The Edge of a Red Sea

Will San Antonio be the Texas Democrats' Alamo?


By the end of the 2009 legislative session, San Antonio’s delegation of largely Democratic Latino representatives looked well-positioned to become a major force. State Rep. Jose Menendez took the floor to nominate Joe Straus as he was elected speaker. Despite opposition from the University of Texas in Austin, state reps. Mike Villarreal and Joaquin Castro successfully salvaged much of the top 10 percent rule, a law allowing students graduating at the top of their high school class automatic entry to the state university of their choosing. And when tensions rose over a Republican voter identification bill, San Antonio’s state Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer, who heads the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, took a lead role in killing the bill.

The delegation’s varied political skills—from Martinez-Fischer’s maneuvers to Villarreal’s policy analysis—left many optimistic about the future of Democratic-Latino relations in the state. With almost 1.3 million people, about 60 percent of whom are Hispanic, it’s easy to understand the cliché that Texas will soon look a lot like San Antonio, and  Democrats were pleased to see that after 2008, they had a good hold on county government. While Gov. Rick Perry carried Bexar County in 2002 and 2006, Barack Obama won the county by a healthy five points. Since this year’s elections, though, all bets are off.

This Nov. 2, Bexar County swung almost entirely Republican. Voters contributed to the defeat of U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez and unseated Democratic state Rep. David Leibowitz in a race almost no one thought was competitive. All 10 of the contested state district court races went to the Republicans. The county Democratic Party is a shambles, burdened with prior debts. But the shining stars from San Antonio still have their seats, and many speculate that given the Democratic power vacuum, folks like Villarreal and Martinez-Fischer will take on even more visible roles in Austin. Whether these politicians can create a reliable Democratic base in San Antonio remains to be seen. Their success or failure will say a lot about the chances for statewide Democratic success in the future.

“The most alarming thing about this election was, not only did Latinos not turn out to vote despite the fact that there were huge voter-registration campaigns going on,” says San Antonio Express-News columnist Jan Jarboe Russell, “but the gains were made in the Republican Party. We have to give [Hispanics] a reason to vote. We have to give them a public agenda to vote on.”


San Antonio’s current set of young Latino leaders emerged from a city with a relatively large Hispanic middle class and a long history of Hispanic political leadership. With four military bases in the city and two more close by, it was easier for San Antonians to find well-paying jobs in the defense industry. The now-closed “Kelly Air Force base was probably the biggest higher-education program that San Antonio ever got,” said San Antonio activist and author Carlos Guerra, who sometimes reported for the Observer until his death on December 6 of this year. “There were a lot of middle-class people.” Villarreal’s father procured one such job and moved his family to the north side, out of the working-class downtown. Villarreal was the first in his family to graduate from college, at Texas A&M; he then went on to Harvard for graduate school.

“You can’t discount the power of a growing middle class,” says Villarreal. “It is a big explainer for political participation. Can you do it without it? I wouldn’t say never. But where we’ve seen the most emerging political leadership, it’s in communities where there’s a solid middle class.”

Social and economic mobility also came out of earlier wide-scale political movements in the city. “Until the ’70s,” says Russell, “even though the city was predominately Latino, all the power was in the hands of the Anglos.” The shift to Latino power happened, she says, because three men began to take on leadership roles. The first two she credits are Willie Velasquez, who started the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, and Ernie Cortez, who began the city’s Communities Organized for Public Service, known as COPS. The third is former Mayor Henry Cisneros, who emerged as a Latino leader from San Antonio with widespread support.

“We had somebody to register people to vote, and that was Willie,” Russell says. “We had somebody to organize people around a public agenda, and that was Ernie. And we had somebody to vote for and who could build a bridge to moderates and progressive Anglos.” In addition to COPS and the voter registration project, groups like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund sprang up.

“These young people that are now serving—they’re standing on the shoulders of people who have been involved for many years,” says Maria Berriozabal. She is surely one of those people. Initially she was an activist on issues from civil rights to domestic violence. When Berriozabal was elected to the San Antonio City Council in 1981, she became the first Mexican-American woman to win the job in a major Texas city. Now she’s taken up water conservation.

Berriozabal remembers the political climate in the ’60s, when San Antonio’s Chicano movement began in earnest. “It was young men and women who started another revolution that changed Texas forever,” she says. “The generation of young people who are in the Legislature right now are the heirs of all that history.”

Early political awareness and middle-class status seemed to spark Martinez-Fischer’s interest. He watched his father’s failed bid for county commissioner from perches in their family restaurants. “I was sort of raised in politics,” he says. When Martinez-Fischer was 14, his father campaigned the old-fashioned way, cold-calling voters from a phone book and driving through neighborhoods passing out fliers.

“When kids reach that station in society, they can look back at where they came from and understand their roots, and then they can look forward at what’s outside of their reach,” Villarreal says. “You need to be able to get up on that hilltop and see both sides.”

There’s no guarantee Democrats will hold on to the city. In the most recent election, overall turnout hovered around 34 percent, with estimates even lower for Hispanic voters. The GOP tidal wave that overtook the rest of the country hit Bexar county as well. Republican John Garza’s victory over state Rep. David Leibowitz came out of nowhere. Leibowitz soundly beat Garza in 2008 by 14 points, and Leibowitz was one of the only representatives facing a Republican opponent. At the local level, Republican candidates won positions for justice of the peace and county clerk, as well as every contested state district court race.

“I think right now it is very difficult for me to predict where the Latino community in general is going to go in politics,” says Berriozabal. “Sheer numbers are setting an environment where the numbers will be there [to create political change].” But whether and how Hispanics will vote is far from certain. San Antonio is already 60 percent Hispanic, and if the community voted in large numbers and for the same candidate, they would be a decisive voice in electoral politics and policy. Democrats are now soul-searching and debating why they lost at so many levels in Bexar County.

A slate of talented candidates isn’t enough, says Russell. “They alone can’t do it,” she says. “If we don’t figure out how to get people to vote, [Democrats] are not going to get elected.”

Meanwhile, Republicans in the area took lessons from their 2008 defeats. “What’s new [to Republican strategy] is really what’s old,” says Curt Nelson, Bexar County Republican chair. “We really had a coordinated effort in our ground game.” As Nelson points out, Bexar County has often gone Republican in gubernatorial and presidential races.

National media consultant Lionel Sosa says there’s room for Republican support to grow. He should know. From his home in San Antonio, Sosa has spent the last 30 years crafting Republican messages geared to the Hispanic community. He worked on major races from U.S. Sen. John Tower’s victory in 1978 to George W. Bush’s presidential win. His strategy isn’t complicated.

“The Latino will respond greatly to whatever candidate reaches out the most and in the most effective way,” Sosa says. Outspend your opponent in Hispanic outreach, go to events, and your party ID rarely matters. “While it’s true that [a Latino] tends to identify as a Democrat,” Sosa says, “the Latino will certainly respond to a Republican message.” When candidates invest equally, though, Sosa acknowledges the Democratic candidate has the edge.

Guerra saw the same trends. “There is a shift, primarily because Republicans have started actively recruiting Hispanics as candidates,” Guerra said.

The city’s long history of progressive political organizing has faltered, and according to Berriozabal, that type of organizing is integral to a healthy political culture. “The voter has to make a connection between her reality, her life and this thing called politics,” says Berriozabal. Russell and Berriozabal say organizing is the best way to make connections and create agendas that will make people engaged and empowered.

This year, Republicans did that better than Democrats, but neither party has a clear hold on the city. Russell hopes the Democrats will use the loss to step back and come up with new approaches. She and Berriozabal say the long-term winner will be the party that works with communities to create political agendas. If the Democrats can foster more community organizing and work more with groups on the ground, the women believe the activists and the politicians can strike a winning balance.

“Yes, we elect the people, and they have to do their job inside the system,” Berriozabal says. “But government moves when the people move outside.” And moving outside the system is a San Antonio tradition.