Lena Guerrero, in memoriam
Fri April 25, 2008 5:31 pm

"When in doubt, tell the truth,” Mark Twain advised. “It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.” This is how I began the story I wrote about the pivotal moment in Lena Guerrero's political career in 1992. Had she followed Twain's advice, she might have been worthy of an entire chapter of Texas political history; instead, sadly, she was just a footnote.

Able and ambitious, she gravitated to politics as soon as she arrived at UT-Austin in 1976. She joined the Young Democrats and the Texas Women’s Political Caucus; she worked an a legislative aide; she became statewide youth coordinator for John Hill’s ill-fated 1978 gubernatorial campaign. In her junior year, she won the presidency of the statewide Young Democrats. She accumulated enough credit hours to graduate but not all the required courses, and so she never earned a degree. She was, she said later, in a hurry to start earning a living in politics. In 1984 she won an Austin legislative seat, and she served on the State Affairs committee, where chairman Pete Laney noticed her abilities and instructed her in the legislative arts. She also struck up another valuable friendship, this one with state treasurer Ann Richards.

In 1991, newly elected Governor Richards made Guerrero the symbol of her theme of a "New Texas" by naming her to fill a vacancy on the Railroad Commission that was created when John Sharp was elected comptroller. She was the first Hispanic woman to hold statewide office. By all accounts, she was an outstanding commissioner; she even charmed James Nugent, the panel's irascible chairman. She knew next to nothing about the oil and gas and trucking industries, which were the regulatory responsibilities of the commission, and she set out to remedy that deficiency by visiting oil fields and loading docks and outlying commission field offices around the state. From all accounts at the time, she was a conscientious public official who actually read the briefs of the matters before the commissions. Guerrero was on her way to reelection in 1992 when Republicans learned that two claims on her biography: were false: that she had earned a Bachelor of Science degree in broadcasting from UT and had been elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the society that honors outstanding academic achievement. These misstatements dated back to her first legislative race in the eighties. The revelation led to a two-week media feeding frenzy, the sordid details of which, out of respect to the departed, will not be recounted here. Guerrero chose to resign her seat and remain in the race for the next term, but she lost to Republican Barry Williamson, 53.65% to 39.26%.

The episode marked a turning point in the Richards' governorship. Richards didn't have a big legislative agenda, but she did care about her vision of a "New Texas" in which blacks and Hispanics and women, who as Richards saw it, had historically been passed over for gubernatorial appointments, would have the opportunity to show that they could govern the state as well as they old-boy network. Guerrero was central to this vision, but when her lies were exposed, her political career was over. Richards was devastated. I don't think she ever recovered from the disappointment. It wasn't the political setback that bothered Richards. It was that her protege had undermined her vision of the future of the state. A few months after the election, I had an interview with Richards about the sunset process in state government, which she felt had become a bonanza for lobbyists. Afterward, I said to her, "Governor, you don't seem to be enjoying yourself as much this legislative session"--it was April 1993--"as you did two years ago." I'll never forget her answer: "If you mean, am I sadder but wiser, the answer is yes." That is what Guerrero's failure to tell the truth (even to Richards' face, when confronted about it) did to Richards' morale. I think it had a lot to do with Richards' disprited performance in the 1994 governor's race against George W. Bush.

The great mystery is why Guerrero felt she had to fabricate her background. The daughter of migrant farmworkers (and she herself had worked in the fields, according to her biography), she could have said that she attended UT for four years but left before getting a degree to run for the Legislature. She certainly didn't have to invent her membership in Phi Beta Kappa. Most of her constituents wouldn't have known what it signified anyway. Something inside whispered to her that what she was, wasn't enough, and so she made up the rest.

If Guerrero had not been tripped up by her falsified biography, she would have been a heavy favorite to defeat Williamson in the general election. When Lloyd Bentsen gave up his U.S. Senate seat to become Bill Clinton's Secretary of the Treasury, Richards might well have tapped Guerrero to replace him. Guerrero would have had to run in a special election to serve the remainder of Bentsen's term, and she probably would have faced Kay Bailey Hutchison in a runoff. Hutchison held the obscure office of state treasurer and was not yet the popular figure she is today. It is not too far-fetched to imagine that Guerrero could have won that race. But Guerrero was out of the picture, and Richards' choice of Bob Krueger, another member of the Railroad Commission, was not inspired.

In the late eighties, Texas produced three promising Hispanic politicians who were statewide figures. One was San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros. One was Dan Morales, elected attorney general in 1990. One was Lena Guerrero. All of them self-destructed: Cisneros by having a very public affair, Morales by turning out to be a crook, Guerrero by lying about her credentials. That was a great loss for the Democratic party and for Texas. Their collective implosions, along with Tony Sanchez's unsuccessful governor's race, have made it difficult for any Hispanic Democrat to run statewide. No one of that stature has emerged since. The Republicans produced Tony Garza, but he seems unlikely to pursue electoral politics after his stint as ambassador to Mexico ends.

After her defeat, she went to see Gene Fondren, the dean of the business lobby, for advice about becoming a lobbyist. Instead of getting advice, she got hired. She worked successfully for four sessions and had put her life back together when, at 43, she was diagnosed in 2000 with an inoperable malignant brain tumor. Patricia Kilday Hart wrote a story about Guerrero's battle with cancer in the September 2001 issue. "Doctors can't give her a definitive prognosis," Hart wrote, and she went on to quote Guerrero: "They all say the same thing—nobody knows. Some people live for a long time, some for a short time. If I get five more years, I'll get to see [her thirteen-year-old son] Leo Junior graduate [from high school]. If you gave me twenty, then I might get to meet the grandchildren." She got nine--more than enough to win back her reputation as a hard worker and a superb political strategist. As for the question of why she falsified her academic credentials, even Guerrero seemed mystified. "It was stupid on my part," she told Hart. "I still don't know why I did it."

Lena Guerrero is survived by her husband, Leo Aguirre, and her son, Leo Jr.

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