Women On The Verge

The Latinas in the Democrats’ sights.

Having written off 2000, when Kay Bailey Hutchison should easily win another term in the U.S. Senate, Texas Democrats are looking ahead to the next round of statewide races. If you believe the buzz within spitting distance of the Capitol, the ticket for 2002 is shaping up: former comptroller of public accounts John Sharp as the nominee for governor; maybe Paul Hobby , the son of former lieutenant governor Bill Hobby , for his dad’s old job; maybe Austin mayor Kirk Watson for attorney general; maybe Watson, Dallas mayor Ron Kirk , or former Waco insurance executive and U.S. ambassador to Sweden Lyndon Olsen for the U.S. Senate against Phil Gramm (assuming he runs for reelection—another subject of chin-stroking speculation).

Your first reaction may be that the list is all male and awfully white. (And it could get all white: Several insiders are betting that Kirk, who is black, will opt not to run in ‘02 and then, when his mayoral term is up a year later, quit politics and take a job in the private sector.) Not to worry, say top Democrats, who insist they’re committed to finding a Hispanic and a woman to run alongside the alpha Anglos. And while there are those in the party who hope that Henry Cisneros will ride to the rescue on the red-eye from Los Angeles, Sharp thinks salvation could also lie closer to home—specifically, in the offices of Laredo mayor Betty Flores and Houston controller Sylvia Garcia .

Although the election is more than two years away, Sharp has already been to see Flores to make his pitch. He came away thinking the 55-year-old—the first woman ever to lead the second-fastest-growing city in the nation—is “smooth.” After 29 years as a banker, the Laredo native was first elected on Valentine’s Day, 1998, to fill the unexpired term of Saul Ramirez , who was appointed undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development , and was reelected in May 1998 to a term that expires in 2002. (How convenient.) She not only talks the talk of working to improve conditions in South Texas—“We’ve been neglected for too long”—but also walks the walk; her résumé boasts her affiliation with the Border Low Income Housing Coalition and other community groups. Still, she’s no ideological firebrand. Rather than attack Republicans in the Legislature, the self-described conservative Democrat talks of collaboration. “I want to show Dallas and Houston what we can do for them, and I want to hear what they can do for us,” she says. And she shows respect for the GOP governor who has made inroads into the traditionally Democratic Hispanic community: “We like George W. Bush. When we like a candidate, we’ll vote for him, regardless of party.”

Garcia is smooth too, a seasoned political pro with a definite sense of her own self-worth—the sort of would-be candidate whose deputy volunteers that her boss’s recent op-ed about Houston’s budget crisis in the Houston Chronicle was viewed as “the opening salvo in the next campaign.” But which campaign? Sharp, who has known Garcia since they were student body presidents at Texas A&M University and Texas Woman’s University , respectively, says the biggest obstacle to her making a statewide race in ‘02 is the possibility that she’ll run for mayor of Houston instead. Still, he sent an emissary to see her, and no wonder: The 49-year-old has the sort of bio that Democrats drool over. A native of the South Texas farming community of Palito Blanco, Garcia was the eighth of ten children. After attending TWU on scholarship, she received a law degree from Texas Southern University and signed on as a staff attorney at the Gulf Coast Legal Foundation . A series of public and private sector jobs followed until she was appointed municipal court judge in 1987. For ten years she was the court’s presiding judge, giving up that post in 1998 after running successfully for controller, the city’s chief financial officer. So maybe she’d try for Sharp’s old job? “This office is so similar to an independent comptroller that people see it as the same thing,” she says. “They want me to be the taxpayers’ watchdog.” Still, she’s not sure if she’s going to bite: “A lot can happen between now and the end of the year.”

Anyway, even if she does run, there’s no guarantee that it will be with Sharp. “What I like best about Houston is that citywide offices are nonpartisan,” she says. “It’s not about being a D or an R. My focus is good government. It wouldn’t shock me if someone on the other side approached me. Both parties are looking for an attractive Hispanic.”

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