voters and mobilizing them on Election Day.

The Nueces Democrats’ discussions were temporarily halted when former state Sen. Hector Uribe, candidate for Texas land commissioner, walked in. Along with lieutenant governor candidate Linda Chavez-Thompson, Uribe represents something new this year: For the first time, Texas Democrats have two Latinos on the statewide ballot.

The Brownsville native was greeted enthusiastically. Many asked for his yard signs, of which he had none. After remarks about Texas’ dire need for environmental protection and better use of natural resources, adequately funded public schools, and care for veterans, Uribe repaired to a back office for a chat.

His stop here coincided, he said, with his drive to the Rio Grande Valley for a family reunion. To save money, Uribe often combines campaigning with other travel, even accepting rides to faraway places with his Republican opponent, incumbent Jerry Patterson. “I am not independently wealthy,” Uribe said. He offers this between exchanges with campaign staffer Lisa Hernández about maximizing social media and the Internet in his campaign. “I had retired from politics 14 years ago,” he said. He is now an Austin lawyer and part-time actor (he was the “Mexican in a suit” in No Country for Old Men).

Uribe had no intention of running. But last year, Texas Democratic leaders were scrambling to fill out their statewide ballot—and desperate to find Latino candidates. Uribe, who is challenging incumbent Republican Patterson, said party leaders didn’t ask him to run until Christmas Eve; the filing deadline was Jan. 4. “I told them, ‘You guys must be hard up. I retired from politics 14 years ago—and you’ve gotten close to the bottom of the alphabet.’ And they admitted they had called a bunch of other Hispanics before calling me.”

After Uribe signed on, Democrats convinced Chavez-Thompson, who had retired as vice president of the AFL-CIO, to return to San Antonio to put her hat in the ring at the last minute as well. It looked like a sign that the Texas Democratic hierarchy, after losing every state election since 1994, was finally taking South Texas voters seriously. The hope was that a larger Mexican-American turnout would net statewide victories—particularly in this year’s marquee race for governor. The Latino names were also intended, I’m told, to boost Democratic prospects all the way down the ballot: Those who vote for governor would see Linda Chávez-Thompson’s name right below White’s, Uribe’s name four lines later, and keep going.

Those theories depend on whether Chavez-Thompson and Uribe could sway Latinos to the polls in the first place. Given the stakes, you would think the party hierarchy would have helped them raise some money to get the word out. It hasn’t. Chavez-Thompson entered the fall campaign with just $136,421 on hand; Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s campaign had more than $3.5 million in the bank. While there are several voter-registration and get-out-the-vote efforts under way in South Texas, party strategists have continued to focus on appealing to dwindling populations in East Texas and small farmers while imagining that targeting Hispanics means translating material into Spanish.

Watching the Young Democrats in Corpus Christi, it was clear that the Texas Democrats are changing—slowly, but inevitably. Now it’s anything but certain whether the grassroots efforts and candidates handpicked to appeal to South Texans will make a difference on Nov. 2. Turnout in South Texas, where Democratic primaries in the spring often decide elections, tends to drop dramatically come November. Can the Democrats’ efforts change that?

Linda Chavez-Thompson has done her best to fire people up. The retired national vice president of the AFL-CIO is known for stem winders. In late September, she startled the crowd at San Antonio’s Stonewall Democrats’ annual fundraising dinner by prefacing her remarks thusly: “I am retired, which means I don’t have a job, I don’t have a boss, and I don’t give a shit!”

Coming from a petite, demure-looking grandmother, the remark elicited first a sea of visibly startled faces, then laughter, and then extended applause. It set the theme for all the subsequent speakers, each of whom worked variations on the phrase into their own presentations. If grandma can say it, why not me?

“That really woke everybody up, didn’t it?” she chuckled later. “My point is that I don’t have another persona; I’ll tell you what I think, and I’m not going to change it to please people.” She does, she conceded, say “hoot” instead of “shit” in front of more conservative crowds.

“There’s no denying that I bring in the union base, women because women need to be running for office at the highest levels, and my last name happens to be Chávez, and I’m fully bilingual,” she said later. “So I can put out a message in English and in Spanish—and don’t get me mad because I’ll speak a third language.”

Running on a shoestring against one of the state’s wealthiest politicians, she has traveled fairly widely in the state—and now is focusing on vote-rich South Texas. Like Uribe’s, her campaign is struggling for resources in an expansive state so populous that door-knocking must be seriously targeted, and where techniques like direct mail and broadcast media are unattainable to those without seven-digit campaign coffers. I asked her what the Texas Democrats had done to help. “They have given me great in-kind contributions,” she said. “They gave me e-mail lists that probably would have cost us about $25,000.”

She and Uribe must raise the hard money it takes to travel to campaign events, buy campaign materials, and pay staff—and with White’s campaign soaking up most of the big Democratic money, it’s been a struggle. One of Uribe’s top staffers, “La” Lisa Hernández, a seasoned campaign professional, said she is working “on contingency” and vowed she would never do it again.

Being taken for granted has long been a sore point for South Texas Democrats. While get-out-the-vote workers in other parts of Texas got “gasoline money,” people like to say, South Texans got “walking-around money.” The big state and national candidates will always tour South Texas just before general elections—months after coming in secretly to hold private fundraisers in the lavish homes of wealthy area Democrats.

The region is known not only for its party loyalty, but also its low voter turnout in general elections. The International Club, a University of Texas-Brownsville group, had a sign on its voter-registration booth at a recent event that read, “174,000 registered; 3,000 turnout. You do the math.”

Many academics say voting is linked to educational attainment and economic levels—both lower than average in South Texas. That doesn’t explain why Hispanic turnout in Texas is so much lower—37 percent in 2008—than in California, where it was 59 percent. In part, Chávez-Thompson blames Democrats’ repeated local victories in Democrat-dominated areas for low turnouts. “When the primary and the runoff are over, everything is decided,” she said, “so why vote in the general election?”

There’s another explanation that runs deeper. Back when Democrats had a lock on statewide posts, they also controlled every South Texas county. Local political bosses, all Democrats, used patronage—from public-sector jobs to preferential treatment in local taxes to paying the poll taxes for the faithful and providing “surplus commodities”—to deliver the “Mexican vote.” In most of these countywide fiefdoms, the patrones usually kept registration and turnout limited to keep it manageable. Incumbents don’t like large turnouts in local elections; controlled turnouts are better. After the poll tax was made unconstitutional, the Department of Agriculture’s Surplus Commodities Program was replaced by tightly controlled Food Stamps–and later, Lone Star cards. As Republicans made headway, the patrones fell, one by one, to old age and felony convictions, and that system died.

The low-turnout culture lived on. It’s one big reason why, while 37 percent of Texans are Hispanic, only 20 percent of voters in 2008 (same as 2004) were.

“Let’s face it, the Latino vote in South Texas has been taken for granted so long that they have stopped voting,” said Chavez-Thompson. “People need a reason about why it’s important to them. What makes a people rise up and fight back if it isn’t about their family, about their personal issues?”

The stakes for South Texans could hardly be more personal or compelling—but the candidates don’t always talk about them. Despite the region’s booming population and economy, for one thing, South Texans haven’t been getting goodies from the deal. As late as the 1970s, the region south of a line from Corpus Christi to San Antonio to Del Rio was largely rural and dotted with tiny towns. Now Laredo is the nation’s busiest land port. While Texas’ population grew 18 percent between 1990 and 2000, South Texas cities like San Benito grew 89 percent—and the growth didn’t stop.

Despite that growth, the U.S. Census Bureau reported in September that Hidalgo County is the nation’s poorest. By any measure—health care, education, income—the region has continued to lag behind national (and even Texas) standards. It’s something that Chavez-Thompson and Uribe know well and often talk about while campaigning.

For the candidates in the main event, Bill White and Rick Perry, most of what’s said about the border is only about “security.” The gubernatorial candidates are avoiding mention of controversial immigration issues—critical in this area—each for their own reason. Democrat White would have huge momentum if Republican Perry supported Arizona-type anti-immigrant laws. (He has said, instead, that they are “not right for Texas,” while Perry’s ally, Attorney General Greg Abbott, has sued in support of the Arizona law.) Henry Flores, a political scientist and dean of graduate studies at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, said Perry would gain from such anti-immigration pronouncements among the hardest of his hardcore base. He would also lose what little
support he has among Hispanic voters concentrated in San Antonio and South Texas. “And Perry needs more than 20 percent of that vote to win,” Flores said. In one recent poll, he had just above that: 24 percent.

White, on the other hand, could increase his Mexican-American turnout if he were to come out strongly for the DREAM Act, since polls show that slightly more than 80 percent of Latinos favor it. The congressional measure, which would allow young people to become legal U.S. residents after spending two years in college or the military, has been a hot-button issue this fall as Congress debated and defeated it (as an amendment to a military spending bill). But backing the measure might alienate some of the Democrats’ Anglo base, and more importantly, perhaps, too many of the independents he needs to win. “So neither of them is biting into the immigration thing,” Flores said.

James Aldrete, a longtime Austin-based political consultant, noted that the region hasn’t always been forgotten. Political observers often bash Democrat Tony Sánchez’s inability to beat Perry in 2002, though Sanchez dropped $70 million of his own money into the campaign. The blame is often put on low Hispanic voter turnout. “But if you look at the numbers, there were more than 70,000 more votes cast down there than in the two previous elections,” Aldrete said. “The turnout was at a high, and he did terribly well in those areas.” Sanchez’s big problems were elsewhere. Contrary to conventional wisdom, his run in some ways reinforced the idea that Latinos will turn out in general elections—if the Democrats inspire them. Now there are a lot more South Texans to turn out.

On the evening of Oct. 3, one day before the deadline for voting registration, Linda Chávez-Thompson arrived at Mooncussers on the bay side of South Padre Island. The island city is one of the few pockets of South Texas where Anglos still dominate. It’s a small pocket, just 1,600 residents. The island, a gleaming desert of white sand between the Gulf of Mexico and the Laguna Madre, is sprinkled with high-rise condominiums, hotels, eateries and watering holes, and gated communities. In off-season October on a Sunday night, there were few residents or tourists. At Mooncussers, there was no question to whom this event was targeted.

Upwards of 500 area locals, mostly college students—ranging from button-down lawyer wannabes to heavily tattooed, addicted-to-ink types (including one with five 8-inch spikes atop his head, each bleached blond at the ends)—were enjoying the thump-thump-thump administered by DJ Gabriel Castle on a deck next to the water. Kids undulated in unison in a crowd that included none of the Valley’s old-school political regulars. Among the two photographers from area newspapers were four 20-somethings wearing convincing “press credential” cards around their necks that read: “Social Media” and recording things with tiny cameras and smart phones.

The scene awakened in me an earlier conversation with Uribe, who told me he’d been astonished that he posted a piece about Gov. Rick Perry’s failed policies on Facebook and sent out an e-mail blast providing a link to contribute, and received $1,200 within 24 hours. “That stuff works,” he said. “I wish I had discovered it months ago.” In another state, another Democratic Party, he would have.

At Mooncussers, workers and volunteers with Organizing for America, Voto Latino, and at least three College Democrats’ groups were working the crowds with clipboards, registration applications and volunteer sign-up forms. “We’ve registered more than 200 here,” said Leti Leo of La Joya, holding up a thick stack of registration applications. “And I don’t have to twist anyon
’s arm; they’re coming up because they want to get registered.”

Voter sign-ups have also been brisk among the estimated 36,000 students at University of Texas campuses at Brownsville and Pan American in Edinburg, Leo said. Same with the Brownsville Community College and the various campuses of South Texas College. “At South Texas, I know they’ve gotten over 2,000, and a lot of the teachers at the high schools are doing the same kind of thing,” she said.

Francisco Rodríguez, president of UT Brownsville’s Young Democrats, said, “I think we’ve created a good buzz with the youth. A lot of what we’ve done is new media stuff, something we picked up from the Obama campaign. It just caught on.”

Will the Democratic groups’ voter drives unleash the long-untapped potential of South Texas voters? Will the presence of Latinos high on the ballot make the difference? “I do think that with Linda and Hector on the top of the ballot, there will definitely be a bump down there,” Aldrete said. The question is how big that bump will be.

Carlos Guerra, who lives in San Antonio, is a retired columnist for the San Antonio Express-News.