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?

November 2001By Comments

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 she enters the room and hands him a slip of paper. Sanchez reads it and says, “‘Patrón‘ is a sponsor, a protector. ‘Cacique‘ is a person of influence in a particular village or small town. Maybe ‘patrón‘ is more on the Texas side of the border, ‘cacique‘ in Mexico. But they’re used interchangeably.” Perhaps, he intimates, “patrón” has an element of authority, while “cacique” suggests an intellectual. Sanchez speaks with authority and, now and then, some passion. When he talks about education and health care—his only issues, so far—he wants people to listen to him.

But as I get to know him I keep getting distracted by things in his mansion, like a rug that appeared to be half as large as my house. One day, Sanchez had taken me out to his 13,000-acre ranch just outside town. He has built himself a hacienda modeled not on estancias in Mexico and Latin America but on those he found and carefully studied in the Andalusia of his Spanish ancestors. Enveloping a courtyard, the sprawling building has a wine cellar and a chapel where circuit priests perform mass for hunters and hands. Beneath one shed I saw a lineup of black off-road vehicles with raised platforms for hunters. I gazed at the trucks and the tawny chaparral beyond and had other thoughts of North Africa—Rommel and Patton.

As Sanchez drove around his ranch land, I asked, “How do you run for governor and avoid being cast as a cacique yourself?”

The candidate stiffened slightly. “Well,” he said. “People will just have to look at everything I’ve ever done and stood for.”

SEVERAL MONTHS BEFORE SANCHEZ ANNOUNCED HIS CAMPAIGN, I had been screened as someone he might choose to talk to. One day a hefty little box showed up that contained six books. A reading list! From a politician! I’m jealous about my reading time, so I let the box sit for a couple of weeks. When I examined the books, I found that a few were Sanchez’s valued personal copies, autographed and inscribed by the authors. In another he had written, “Dearest son. Please read and use this book often. Be proud of your heritage and take good care of your family. I love you very much—Dad.”

In time I read all those books. The first, The Story of Spain, was a slight popular history (the Inquisition was not so bad), but then I read Tragic Cavalier, a well-written biography of Manuel Salcedo, one of the last Spanish governors of Texas, by San Antonio historian Félix D. Almarás, Jr. I studied Andrés Tijerina’s Tejanos and Texas Under the Mexican Flag, 1821-1836 and his more romantically inclined Tejano Empire: Life on the South Texas Ranchos. Last were two lively illustrated histories of Laredo and the borderlands by Jerry Thompson, a dean at the city’s Texas A&M International University. One book ended with a photo of a young, fully mustached Tony Sanchez standing under a drilling rig in 1971, along with his now-deceased father and a geologist with the wonderful name Brian O’Brien. The three had just piped into the largest pool of natural gas found in the United States in thirty years.

Sanchez and I never discussed what he wanted me to take away from the reading. He deflected the question when I asked and instead talked about his love of books and his admiration for Harry Truman. My heritage runs to Scots and Irish who migrated to Virginia, the Deep South, and on to Texas—a well-worn trail. I’ve explored and read and written about the Rio Grande frontera and Mexico, and I’ve learned a fair amount of Spanish. But by the end of the reading, I had discovered many things about the Hispanic path to Texas I never knew. I didn’t know that San Antonio was founded by Canary Islanders. I learned about compañías volantes, “flying squadrons” of vaqueros who protected South Texas’ sparse settlements against the Apache and the Comanche and were the forerunners of the Texas Rangers. I learned more about the methods Texans used to drive Tejano landholders off to Mexico. I learned about the wild politics of Laredo. One dispute between the Guaraches (Sandals) and Botas (Boots) culminated in a gunfight over an 1886 election that killed more than fifteen men. Tradition has it that five thousand rounds sang across picturesque San Agustín Plaza, which occupies a bluff above the Rio Grande. To outsiders, the Sandals and the Boots were inscrutable factions of the Democratic party.

I also learned a great deal about the Texas legacy of Tony Sanchez. His personal wealth, which has been estimated at $600 million, not only enables him to make the leap from political novice to nominee and leader of the party but also invites him to put on the cloak of a storied Hispanic aristocracy in Texas. Sanchez’s Texas lineage is impeccable. If the books he asked me to read taught me anything, they showed that the idea of being governor comes as naturally to him as it might a person named Adams or Kennedy in Massachusetts. In a way, the candidate is trying to reclaim his birthright.

Sanchez does not discount the cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition. In about 1690, from a small town near Gibraltar, his forebears struck out for the New World to escape religious oppression. But they found the Inquisition even harsher in the vicinity of Mexico City, and so they kept pushing as far away from the capital as they could—to a remote, rough wilderness at the edge of occupied Spanish dominion. The candidate is seven generations removed from a rancher and soldier named Don Tomás Sánchez. According to Jerry Thompson, he had blond hair and blue eyes and possessed a reputation for being “fond of his toddy and the ladies.” Tomás petitioned the Spaniards for a grant of fifteen leagues of land along the north bank of the Rio Grande, and in 1755, on what became San Agustín Plaza, he founded Laredo. Sanchez’s ancestor was Laredo’s first patrón.

By the time Sanchez was born, in 1943, his family’s share of that wealth and property had dissipated, but not their zest for politics and power. His dad, Antonio Sanchez, Sr., told boyhood stories about running after trains during the Depression to scoop up coal embers and take them to the stove that warmed his house. He later owned an office-supply shop in downtown Laredo. Like almost everyone in Laredo, Tony Senior was a Democrat. He never ran for office himself, but he was deeply involved in politics. He emceed the pachangas, where people consumed beer and barbecue and assessed the candidates of the day. The first thing state senator Judith Zaffirini remembers seeing on television was a speech by Tony Senior. The firstborn son always seemed overmatched by the charisma of the old man. In another time, the father might have been the one to run for governor.

Tony Junior describes his childhood in Laredo with great nostalgia. Two of his grandparents lived across the border in Nuevo Laredo. “My friends and I would walk barefooted to town and to the river, and we’d fish,” Sanchez told me. “If you had an aunt or a good family friend along the way, you’d stop and knock on the door, and the tías would bring you lemonade.”

Never a spectacular student, Sanchez graduated from high school in 1961 and went on to college and law school at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. He moved to Austin and worked for Texas’ lieutenant governor, Ben Barnes, who ran for governor in 1972. Barnes’ small campaign staff included a writer, Richard West, who later became one of the brightest founding talents of this magazine. “Tony was as light as a two-dollar Chablis,” says West. “Endlessly amiable and had not a hint of political philosophy. Nor did any of us—we just wanted to get Benny Frank elected. While I wrote press releases and seldom-delivered speeches, Tony’s job was to backslap and habla español with the rare Hispanic Daddy Warbucks. Ditto the South Texas jefes. And he was good at it.” Lyndon Johnson had proclaimed Barnes a future president, but the lieutenant governor was tarred by scandal and destroyed by Dolph Briscoe and Sissy Farenthold in the Democratic primary. Today the tables are turned; now Barnes is one of Sanchez’s key supporters.

Sanchez got over the disappointment of Barnes’s loss quickly. He moved to San Antonio to practice law and returned home to Laredo on the weekends. Along with the office-supply business, Tony Senior speculated on oil-and-gas leases as a landman. The younger Sanchez had been telling him that they had to keep a share of production to make any real money. One night in 1971, while driving the River Road outside Laredo, the old man kept gazing across the border at the lights of a successful Pemex rig on the highway to Monterrey. Then two gas wells came in just north of the Rio Grande. Sanchez, his dad, O’Brien, and two other partners financed a discovery well in Webb County and leased a checkerboard of surrounding properties. For the border country, the importance of their discoveries was immense. The Sanchez-O’Brien field made a lot of South Texans rich, and in the case of some old ranching families, richer. For the Sanchezes, the success of the energy company enabled them to found a bank holding company, International Bancshares Corporation, that would ultimately have more than one hundred banks or branches throughout Texas. Among his other duties, the younger Sanchez became the chairman of the board of Tesoro Savings and Loan.

Despite the Sanchezes’ family history, the Laredo aristocracy and ruling cliques viewed them as nouveaux riches, even outsiders. The cool reception did not go over well. They became indomitable foes of Laredo’s patrón, longtime mayor J. C. “Pepe” Martin, who later went to jail for corruption. After Sanchez moved back to Laredo, he and his father fought Martin’s regime by supporting local candidates and financing construction and businesses whose owners and contractors resisted Martin’s political machine. The Sanchezes even battled the establishment by founding a newspaper, the Laredo News, to compete with the Laredo Times, which had been around since the feud of the Guaraches and Botas. Laredo is 94 percent Hispanic, and in those years of peso devaluations in Mexico, the town was an impoverished backwater. But starting in 1977, it had a lively nine-year newspaper war. Finally the Sanchezes had to sell the News to stop losing money. Employees were told to clean out their desks at ten in the morning on Christmas Eve, 1986.

The old man did not take kindly to scrutiny or criticism. In 1981 he filed an unsuccessful $60 million invasion-of-privacy suit against the Times for using Small Business Administration records to estimate his private worth at $50 million. If speculation about his wealth enraged him, imagine his wrath when he later sued the Times—again, unsuccessfully—for libel after a headline tied his family to drug trafficking. The story focused on the dealings of Tesoro Savings and Loan. Tesoro (“treasure” in Spanish) had gained a reputation as one of the freewheeling Texas thrifts, and it failed when the economy went bust. The younger Sanchez kept putting his own money into Tesoro, trying to make good on its obligations, but he admits he was unaware that two brokers allegedly laundered almost $25 million in drug proceeds through the savings and loan. The men reportedly had ties to a Guadalajara drug lord who would later be implicated in the infamous kidnapping, torture, and murder of U.S. narcotics agent Enrique Camarena Salazar. In 1984, one day before the IRS tried to freeze the accounts, another person purchased $1.7 million in money orders from the funds. After the freeze was instated, Tesoro officers allowed the money orders to be cashed in and wired to Panama.

Since law school, Tony Sanchez had been friends with Tony Canales, whose own family history is honored by a plaque and a museum on San Agustín Plaza. (In 1840, after Mexico had lost Texas but still claimed the border was the Nueces River, Antonio Canales led an insurrection against the Mexican government and inspired, for 283 days, a Republic of the Rio Grande that included Laredo.) Canales served as Tesoro’s lawyer and advised Sanchez that the savings and loan could not keep the money from being wired to Panama. Tesoro eventually went under from the weight of all its bad loans, and among their critics, the Sanchezes’ name and reputation would forever be maligned.

Still, Canales’ legal advice had been sound. In 1988 a federal district judge ruled that the bank had done nothing improper, and the charges against the two Mexican men were later dropped. But Tesoro has proven to be a nasty thorn for Sanchez. In August of this year, a few weeks before the announcement of his candidacy, the Dallas Morning News’ George Kuempel and Pete Slover pieced the Tesoro story together again, and Sanchez, who had been saying nothing on the record to reporters, was forced to defend himself. Rick Perry just allowed that it was mighty interesting.

Sanchez is contemptuous of the renewed insinuation. “Voters today are pretty sophisticated,” Sanchez told me. “They know this stuff doesn’t just magically appear from some third party. Rick Perry has a history of extremely partisan smear tactics. We’re ready for him. I have no illusions that it’s going to be nice.” Sanchez’s supporters point out that the depositors, not Tesoro, were investigated and that the IRS, the DEA, and Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department determined that the thrift had done nothing wrong. The candidate is being defamed, their argument goes, because his name is Hispanic and his banking enterprise is on the Texas-Mexico border. Nothing else required: Racism supplies the rest. But for Sanchez, scrutiny comes with the territory now. Reporters and opposition researchers are going to be looking at every investment, deal, and loan he has ever made. Fairly or unfairly, he’s going to be hounded by the dread words “drug money.”

THE TUESDAY AFTER LABOR DAY, THE CANDIDATE launched his campaign on Laredo’s San Agustín Plaza. Standing beside his handsome wife, Tani, and four grown children, all of whom looked like they had been picked by a casting agency, Sanchez was nervous—this first crowd of the day featured friends and cousins, people he’d grown up with. In our conversations he had told me about his continual doubts about running. “I pray every day when I’m exercising. And I’ve been asking, ‘God, what should I do?'” Sanchez said with a chuckle. “No answer. There never is.” But he couldn’t back out now. Sanchez was introduced by his daughter, Ana Lee, a former Clinton White House intern who will be working for her dad’s campaign. On a day when Texas politics suddenly went wild—that morning, Phil Gramm announced his decision to retire from the U.S. Senate, setting off a scramble of race-hopping candidates—Sanchez got over his anxiety and seemed poised, polished, and serene.

“I’m not running to be first in anything,” he said. “I’m running to make sure Texas is first in everything.” It was a good line, a theme to build on. “I fully realize,” he added, “that this campaign is not about me.” He hit his favorite notes of respect and dignity. Sanchez is not a great orator, but the speech came off pretty well; it sounded genuine except for one curious part. “Over the course of the coming months, I will lay out a positive, inclusive, and far-reaching vision of our future on how we can build that better Texas. Let me give you a glimpse of our plans. We will create a statewide initiative to promote discipline in our classrooms. We will not tolerate disruptive children in our classrooms.” That was his first priority? Those lines had the distinct ring of a pollster. I had listened to Sanchez talk for hours about public education, and that was the first time he had used the word “discipline.”

The campaign had proposed to a few reporters that we fly with the candidate on the first day. I accepted the offer, thinking that Kucera meant that I would travel with Sanchez. Instead, he, his family, and his staff raced across the state in two Citation jets owned by his bank, and we flew along behind in a Learjet chartered by the campaign. The aides seemed to sense a certain surliness. With me were the Dallas Morning News‘ Sam Attlesey, the Austin American-Statesman‘s Ken Herman, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram‘s Jay Root. These were the stalwarts of the Capitol gang, political-beat reporters who were going to be practically living with Sanchez for the next year. But Sanchez had been so under wraps they had barely gotten a look at him. They didn’t know him at all.

After he made a speech in Dallas, the aides brought him back to our jet for lunch and the flight to Austin. “It’s off the record,” said his campaign manager, Glenn Smith. The former Houston reporter is capable; he helped manage Ann Richards’ first campaign for governor. “Glenn, why is it off the record?” I asked. His shrug indicated that that is how Sanchez is used to doing things.

As we flew along I thought about how much more Sanchez could have charmed and impressed the beat reporters. Bill Clinton would have been doing card tricks. I also thought about how the Sanchez campaign had evolved. In Austin it was gospel, not just conventional wisdom, that he had been recruited by John Sharp, the former comptroller who is running once again for lieutenant governor. Sharp ran for the post in 1998 but lost to Perry by just under 85,000 votes. After looking at the change in Texas’ demographics, Sharp concluded that he could best be elected lieutenant governor this time around if the Democratic ticket featured a wealthy Hispanic candidate in the race for governor. His reasoning was simple: A candidate like Sanchez will energize the Hispanic bloc and bring extra voters to the polls. Sharp and a Democratic consultant, Kelly Fero, approached Sanchez about running. “Pretty quickly,” said Fero, “Tony went from ‘Why me?’ to ‘Why not me?'” But no politician wants to be another’s stalking-horse. When I talked to Sanchez about the Austin gospel, he had laughed without humor and murmured dismissively, “That’s so like Sharp.”

I remembered the time in the war room when I had asked Sanchez what he planned to do with his business empire if he got elected. “We’re in good shape,” he said, talking about the management he had in place. But he spoke in the manner of a superior, not someone removed. After the flare-up of bad publicity about Tesoro, one might think a blind trust would be one of his top priorities. But he seemed to have given it little thought: He could be governor of Texas and just sail right along as he always had.

Then there was the handling of the flap with Secretary of State Henry Cuellar. Perry’s appointment of the Democrat and longtime Laredo legislator was seen as a transparent move to undercut Sanchez on his home turf. Some Laredo Democrats were offended that Cuellar would accept the post. It was a matter of ego that is typical of South Texas politics. Sanchez had no apparent quarrel with Cuellar. Their parents had socialized together. But earlier this year Sanchez had received an anonymous letter that threatened him if he entered the race. As he had years before with Tesoro, Sanchez sought the advice of Canales. The lawyer, in turn, hired some bungling private investigators in the Valley who, according to reports, said they suspected Cuellar of writing the letter and asked Republicans—Republicans for heaven’s sake!—if it was true that Cuellar, who is married and has children, was a homosexual and had engaged in group sex. Sanchez, who was away on business when the story broke, took much too long to apologize to Cuellar (Cuellar resigned from the position in October). That amateurishness has rattled Democrats who are banking on Sanchez.

The last affair of the announcement-day swing took place at the magnificently restored train station in San Antonio. It had the happy feel of an old-style pachanga, with mariachis playing and Henry Cisneros in the crowd. It’s hard to miss the excitement Sanchez stirs in a crowd of Hispanics, especially among young people. But his message is so contained: Eighty-eight percent of Texas youths are not getting a college education; people are entitled to a life of dignity, his middle-class ideal; Texas is not going to be prepared. The phrasings and even the rhythms scarcely varied the eight occasions I heard him make that pitch. I thought of a time in the war room when he had strayed off script. I had asked him about his prison policy. “I can see a program,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “We go in the prisons and say, ‘We’re going to look at how you guys got here.’ Now these aren’t violent criminals. They’re first-time, maybe second-time offenders. We say to them, ‘You have a learning difference—not a learning problem. While you’re here we’re going to let you enroll in courses and give you proper credit. We’re going to help you start to get ahead in your academic life.'”

Sanchez pulled up short, as if he could hear the naiveté of his remarks, then he leaned toward me and spoke with real emotion. “I was talking to some ministers the other day and heard a statistic that startled me. It just makes you sad. There are more African Americans in our penitentiaries today—in the Texas criminal justice system—than there are in college.” His voice lowered to a whisper. “That’s shocking. Just shocking. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.”

LAST SUMMER SANCHEZ ADDRESSED THE CAPITAL AREA DEMOCRATIC WOMEN. He knew he was suspect because he had backed George W. Bush in his race against Ann Richards and because of doubts about his position on choice. Sanchez had been told he would be talking to twenty or thirty women in an eastside restaurant. Instead, he found the place jammed with about two hundred state legislators and aides, union organizers, professional women, yellow-dog Democrats, and a woman at a table passing out bumper stickers that read “Adopted People Deserve Their Original Birth Certificates.” With long tables, a high ceiling, and no windows, the room had the aura of a cell block painted yellow. The press of bodies was too tight, their heat soon overmatched the air conditioning, and the acoustics were terrible. Latecomers jostled and tried to maneuver in and have a look. “He’s not here yet,” someone yelled.

All these people had fought five o’clock traffic on a hot summer day to get a glimpse of the candidate. The room buzzed with curiosity, anticipation, and excitement. I scribbled on a tablet, “Could Rick Perry draw a crowd like this in Austin? Not a chance.” Yet Sanchez is so unremarkable in appearance that few in the crowd realized he had been seated at a table, facing them and blinking with contained alarm, for quite some time.

Sanchez adjusted the mike, shucked the remarks he’d planned to make, and drove right at the objections to him floating quietly in the room. Sanchez said that he had been a Democrat since 1961, when John F. Kennedy was president. He said he had supported Jimmy Carter and traveled with Walter Mondale in his 1984 run against Ronald Reagan. “And I believe,” Sanchez said, raising his voice, “that Bill Clinton is going to go down as one of our very best presidents!” Whoops of surprise and applause erupted in the room.

Sanchez went on that he had grown sick and tired of people in South Texas not being treated fairly. So he “veered off” and supported George W. Bush in his second gubernatorial and presidential campaigns. He swore he would never support a Republican again, and then he spoke directly to the concerns of many women in the audience. “I am personally opposed to abortion,” he told them, “but I will support and defend a woman’s right to choose.” Once more, shouts and clapping erupted. In two minutes he had diffused most of the tension and hostility in the room.

“It’s not working,” he said of the political, educational, and economic system in Texas, “and it’s not fair.” He used the metaphor of an invisible glass wall. On one side of this wall were those who clung to the standard evasions and excuses of the status quo. “On the other side are those who want a fairer and better Texas,” he thundered. “And I am convinced that the only people who can tear the wall down are those in the Democratic party!”

Sanchez showed that day that he can think on his feet and tell a crowd what it wants to hear. But the maps and calculations in his Laredo war room had better be right or it won’t make much difference what he says. Republicans predicted that George W. Bush’s popularity would turn out 4.2 million voters in the 1998 governor’s race against Garry Mauro. Turnout was mediocre, just 3.7 million, but Bush won by 1.4 million votes—69 percent to 31 percent. Today Republicans in Texas are thought to enjoy an advantage of about eight percentage points right off the bat. With insiders expecting a turnout of more than 5 million people in next year’s election, Sanchez must find about 416,000 new voters to overcome that handicap. Will they come out? People who talk about creating new voters generally lose elections.

But Sanchez and his team are convinced he can win. Sanchez’s political consultants include the old pro George Shipley. “We’re gonna drive right through the heart of the Republican party, campaigning in the suburbs among the moderate Republicans and those disgusted with the far right,” Shipley told me. “But there are also a million registered Hispanic voters who have not voted in the past two gubernatorial elections, and there are a lot of eligible Hispanics who haven’t registered. In the past twelve years, no Hispanic candidate of either party with sufficient funding has lost a statewide race.”

Republicans have their own ideas. “I’ve spoken with eight different reporters about this,” says Mike Baselice, a pollster who works for Perry. “And I get a little aggravated. I’m not spinning—I’m giving you real numbers! One out of six voters in Texas—seventeen percent—has a Hispanic name. The idea that the Democrats can push that to twenty percent just because Sanchez is Hispanic is wishful thinking. And even if they could, that moves him one point in the general election. Perry’s getting thirty percent of the Hispanic vote, which is not bad—most Republicans get about twenty-five percent. By 2020 the Republicans had better be offering more Hispanic candidates or the Democrats will start winning seats back. But that change is not going to happen overnight. It takes years. Frankly, I don’t think the Republicans have peaked in Texas.”

A challenger must prove he is both viable and credible. Sanchez’s wealth and intelligence make him viable; some doubts persist about his credibility. Tesoro. The Cuellar affair. In 1992 Sanchez persisted in drilling a natural gas well under Falcon State Park and the adjoining Rio Grande reservoir; he had only recently finished his term as a member of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, to which Governor Mark White had appointed him. The campaign rebuttal: Sanchez Oil and Gas has never been cited by the state for a single environmental infraction.

Appointed by Governor Bush to the University of Texas Board of Regents in 1997, Sanchez has had a stormy tenure. Winning the lasting enmity of some in the Austin arts community, he helped persuade the board to scuttle a design for a museum on campus. At the law school, he called for the firing of conservative professor Lino Graglia, who said Hispanics and African Americans do not view failure as a disgrace. Sanchez burned his bridges with the regents when he complained that a list of candidates for the presidency of the UT Health and Science Center in San Antonio did not include a Mexican American. Sanchez won the battle, his candidate eventually got the job, but in the war he wrote a letter accusing the Bush-appointed board of institutional racism. Sanchez still holds his seat among the regents, but he told me, “They’ve cut me out of it. I’m not consulted anymore.” Yet even as an announced candidate for governor, he has declined to resign.

The campaign rebuttal: Sanchez admits he can be abrupt, but he’s no hothead or bull in a china shop. He more resembles George W. Bush, another businessman without a government portfolio, than the hapless Clayton Williams in 1990. One Sanchez consultant told me that the experience with the regents soured him on Republicans and moved him back to the Democrats. “The message was pretty clear to him,” the consultant said. “‘You’re not one of us, Tony. You don’t belong in this club.'”

Observers also fault him for erecting his wall of “no comment” and failing to take advantage of the blistering publicity Perry received with his vetoes in June. He didn’t even protest when the Republicans handed themselves a majority in House redistricting and humiliated moderate Speaker Pete Laney. Perhaps Sanchez is putting together a race that is modeled on Bush’s upset of Richards in 1994. Start working the state early but keep the press out of it. Go to issues college and develop just a few as the core. Stick to the message.

But Sanchez has to deliver his base for his strategy to work. He has Cisneros organizing—in a “nonpartisan” capacity—to register and turn out Hispanics. Sanchez could benefit from black turnout if Dallas mayor Ron Kirk winds up as the Democratic nominee for Gramm’s vacated seat in the U.S. Senate. But Democrats have a long history of going fishing when they lack enthusiasm for their candidates.

He also has to fight to bring women to his side the way he did in Austin. He can do that by continuing to answer two questions: why he abandoned Ann Richards and what his policy on choice will be. Sanchez told me that nothing in particular caused him to break with Richards. He said he was just tired of politicians loving South Texans in November and ignoring them in December, and Bush had the sense to visit him and share ideas about education. But staffers from both camps explain the Richards dispute in terms of concrete and trucks. Following the 1990 election, one Laredo group, aligned with Sanchez and one of his banks, the International Bank of Commerce, wanted a toll road that would connect Interstate 35 with an international bridge outside town. Another group, aligned with the archrival Laredo National Bank, thought business in the city would wither if sixteen-wheeler traffic was diverted. Local politicians were hotly divided, and Sanchez, who had contributed to Richards’ 1990 campaign, hoped she would deliver for his side with the board of the Texas Department of Transportation. When she didn’t, the two butted heads. Soon after that, Sanchez started writing checks to Bush.

His stand on abortion has been problematic as well. Just before this September’s announcement swing, in a widely read story, Sanchez sent a tremor of alarm through many women by seeming to hedge on his commitment to choice. He told the Star-Telegram that he favored not only parental notification but also parental consent for teenagers seeking an abortion. “The pro-choice community has been patiently waiting to find out where he stands,” says Susan Hays, a Dallas Democrat and lawyer. “When he says he’s in support of parental consent, I’m sorry, I’m outta there. That may sound good in the polls, but it does not envision the frequent circumstance of a girl with an abusive father. I cannot think of anyone more powerless in our society than a pregnant teenager.”

Yet not all Democratic women are driven by this issue. Zaffirini, who is also personally pro-life, has been his friend since they were children; their parents stood up at each other’s weddings. She’s had her fallings-out with Sanchez in Laredo—she came down on the other side in the dispute over the toll road. But she argues that if Texans fault Sanchez for some of the mistakes he has made in Laredo, they should also applaud him for what he’s done right. For example, in 1992 Sanchez lost his father to leukemia, and in 1998 he lost a sister to ovarian cancer. “His way of dealing with that personal tragedy,” said Zaffirini, “was to bring Laredo a superb cancer center. Later, when he heard his children complaining about having nothing to do in Laredo, he brought the city a first-rate distinguished lecture series. I imagine he’s proudest of Laredo having a four-year university, because achieving it was such a prolonged and frustrating battle. His dad started lobbying for it in 1967. It finally happened in 1993.”

Another Laredo woman who admires him publishes LareDOS, the best alternative newspaper on the border. Meg Guerra is a sixties rowdy who “came home to grow up,” she told me with a smile. She has known Sanchez many years, and though he told her when she launched her monthly paper that it would be a losing business proposition, he and his bank have been supportive. Her editor, Carol Brochin, first encountered Sanchez when he was a regent and she was a University of Texas student protesting the remarks of law professor Lino Graglia. “He was formal, a little aloof,” Brochin said of Sanchez. “Like he didn’t know if he was supposed to be talking to students. But it was exciting just to discover that one of those regents was Hispanic. And in the end he came through for us.”

When I mentioned the oft-stated Democratic remark that it is simply time for a Hispanic governor in Texas—in the same way it was time for women when Richards and Kay Bailey Hutchison won their races at the top of the ballot—Brochin grinned, cocked her head, and amended, “No. It’s about time for Hispanics.”

“How refreshing,” Guerra quipped about Sanchez’s qualities as a politician, “that he didn’t have to go to Guanajuato to learn Spanish.” Both women seemed surprised when I described a common Austin perception that Sanchez is a substitute for the name-brand Hispanic, Cisneros. “Tony has palanca,” Guerra said. “Henry’s time has maybe come and passed.” I asked her what “palanca” means. She thought a moment and said, “It means ‘effectiveness. Political currency.'”

The publisher continued: “My son, who’s twenty-seven, is all fired up about Tony. We’re seeing a lot of that. For me, an important measure is that Tony was here with his wife all those years, raising those kids. They’re good people. One Thanksgiving not long ago, he and his family made and served dinner to homeless people at the shelter. This was before the talk about the governor’s race, so he wasn’t doing it for that. Tony’s not like the politicians we’ve seen in Texas in recent years. You look into him, and the guy checks out.”

Sanchez doesn’t inspire all Hispanics, even in his hometown. A former migrant farmworker and stalwart in Laredo politics stretched his mouth at my mention of Sanchez. “He’s a Spaniard,” the man said. But the enthusiasm of youths like Brochin and Guerra’s son are the intriguing surprise of the Sanchez campaign. Young, well-educated professionals are exactly the group of Hispanics that Republicans think they can coax away from the Democrats. I keep thinking about the youth I had heard about who could command a six-figure salary in the corporate world; instead, he’s rattling around the Eagle Pass barrio in an old car, banging on doors and getting out the vote. Tony Sanchez has not demonstrated much charisma, but somehow within him, there is some jazz. And he’s got the ear of a constituency that neither party can afford to alienate or ignore.

Related Content