In early October, exactly one month before the 1998 general election, Texas gubernatorial candidate Garry Mauro boarded a Southwest Airlines flight from El Paso to Austin and took a seat at the back of the cabin. Soon after the plane was in the air, a flight attendant announced that the flight crew wanted to recognize "a special person flying with us today."Mauro, a lifetime politician four times elected to statewide office and wrapping up his third statewide campaign, set aside the newspaper he was reading and looked up expectantly in time to see the flight attendant walk to the middle of the cabin to sing "Happy Birthday."Mauro's birthday is in February. He joined the chorus singing to a fellow traveler who was probably having a better day than he was.
That the Democratic candidate for governor of Texas was flying solo- and unnoticed- on Southwest after a campaign event said as much as any poll did about how Democrats would fare a month later. In November Mauro would win only 31 percent of the vote, setting a record for the lowest percentage ever won by a Democratic candidate for governor in this century.
That he was again flying home from El Paso was also telling. El Paso is the second largest Hispanic-majority city in the state. Mauro visited El Paso 12 times during the campaign. So did George W. Bush, who did not fly Southwest.
"Garry didn't want to lose El Paso," his campaign director Billy Rogers said a month after the election: "We had TV in El Paso; Garry traveled to El Paso; we were better organized in El Paso." Because Mauro's campaign staff knew Bush was going to do well with Hispanic voters, they made a calculated decision to use El Paso to demonstrate what Mauro could do in an isolated media market where the gap between the candidates' spending was not so wide. But Bush narrowly defeated Mauro in El Paso anyway. Specific spending figures for Mauro's El Paso campaign are not available, but he was outspent $18 million to $3 million statewide. This helped Bush become the first Republican gubernatorial candidate to come close to winning a majority among the state's Hispanic voters.
Yet it would be unfair to Bush to attribute his strong showing among Hispanics entirely to his staggering spending advantage. Democrats did their part. The down-ballot candidates refused to be seen with Mauro, who in response began attacking them for their lack of party unity. John Sharp, the comptroller and Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, was unable to raise enough money to fund both television and a get-out-the-vote organization. So he opted for a television campaign aimed at suburban voters, even as he was relying on the traditional Democratic base (urban and working-class voters) to turn out. But Sharp's TV spots, going after welfare cheats and promising longer sentences- in a state with the lowest monthly welfare grant and the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the nation- didn't turn on Democratic voters, even suburban ones. "I couldn't believe those goddamn ads," a professional political organizer in the lower Rio Grande Valley told me 10 months after the election. "I couldn't believe that the guy who had come down to meet with us was spending all this money attacking welfare mothers."
The Electorate of the Future
Meanwhile Bush, the Republican candidate, was busy working the Democratic base- in particular Mexican-American voters who traditionally vote Democrat. Lionel Sosa is a San Antonio political consultant who has run Hispanic market media campaigns for Ronald Reagan, the elder George Bush, and John Tower. After he almost carried the state's Hispanic vote, the rumor in Austin was that Bush had given Sosa a blank check. To investigate whether this was true, Laura Barberena, a Democratic media consultant in San Antonio, started asking local film crews what kind of deal they cut with Sosa. "I just gave him my price, and he took it," was what she was told. "In San Antonio, everyone does a deal when you're shooting a lot," she explained to me. "You at least ask for four days at the three-day rate." Sosa was spending money as if he had an inexhaustible supply.
He did. This past September, Sosa, who is now working on Bush's presidential campaign, confirmed what Barberena suspected. "George Bush said three things," Sosa declared on a panel broadcast on C-SPAN. "'First,' he said, 'my goal is to win a record number of Hispanic votes. Second, I want you to do something with the advertising and campaign that shows Latinos that there is a lot of opportunity for them in Texas. And third . . . I want to have the perfect Hispanic campaign.'"
"Whatever you say that we need to spend, I want you to double it," Bush told Sosa. "If you say a million, I want you to spend two million. If you say two million, I want you to spend four million on the media." Sosa wouldn't reveal how much Bush spent. But after one term, Bush's approval rating was so high that anything he did with his campaign fund was discretionary spending. So he chose to run a campaign among the electorate of the future. In Texas that electorate speaks Spanish.
Bush speaks a steadily improving, rudimentary Spanish with an accent so good that English-speaking reporters describe him as fluent or conversant. He cut his own Spanish-language videos and appropriated Tejano music icon Emilio Navaira. "They took Emilio's love song 'Juntos' ['Together'] and rewrote the lyrics for the campaign," Barberena said. If Barberena was bothered by the fact that Bush had a Mexicano in a cowboy hat on his payroll, Navaira, who was singing "Juntos" at the Iowa Straw Poll, wasn't complaining. Bush and Republican Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry ran a united campaign under the rubric of "juntos podemos" ["together we can"]- although the Spanish copy editor at The Houston Chronicle briefly took some of the wind out of the Republicans' sails with the misspelled Spanish headline "Juntos Pedemos" ["Together We Pass Gas"].
Andy Hernandez- a visiting scholar at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, where he is working on a book about Latino political power- says Bush's ad campaign connected with Mexican-American voters. "He made an intentional effort to market himself to Hispanics as someone who listened to them and understood them," Hernandez said. "And he did it while [then- California Governor Pete] Wilson was acting so badly that people weren't asking: 'Is this guy better than Mauro?' They were saying: 'He's a lot better than Wilson,'" who at the time was busy cutting off social services to California's Mexican immigrants.
But the extent to which Hispanics have claimed Bush as their own is striking. Hernandez is surprised by the number of Hispanic voters who believe Bush himself is married to a Mexican-American woman. (He's not; the wife of his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, is Mexican.) "He has really projected himself into our community," Hernandez said. But he adds that it is important to separate Bush's political campaign- which focused on themes rather than specific issues- from his legislative record. "He had so much money that he overwhelmed Garry, who was not able to hold him accountable on the issues," Hernandez said. Bush's legislative accomplishments are far less impressive than his campaigning.
The biggest and most partisan fight of the 1999 legislative session was over the federal-state Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a project of vital concern to Hispanics in Texas. "We went to his office in Austin to meet with him on CHIP," says Estella Soza Garza, a social worker in the lower Rio Grande Valley. "We were told he was out of town." At the beginning of the five-month biennial legislative session, Bush set the eligibility level for CHIP at 150 percent of the federal poverty level rather than the 200 percent that was expected.
"He's denying 200,000 children health insurance," Soza Garza told me shortly after the governor announced his decision. "I want to know when he's going to send some of his compassionate conservatism down our way." With 1.4 million uninsured children, Texas is second to California in the total number of children without health insurance. At 200 percent, the CHIP program in Texas provides insurance for 500,000; at 150 percent only 300,000 can be insured. The advocates of 200 percent (the national standard) prevailed after the Democratic House refused to accept anything lower.
The lower Rio Grande Valley includes the three poorest counties in the United States, according to Bernard Weinstein, director of the Institute of Applied Economics at the University of North Texas. "Most people believe that the Mississippi Delta is the poorest region in the country," Weinstein said. "That's not so. It's the Rio Grande Valley."
There has been economic growth in the valley- the five southernmost counties in the state- Weinstein says, "but economic growth never keeps up with population growth." So the region lags far behind every other region in the state. It has the highest unemployment rates, the lowest wages, and some of the worst living conditions in the nation.
Nationwide, Texas has the second highest percentage of people living in poverty. But the statewide poverty rate of 19 percent seems negligible compared to 40 percent in Hidalgo County and 50 percent in Starr County in the lower valley, both heavily Hispanic areas. The valley is one place where the innovative use of Temporary Assistance for Needy Family (TANF) funds could make a difference. Patrick Bresette, a policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP) based in Austin, says Bush's legislative staff met with the CPPP staff and patiently listened to arcane recommendations about the innovative use of TANF funds, such as additional funding for child care and job training for parents who have moved from welfare to work. "When the session began, all they were interested in were the punitive one-liners," Bresette said. According to Elliott Naishtat, the Democratic chair of the House Committee on Human Services, the governor's staff wanted only "a draconian welfare reform bill."
The result of the standoff between the Democratic House and the Republican governor was $326 million in unspent federal funds, according to an analysis done by Jason DeParle of The New York Times. Thirty percent of the TANF surplus, $173 million, was added to general revenue during a session when the legislature was dividing up a $7.6-billion budget surplus. The TANF surplus could have made a substantial difference in the lower Rio Grande Valley if it had been applied to programs that fall under the general heading of welfare reform. The legislature did increase the monthly TANF benefit for a mother and two children to $281 from $188. The current rate, however, is still lower than what is paid in any other state except Alabama.
Bush gets mixed reviews on education. He opposes affirmative action, for example. He did little to help secure passage of a bill introduced by Irma Rangel, the Democratic chair of the House Committee on Higher Education. The bill provided an effective way of restoring minority enrollment at the University of Texas after it had drastically declined in the wake of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision on Hopwood v. Texas, which ended all special accommodations for minority students. Rangel's "10-percent solution" meant automatic admission to any state university for any Texas student in the top 10 percent of his or her graduating high school class; in schools where racial or ethnic minorities are the majority, 80 to 100 percent of the top 10 slots would be filled by minority students. As soon as Rangel's bill passed, however, the governor tried to steal credit for it. He staged a signing ceremony in the border city of Brownsville. "Suddenly the 10-percent bill was part of the governor's program," Corpus Christi Democratic Representative Vilma Luna told me.
On the other hand, "he doesn't veto our bills," said Sister Judy Donovan, an organizer with Valley Interfaith, a church-based public interest group that includes 49 congregations in the lower Rio Grande Valley. Donovan cited an increase from $8 million to $14 million in the alliance schools budget. Alliance schools, promoted by Valley Interfaith and its 12 sister organizations across the state, are specially designated campuses that receive additional state funding for after-school enrichment programs, teacher training, and community outreach activities that bring parents into the schools. Bush has also provided a total of $1.6 million from his discretionary funds to Valley Interfaith's adult job-training program.
A Temporary Attachment?
But not everyone associated with Valley Interfaith is a George W. Bush enthusiast. For decades border-county developers have sold plots of land on a "contract for deed" basis, in which the developer is the mortgage lender. Water, sewers, and streets were promised but seldom provided. The result has been the proliferation of colonias, makeshift subdivisions in which developers have failed to provide water, sewer, and electric service. Since the first major colonias bill passed in 1987, the gradual process of providing services to colonias has been another border success story.
Valley Interfaith and its sister organizations have invited candidates and have elected officials to the border to see why the funds are needed and why program funding has to be continued. "We invited Bush, but he never came," complained Carmen Anaya, who lives in Las Milpas, a colonia six miles from the Rio Grande. "Never!" Anaya, who owns a small family grocery store and speaks only Spanish, is the matriarch of lower-valley politics and has led dozens of elected officials through colonias. "Mark White came. Ann Richards came and walked in the mud with her fine boots. They made promises, and they fulfilled them," Anaya said of the two Democratic governors who held office before. Bush, however, "refuses to meet with us."
Anaya pointed out that even Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison visited Hidalgo County colonias in April. "She walked into a house with rotten plywood floors," Anaya said. "She walked through mud streets while it was raining." (Hutchison secured $300 million in federal funding for upgrading border colonias.)
Carmen Anaya's son Eduardo is a lawyer who maintains one office in Las Milpas and one in McAllen. "Bush appointed [Secretary of State] Elton Bomer to supervise the colonia projects, and he came down here once. I saw his assistant when I was in Austin and asked him where he had been. 'I've been pretty busy,' he said. They don't seem to have much interest in the colonias issue."
In the muddy streets of the Rio Grande Valley or in Austin's capitol, the consensus is that on the issues that most matter to Hispanic voters, Bush talks the talk more than he walks the walk. Hernandez predicts that the Hispanic crossover to Bush is a temporary attachment based on the well-funded campaign of one charismatic candidate. "He only took 21 percent against Ann Richards," Hernandez said of Bush's Hispanic numbers in the '94 election. "And John Sharp [the Democrat who lost by less than 1 percent to Republican Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry in 1998] took 70 to 80 percent."
Hernandez believes that the Hispanic vote will return to the Democratic Party if and when the party attends to its Hispanic base. That probably won't happen in Texas in 2000. While the Republican campaign is already well underway, Barberena has yet even to see the Democratic campaign on the horizon. "Lionel Sosa's already shooting . . . film of Bush at Hispanic events. I don't see the Democrats doing anything yet."