You’ve Got Mail

A nonthreatening letter to Tony Sanchez about his tiff with Henry Cuellar and what to do about running for governor—if he's serious.

You may not remember this, but we both worked in the state Senate around thirty years ago. It was lots of fun in the old days, wasn’t it?—short hours, long lunches, a card game every day in the back hallway behind the Senate chamber. Nobody paid much attention to what went on in the Capitol then, until an election got to be a week or two away. But times have changed, Tony. People pay attention to everything these days. Texas politics is serious business now, and if you want to run for governor, you’ve got to take it seriously. What the politicos and the media are thinking has a way of becoming the conventional wisdom, not just in the Capitol but throughout the state, and you’ve been around them enough to know how they operate. They admire professionals. They shun amateurs. And that flap over the unsigned threatening letter you received and the subsequent brouhaha with your fellow Laredoan, Secretary of State Henry Cuellar, reeked of amateurism. Indeed, it has undermined your candidacy even before you make an official decision about whether to enter the race.

Before I make some suggestions about how to overcome the damage from the Cuellar controversy, I want you to know that I believe your campaign would be good for Texas. The Democratic party had just about given up any hope of winning a statewide race next year until you came along. Texas needs a healthy two-party system, and it looks like you’re the best bet to pump some life back into it.

But, Tony, you could end up doing your party more harm than good. Already you have botched the first job of a political candidate: to define yourself before others define you. Instead, you made a conscious decision to remain out of public view for nearly a year. That strategy backfired when the Houston Chronicle broke the story in March that (1) you had received an anonymous letter stating that information harmful to you and your family would be made public if you run for governor, whereupon (2) you gave the letter to your attorney, former federal prosecutor Tony Canales of Corpus Christi, (3) who hired a couple of private detectives, (4) whose investigation soon focused on whether Cuellar was the source of the letter, (5) leading them to ask two state senators about Cuellar, and not just any state senators but, inexplicably, Republican state senators who were close allies of your likely opponent, Governor Rick Perry, and (6) one of the things the detectives wanted to know was whether Cuellar, who is married and the father of two children, is gay.

And so your introduction to the people of Texas involved not a matter of statewide importance, but a local political feud. Even if you believe Henry Cuellar wrote the letter, though there’s not a shred of proof, he shouldn’t have been a blip on your radar screen. The nature of politics is that if 40 percent of the people are against you, if they hate your guts, you still win by a landslide. The way to deal with opponents is to rise above them, not sink to their level. It is likewise the nature of politics that every word you say, every action you take, has consequences. Instead, your reaction to your first crisis was poorly thought out. Your spokesman said you didn’t know that the detectives had been hired, but he did not disavow their suggestion that Cuellar was behind the letter. Your advisers tried to put their best spin on the story, saying that the election was a year and a half away and that no one outside of Austin noticed—but Austin is where the politicos are and where the conventional wisdom takes root.

Your handling of the threatening letter has been topic A in the Capitol all spring. Folks keep wondering why you didn’t follow Rule One of how to deal with an anonymous letter: Turn it over to the FBI, just as Al Gore’s campaign had handed over the Bush debate tapes that came in the mail. They are wondering why you didn’t follow Rule One of how to deal with a mistake: Apologize immediately and get the story out of the newspapers. It took you two weeks to apologize. As I said, people notice these things. They wonder if you have hired anyone to give you advice, and if you have, whether the quality of that advice is good, and if it is, whether you take it.

Enough about the past. Let’s talk about the future. If you’re going to beat Rick Perry, you’re going to have to raise the level of your game. A statewide race is a test of intellect, personality, stamina, and discipline. Here are some suggestions about what you need to do to get ready.

Don’t overestimate Perry—or underestimate him. He hasn’t shown much leadership yet, nor has he revealed that he has a broad vision for Texas, but, hey, that’s never disqualified anyone from being governor of Texas. What he is good at is winning elections. He runs disciplined, lavishly financed races, relies on his personality and TV charm, and sounds bipartisan. He has beaten two formidable opponents to get where he is—Jim Hightower for agriculture commissioner in a stunning upset and your friend John Sharp for lieutenant governor. His choice of Cuellar as Secretary of State was designed to neutralize you in South Texas and to get under your skin, and you fell right into his trap. You’ll have to beat him; he won’t beat himself.

Mend your fences. You may think that Democrats will be so eager to defeat Perry that they will automatically vote for you. Don’t count on a united party. Ann Richards’ loyalists will remember that you jilted her in 1994 and supported George W. Bush (to the tune of $101,000 for both his gubernatorial campaigns) over another local political fight. The pro-choice crowd knows that you are personally pro-life. You’d like not to make a big deal of the

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