Tony Sanchez's New Deal

The multimillionaire oilman and banker from Laredo has never held elective office, is personally pro-life, and has been one of George W. Bush's biggest financial backers—none of which pegs him as the ideal Democratic candidate for governor. So why does the party see him as its savior?

Tony Sanchez loves maps. In the "war room" of his oil-and-gas company office in Laredo, the candidate for governor leads me past a long wall filled with oversized maps of Texas. "Overlay this one on that one," he says, "and you see that they're almost identical." Yes, I can see that, but I'm not sure what it means. Counties are colored according to various codes—Hispanic Voters in 2000, Potential Hispanics to Register, Registered Hispanics Who Do Not Vote. "Here's what concerns me," Sanchez says, pointing at a map of Harris County. "In the Houston area alone, four hundred thousand people are not participating in the political process."

The opportunism in his voice is more convincing than his sorrow. Sanchez admits that he has seldom bothered to vote himself. The multimillionaire oilman and banker has been appointed to important and prestigious boards by governors Mark White, a Democrat, and George W. Bush, a Republican. But Sanchez has participated in the process largely by giving money to candidates. He claims to have contributed to more than 150 Democrats, but in the cash register of politics, he is best known for having given $320,000 to Bush since 1995, making him the president's third-largest financial backer. That would stand him in good stead among many Texas voters, but Sanchez is running for governor as a born-again Democrat.

In a way, the quest overshadows the man. Sanchez is testing the growing strength of Hispanics in one of the most important states in the country; if he becomes Texas' first Hispanic governor—and does it as a Democrat in the president's back yard—it will send a seismic tremor through national politics. But Texas Democrats have scrambled to embrace Sanchez for another reason entirely. The party that lost every statewide race in 1998 needs a candidate who has the luxurious ability to finance his own campaign. Sanchez fits the bill. He may be the underdog against Governor Rick Perry next November, but he neutralizes the GOP's huge advantage in fundraising. Liberal standard-bearer Molly Ivins wrote about him wistfully in the Texas Observer : "Sanchez has taken the pro-choice pledge and is otherwise quite presentable, so will all Democrats please cooperate and be good little boys and girls, just like Republicans, while the money people make this decision for us?"

Squat but trim, the 58-year-old Sanchez stands five feet seven. He has shaved the mustache he had worn since youth and has flattened out his graying hair. He has a small mouth, and when he smiles, it dimples his round cheeks. Almost two centuries have passed since the Spaniards departed Mexico and Texas, but his blue eyes are politically significant: They suggest that Sanchez is criollo, someone of Spanish bloodline—not mestizo, with its mixture of Indian heritage. The stereotype for the former is genteel, European; for the latter it is turbulent, Latin American. In the war room Sanchez wears black boots, charcoal suit pants, a long-sleeved white shirt, and a yellow club tie that was known, when it was fashionable in the eighties, as a "power tie." He has worn a yellow club tie every time I've seen him dressed for a day's work. The candidate is no Robert Redford, nor even a Henry Cisneros. He looks exactly like what he is—a successful businessman. Can people get fired up to vote for a banker?

Making his race more than a South Texas campaign will be Sanchez's biggest challenge. He offers himself as a Hispanic who doesn't scare people. He's running on behalf of their children and their dignity. Sanchez has a high opinion of his intellect, and he is supremely confident that he can outsmart the photogenic Perry. Sanchez prides himself on his ability to step back and see the big picture—which includes understanding Texas history and how it matters today. On another visit, Sanchez had led me to a map of the Mediterranean. He pointed to Spain, where his ancestors came from, and with a brush of his finger noted the scant distance between it and North Africa. "It's interesting how many of our customs followed us to Mexico from Spain and Africa. Settlers named a town Matamoros—what does that mean? 'Kill Moors.' Our political institutions in Mexico have been influenced by the way things were done in the old country and Africa. People were governed by a strongman at the top and the political leaders just below him. Call him a cacique, a patrón, whatever term you choose.

"Now," Sanchez went on, "in the twenties, thirties, and forties, they continued to be led by patrones. If you had political leaders running for election, all they had to do was call four or five people in South Texas, and these strongmen told the people who to vote for. In other places, people and their leaders said, 'What are we going to get in exchange for our votes?' But in South Texas, all the politicians had to do was wine and dine the caciques. 'Ah, don't worry about it,' the bosses would say after the election. As a result we didn't get the infrastructure, the colleges and universities, the expenditures for public school students. South Texas got left behind."

Today Sanchez returns to that theme in his war room. "Hell, I thought it was only in South Texas," he continues. "But as I've traveled this state, I've seen that it's here and here"—he points to East Texas and Dallas-Fort Worth—"it's everywhere." Sanchez's communications director, Michelle Kucera, who once worked as Tipper Gore's press secretary, has set her tape recorder rolling right beside mine on the blond conference table. Fair enough, but the sight of them reinforces the pedantic tenor of his remarks.

"What's the difference between a patrón and a cacique?" I ask.

He gives me a blank look that grows intrigued. "Almost the same," he answers, "but I'll find out for you." He sends Kucera down the hall to put the question to the staff expert on border traditions and Spanish. Moments later

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