The question isn’t whether we’ll elect a Hispanic to lead Texas. It’s whom, and from which party, and how quickly jai alai’s loss will be our gain.
The Texas governor’s race of 2018 was one for the history books—on a par with Lyndon Johnson’s disputed victory over Coke Stevenson in the 1948 U.S. Senate race and Bill Clements’s upset of John Hill in the 1978 governor’s race. These elections came at crucial moments in the state’s history that separated the old from the new. Johnson’s 87-vote margin certified the transformation of Texas from a rural state to an urban one and the accompanying transformation of its economy from agrarian to industrial. Clements’s victory, which made him our first Republican governor since Reconstruction, was seen as an aberration at the time, but it proved to be the leading edge of a surge that reshaped Texas from a one-party Democratic state to a one-party Republican state and produced two presidents of the United States.
Now, with the triumph of Dallas mayor Rafael Anchía as the first Hispanic governor, another watershed election has occurred, this one confirming that political control in Texas has shifted from Anglos to Hispanics. What made the 2018 race different from those in 1948 and 1978 was that the change it brought about was one the Texas political community had known was coming. The question was not whether Texas would elect a Hispanic as governor; it was when and whom and from which party.
Anchía and the Democrats benefited greatly from a GOP that had been convulsed over the issue of illegal immigration for a decade, rendering it blind to demographics and even its own self-interest. Two Republican governors, George W. Bush and Rick Perry, understood that the future of the party in Texas depended on attracting Hispanics. Bush’s former political guru Karl Rove believed that Hispanics, because of their patriotism, their religious and family ties, their conservative views on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, and their work ethic, could be won over to the R’s. But the base of the party had an entirely different view. Even as Bush won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally in his 2004 race for reelection, Texas Republicans were adopting a platform plank on illegal immigration that read “No amnesty! No how. No way.” Republican opposition to immigration—and immigrants—grew so virulent that many Hispanics, even those who had voted Republican, came to believe that the opposition was motivated by racism. The election of Anchía may have relegated the R’s to semipermanent minority status in the state they once dominated.
Today, Rafael Anchía—the subject of this hypothetical story from the December 2018 issue of Texas Monthly—is a state legislator from Dallas. One term on the Dallas school board and two in the Texas House of Representatives have not rescued him from the obscurity in which most urban lawmakers are doomed to labor. He did receive mention as a possible candidate for mayor of Dallas last year, and the Dallas Morning News showered some attention on him, but he decided not to run. That is not exactly the type of résumé from which statewide candidacies are born.
No one can foretell the future, but what we can be sure of is the demographic destiny of Texas. Hispanics are already the largest ethnic group here. Their plurality will turn into a majority by 2030, if not by 2020. One can quibble over whether 2018 is too soon for the first Hispanic governor to be elected or whether the furor over immigration will subside, allowing the Republican party to rebuild its appeal to upwardly mobile Hispanics, but the likelihood is that politics in Texas will be vastly different in ten years, certainly twenty, from what it is today. This much can be said with confidence: Anyone familiar with Texas politics who is charged with identifying the officeholders most likely to emerge in this fogged-in future would have to put Anchía on the short list. At 39, he is young enough to wait for the right moment to come along. As a lawyer with a prominent Dallas firm, Haynes and Boone, he doesn’t have to take a vow of poverty to pursue politics, and his legal specialty, corporate finance, is one that can open doors. His reputation stretches beyond Texas: He is a member of the board of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and chairs its Educational Fund, which seeks to help Latino immigrants become citizens. (A legislative colleague who would also be on the short list, Pete Gallego, of Alpine, is NALEO’s treasurer.)
Despite being a junior Democratic lawmaker in a Republican-dominated House, Anchía has managed to make a considerable name for himself in his brief tenure. He has passed some neighborhood-oriented bills, aiding prosecutors of sex-trafficking cases and guaranteeing overtime pay for police officers; the North Texas Crime Commission named him the Legislative Crime Fighter of the Year. And in this magazine’s biennial Best and Worst Legislators story, he was named Democratic Rookie of the Year in 2005 and one of the Ten Best in 2007. His forte has been floor debate, in which he has proved himself to be a formidable adversary. For two sessions, he has taken the lead in fighting the Republican-backed voter ID bill, which would require voters to show a photo ID or other forms of identification in addition to a voter registration certificate. Anchía has argued that such a law would disenfranchise older and poorer voters who do not have driver’s licenses. During the debate over the state budget, he successfully fought a Republican amendment that would have gutted prenatal and perinatal funding under the Children’s Health Insurance Program. His persistent questions about how many children would be kicked off the rolls—the number was about 100,000—drove the amendment’s proponent to lose her composure and start screaming at him, and the exchange ended up on YouTube.
What really sets Anchía apart, however, is a background that is unique in Texas politics. The person who may well become Texas’s first Hispanic governor is not of Mexican or even Latin American descent. His heritage is Basque; his family is from the autonomous northern region of Spain, spilling over into France, that has been a hotbed of separatism for centuries. The region never fell under the influence of the Romans, and it retained its ancient language, although only about a third of the inhabitants can speak it. (Anchía’s father and grandmother can; he cannot.) The Basque Country is now one of Spain’s foremost tourist attractions, featuring chic restaurants and the ultramodern Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, but in 1936, the year his father was born, it was desperately poor. The Basques hated Francisco Franco, a fascist general and Spain’s future dictator, and when the Spanish Civil War began that year, Anchía’s paternal grandfather, like many Basques, left his family to fight against Franco and Hitler, in the hope that the Spanish republicans would win the war and give the Basques their independence.
But the republicans did not win the war, and Claudio Anchía sought refuge as an exile in Australia to escape the victorious fascists. He worked as a shepherd, a vocation at which the Basques are said to have no equal. He sent money home, but he did not return to his family. As Rafael tells the story, there had been tension at home: The Catholic Church supported Franco, and Rafael’s devout grandmother did likewise. After her husband left, she worked as a manager of a pensión for truckers and laborers in Markina, the family’s hometown. Rafael’s father, Julio, quit school after the seventh grade; he spent time around rough men. “He was recognized as a delinquent,” Rafael told me. “He was picked up and beaten by the authorities.” A coach at a local school took an interest in him and taught him to play jai alai, a sport on which large sums are often wagered. The game, in which a ball is volleyed back and forth in a walled court by players wearing gloves attached to wicker baskets, is said to be the world’s fastest; the speed of the ball during play has been clocked as high as 188 miles an hour.
By fifteen, Julio was a regional champion and off the streets for good. He learned how to make the baskets that players use to catch and hurl the jai alai ball and to make and repair the ball itself. A scout who traveled the jai alai circuit discovered him and took him to Zaragoza to play professionally. Another scout took him to Naples, Italy. By the time he was nineteen, he had a contract to play in Dania, Florida, and a work visa that made him a legal immigrant. The only thing he knew about the U.S. he’d learned as a boy, when a group of fishermen hauled up a net full of provisions from a sunken ship, labeled “From the people of the United States.” One container held a substance he had never seen before. He stuck his thumb in the mixture and tasted it. It was butter. “The taste was incredible,” Rafael told me, retelling his father’s tale. “The experience left him with the impression of Americans as a generous people.”
Florida in the fifties was the center of the jai alai world, and the game was in its heyday. Players came from throughout the Spanish-speaking world, from Mexico, Cuba, Spain, and the Caribbean. In this company, Julio was rookie of the year. But the players were disgruntled over pay and went out on strike. The strike meant that he had no job, and his work visa expired. A friend got him a contract to play in Tijuana, and he made enough money to buy his mother a flat back in Markina. Eventually he was able to return to Florida. One day in 1963, he went to a jai alai picnic in Key Biscayne, where he met the daughter of a player named Justino Michelena. Her name was Edurne. Born in Mexico City, she was the child of Basque exiles. Justino had been a mapmaker for the republican forces. The courtship was a long one; they married in 1967. Afterward, Julio took his bride to the Basque Country. While there, she went to refill her family-planning pills. “We don’t have them,” she was told. Franco was still in power and the Church was still on his side. The pills were prohibited. That is how Rafael Anchía came to be born.
The history of Hispanic politics in Texas has been a long and often sordid one, characterized by every bad political impulse imaginable: segregation, bossism, factionalism, corruption, intimidation, and, on the part of ordinary people, indifference to participation in the political process. Some of the perpetrators have been Anglos—including Texas Rangers—and some have been Hispanics; regardless, the history has been a burden for Hispanics who would seek statewide office, as Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tony Sanchez found out in 2002.
The story begins with Sam Houston’s victory at San Jacinto, which left Mexican landowners north of the Rio Grande stranded in a foreign land. Texas had claimed the Rio Grande as its southern boundary, Mexico had claimed the Nueces as its northern boundary, and the dispute was not resolved until the Mexican War of 1846—1848. No Anglo adventurers had settled in the Nueces Strip, as the area was known, but some had made their way to Laredo and Brownsville. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave the strip to the U.S. It also guaranteed the land titles of Mexican families, but the guarantee was not worth the paper it was printed on. It was only as good as the American courts that were supposed to enforce it, and the law was easily manipulated to favor Anglo claimants. Dispossession occurred on a massive scale.
In such circumstances—a population along the river of about eight thousand people, composed of a few Mexican landed families, a group of ambitious Anglo merchants, and a large number of illiterate Mexican peasants—political control was a prize to be fought over. This was the origin of the patrón system, in which powerful Anglos organized the peasantry into factions that vied for political control. Because the voters were illiterate, their allegiances were identified by ribbons, red and blue, representing their factions, and they were told how to mark their ballots. In Brownsville’s early days, the Reds, led by future King Ranch founder Richard King, usually prevailed. As the great ranches of South Texas were assembled, the Mexican population lived in a virtual feudal system that endured into the last quarter of the twentieth century. The patrón traded money (often taken from the treasuries of local governments he controlled) for votes. He would pay for his followers’ funerals, for their household necessities, even for a college education for a promising child—and he would pay the poll tax on their behalf. The most notorious of the patrones were the Parrs, of Duval County. In 1914, on the eve of a court-ordered audit of county funds, Archie Parr, the first of his line, torched the courthouse to thwart the investigation. Archie’s son George was known as the Duke of Duval; he provided the tainted votes that elected LBJ to the Senate in 1948. The dynasty ended when George shot himself on his ranch in 1975, on the day he was to be taken away to prison.
The Mexican population of Texas in 1900 was small—less than 5 percent of the state’s total. Immigration was a trickle; why would a Mexican want to submit to the discrimination and degradation that awaited him north of the Rio Grande? But two developments occurred that reversed the trend. One was the opening of the Rio Grande Valley to agriculture, which created an immediate demand for cheap labor. For the Mexican peasantry, low wages in Texas were still a major improvement over the subsistence-level life they had left behind. The other was the deteriorating conditions in Mexico that ultimately led to the revolution of 1910. The Mexican population of Texas exploded: 53,000 immigrants in the first decade of the new century, 264,000 in the second, 165,000 in the third. Then, as now, many Anglos reacted with alarm. “Studies published by the University of Texas as early as 1920 warned of immense ethnic and social problems to come,” wrote historian T. R. Fehrenbach in Lone Star, the seminal history of Texas, which was published in 1968. “It was already recognized that the Mexican immigrants were not assimilating, in fact, had no desire to assimilate or adopt Anglo culture. The second generation was not learning English.”
I love Lone Star, but Fehrenbach missed the importance of the third wave of immigrants, which took place in the twenties; it included middle-class business owners who’d fled Mexico when the revolution took a turn to the left. Many of these newcomers had ended up in San Antonio. Among them were Leonides Gonzalez, who ran La Prensa, a national Spanish-language newspaper, and whose son Henry B. Gonzalez served in Congress, and Romulo Munguia, the grandfather of Henry Cisneros. (It was Munguia’s son Ruben who told me how the immigrants of the twenties differed from those who’d come before them.) The first generation had not assimilated—in an interview late in his career, the younger Gonzalez told me that his father always viewed himself as a temporary visitor in America and thought it inappropriate to involve himself in its politics—but their children did.
The first stirrings of activism occurred in January 1938, when 12,000 pecan shellers on the West Side of San Antonio went on strike after shelling company owners cut their Depression-era wages of $2 per week. In March the strike was settled in the workers’ favor, but within three years the owners had replaced workers with machines. The next episode, however, was more successful. An American soldier named Felix Longoria was killed in action in the Philippines in July 1945. Four years later, his remains were sent to his hometown of Three Rivers, where his widow and daughter lived. A memorial service had been scheduled at the town’s only funeral home, but the owner canceled it, saying, “The whites would not like it.” In nearby Corpus Christi, Hector Garcia, a decorated war veteran, had organized the American GI Forum after learning that the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station hospital would not accept Mexican American patients. Garcia wired Senator Lyndon Johnson about the incident in Three Rivers, and Johnson sent a telegram that began, “I deeply regret to learn that the prejudice of some individuals extends even beyond this life.” He arranged for Longoria to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
The radicalism of the sixties did not bypass Hispanic Texas. The flash point came in 1969, when the high school in Crystal City adopted a rule that mandated the homecoming queen be the daughter of graduates. This was a transparent attempt to ensure the election of an Anglo. A graduate student at St. Mary’s University, in San Antonio, named José Angel Gutiérrez organized a boycott and won a compromise. Soon afterward, he formed La Raza Unida party with the idea of using Hispanic votes to break the conservative Democrats’ monopoly of state politics. It almost worked. Ramsey Muñiz, the Raza Unida candidate for governor in 1972, received 214,118 votes, reducing Democrat Dolph Briscoe’s margin over Republican Hank Grover to just under 100,000 votes. By 1974, Gutiérrez and La Raza Unida had control of the Crystal City school board, courthouse, and city council.
What happened next was an old and all-too- familiar story: Factionalism divided Gutiérrez’s supporters, and those whom he had alienated joined with Anglos to challenge him. When a court ruling went against him, costing him his majority on the commissioners’ court, he left town, and the revolution was over. The attitude of local Anglos toward the split within La Raza Unida was reflected by an oft-told racist joke, which was included in texas monthly’s 1977 story on Gutiérrez’s troubles: Two men are catching crabs on a beach. One puts the crabs in a bucket with a lid on it. The other puts them in a bucket without a lid. “Aren’t you worried that the crabs will crawl out?” asks the first man. “These are Mexican crabs,” explains the other man. “They will pull each other down.”
The reverse of factionalism is bossism, and that too has been part of the tradition of Hispanic politics. The far South Texas counties, Cameron and Hidalgo and Starr, have deep histories of boss rule dating back to the late nineteenth century—first by Anglos, more recently by Hispanics. Cameron’s longtime boss James B. Wells has a county named after him. In Hidalgo, a Texas Ranger named Anderson Yancey Baker was accused of murdering a Hispanic rancher and his brother, and Wells, his defense lawyer, argued self-defense and won an acquittal; Baker went on to become the sheriff and political boss of the county. In rural Starr County, the Guerra clan ruled for decades.
The Anglos were replaced in modern times by Hispanics—Pepe Martin in Webb County, Billy Leo in Hidalgo, and, until he was defeated for reelection as county judge in 2006, Gilberto Hinojosa in Cameron. Even Henry B. Gonzalez, the first Hispanic who transcended ethnic politics, let it be known that he would tolerate no challenge in San Antonio. “There is only one politician in this office, and that is me,” he used to say. He could make it stick because he’d become a hero in 1957, when he set a state record for filibustering; he’d spoken for more than 36 consecutive hours against a package of bills designed to bolster segregation in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down racially “separate but equal” public schools. Cisneros once told me that I could walk into any Hispanic-owned business on the West Side of San Antonio and find a picture of Henry B. there. When Cisneros was elected mayor, he found it prudent to write Gonzalez a letter saying, “I will never run against you.”
Even more than Gonzalez, Cisneros rose above ethnic politics. He won 61.8 percent of the vote in defeating an Anglo candidate from the old guard in 1981. Cisneros had everything necessary to become the state’s first Hispanic governor: the vision, the charisma, the inclusive message of the rising tide that lifts all boats, the support of San Antonio’s most prominent citizens, the record of achievement in transforming a sleepy city into the boomtown it has become—everything except the will. I remember a conversation over breakfast during which he put the blade of a knife on a sugar bowl and the handle on the rim of his coffee cup and tapped the center of the implement. “All the pressure is on the bridge,” he told me. “I’m tired of being the bridge”—that is, between the Anglo and Hispanic communities. Although his public admission of an extramarital affair would make it impossible for him to seek higher office, our breakfast conversation convinced me, long before the affair became public, that he was not running for anything; he was running from the destiny others had laid out for him. Such a loss.
Rafael Anchía has no connection with this tradition. He was born and raised in Miami, where his parents settled when his father’s playing days were over. He had never been to Texas before he received an academic scholarship to attend Southern Methodist University. Could his lack of a Texas pedigree prove to be a detriment to political advancement? Perhaps. Before 1891, no Texas governor was native born. However, since James Hogg took office that year, only six governors have not been native born, and of these, only one, George W. Bush, has been elected since 1941. It is possible, however, that Anchía’s comparatively recent arrival could turn out to be an asset. The patrón system is gone now, but the long history of political corruption survives in the collective memory. Innuendo helped ruin Tony Sanchez. Dan Morales, twice elected attorney general in the nineties, turned out to be a crook. So did Benny Reyes, a well-known Houston politico. A current FBI investigation in El Paso has netted three local officials so far. Anchía comes from an entirely different culture. “Anchía” is not even a New World surname; my online search found only six listings under that name in the entire state. The patrón system is not his burden, nor is the crab bucket. If he were to decide to run for governor, he would start with a clean slate.
Rafael’s earliest memories are of being crammed into a small house in Miami, living with relatives and sleeping on a sofa in a crowded room. His grandfather Justino Michelena, the Spanish Civil War mapmaker, had been hired by the Colt firearms company to embellish hunting rifles with engravings for the firm’s wealthiest customers, but the northeastern towns where he worked were too cold and too isolated, and he moved to Miami. Justino too had played jai alai, which was how he happened to be at the picnic where Rafael’s parents met. Rafael’s mother, Edurne, has been a teacher for almost thirty years. After high school, she went to Miami-Dade Community College and earned a four-year degree from Florida International University. She became a U.S. citizen, and Julio became a legal permanent resident when he married her. He worked as a jai alai instructor, teaching amateurs the game. Eventually they moved into a southwest Miami neighborhood inhabited by a polyglot of Hispanic nationalities. Rafael learned Spanish first—“I was exposed to all dialects,” he says—but his mother was concerned he wasn’t getting enough English. She put him in front of a television set, and he learned the language from Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, and The Electric Company. He went to the same high school as Jose Canseco but remembers Jose’s brother, Ozzie, as the big star, until he hurt his arm.
At age four, Rafael took up jai alai. His father was the ballmaker at a school for professionals in Dania, and by the time he was in high school, he had joined a program for promising players. He had his life planned out: He had already submitted an application to the University of Florida. He would attend school and play professionally in nearby Ocala. He was good enough to be one of two front-court players selected to represent the United States at the 1986 world championship in Vitoria, Spain, and his long-term goal was to represent the U.S. in the 1992 Olympics, in Barcelona, at which jai alai would be an exhibition sport.
Before he could put his plans in motion, he heard about a college fair to be held at the Miami Expo Center. He invited his father to go. Rafael was checking out the booths when he heard his father shout, “¡Rafael! ¡Ven aquí!” He arrived to find Julio animatedly engaged in a conversation in Spanish with a representative from SMU. “Write down your SAT scores and your grades,” she said. “We want you to apply.” Sometime later, a dean from SMU telephoned and asked to speak to Julio. “We want your son to come to SMU,” he said. “We have a scholarship for him.” “No worry,” said Julio. “He’s coming.” Rafael wasn’t so sure. He wanted to play jai alai. He dreamed of playing in the Olympics. “Son, jai alai is a dying sport,” Julio told him. “Don’t you end up like me.”
And so Rafael found himself getting off an airplane with his mother at DFW and looking out at the flat Texas prairie. The first thing he noticed was that the laborers at the airport were Hispanic. The same was true at SMU. The custodial employees were Hispanic. The yardmen were Hispanic. It was a shock. “I came from a city where Latinos were prominent at every echelon in the social structure,” Rafael told me. “Latinos ran the town.” He turned to his mother and said, “Aquí los latinos están pisados.” Here the Latinos are stepped on.
His roommate provided another shock. Rafael arrived toting a cheap plastic suitcase and a duffle bag. The roommate looked like, well, a typical SMU student. When he saw Rafael, he exclaimed, “Oh, man, thank God! When I saw your name, I thought you were going to be some kind of Iranian.” He wanted to know what Rafael’s father did. “He makes jai alai balls,” Rafael said. And the roommate’s father? He owned a small oil company.
Anchía graduated from SMU in 1990 with a 3.7 GPA and a triple major (anthropology, Latin American studies, and Spanish with a concentration in literature). That is not all he took away from campus. “I learned Southern values,” he told me, “and I learned what wealthy people valued.” He went to law school at Tulane University, in New Orleans, where, he says, “I came out of my shell.” It’s not clear if he is all the way out, even now. He is more wonk than hail-fellow-well-met, given to talking about “the kindergarten cohort” and “feeling actualized by public service.” There is a reserve about him that, even before I knew his family history, struck me as distinctly European.
After law school, he returned to Dallas as an associate with Winstead Sechrest & Minick (now Winstead PC), one of Texas’s largest firms. There he worked with David Dean and Rider Scott, both of whom had served in the governor’s office under Bill Clements, and Chris Semos, a former Democratic legislator who had once represented the north Oak Cliff area that is part of Anchía’s district today. Their practice involved helping counties along Interstate 35 get funding to improve the choked artery. Scott was the technician, Dean the strategist, Semos the dealmaker. The idea was to get all the county judges to join in a letter of understanding that would prod the Texas Department of Transportation into action. For the first time, Anchía came into contact with courthouse politicians. He didn’t know quite what to make of it all. “I knew nothing about nothing,” he says. “I didn’t know where half of the places I was going were. I wasn’t political at all. I was just a baby lawyer trying to figure it out.” He knew this much: “On my first day out of law school, I was making more than my parents combined made in a year.”
“The mark of a truly educated man is to be moved deeply by statistics.” This observation by the British dramatist George Bernard Shaw appears in one of Steve Murdock’s PowerPoint presentations about the demographic future of Texas. All I can say is that I hope you’re truly educated, because what follows is a lot of statistics that all add up to the same thing: Texas is destined to be a Hispanic state, and sooner than you think.
Much of the future of the state is a mystery. Population is not—and politics follows population. Murdock, who was the state demographer before President Bush appointed him to head the U.S. Census Bureau last year, has calculated what Texas will look like over the next four decades, based on the natural increase in population and domestic and foreign immigration. The black population is relatively stable, and “other” is fairly small, so the germane numbers (which I am going to round off) are for Anglos and Hispanics. The trend is inexorable. In the eighties, the Anglo population grew by 34 percent, the Hispanic population by 49 percent. In the nineties, the figures were 20 percent and 60 percent. In the first five years of this decade, they were 13 percent and 68 percent. The Anglo population is growing at about one fifth the rate of the Hispanic population. Anglo Texans were a majority (53 percent) of the state in 2000; by 2006, they were not (48 percent, twelve points higher than Hispanics). Even if federal immigration policy succeeds in reducing net migration to half the rate of the nineties, Murdock projects that the Hispanic percentage of the state’s population will surpass the Anglo percentage, barely, by 2020. If immigration rates remain at the current level, Hispanics will constitute 46 percent of the state’s population by 2020, Anglos 38 percent. In numbers of people, that comes out to just fewer than 14 million Hispanics and a little more than 11 million Anglos.
The explosive Hispanic population growth is remaking Texas into a state that is poorer and less educated. Median household income for the 2000 census was $47,162 for Anglos, $29,873 for Hispanics. Texas ranked thirtieth among all states in median household income. By 2005, it had dropped to thirty-ninth. In the percentage of the population 25 years of age or older who are high school graduates, Texas ranked dead last in 2004, down from forty-fifth in 2000.
The statistic that counts the most in politics, though, is numbers of votes, and Hispanics’ numbers in Texas remain far below those of Anglos. In general elections, the lowest voter turnouts in the state, below 20 percent, occur in border counties that are overwhelmingly Hispanic. The same problem exists in the Hispanic neighborhoods in the big cities. In 2006, in a Houston state House district with a large Hispanic majority population, an Anglo, Kevin Bailey, won the Democratic primary with just 906 votes; his Hispanic opponent polled fewer than 400—this in a district with just over 133,000 people. Mike Baselice, the Republican pollster, has said for years that the trend line shows a consistent but slow increase in the statewide Hispanic vote of around one half of 1 percent per election cycle.
Why don’t Hispanics vote in greater numbers? The most obvious answer is that as many as half of them are not eligible because they are not citizens. The difference between the Hispanic immigrants and the European immigrants, Henry Cisneros once told me, is the difference between a river and an ocean. The European immigrants couldn’t easily go back. The Hispanic immigrants can. Thus, like Leonides Gonzalez, they see themselves as visitors. Many are here just to work and send money back to Mexico. Another reason is that, because of high birth rates, a greater proportion of the Hispanic population, compared with Anglos, is too young to vote. Anchía told me that kindergarten enrollment in Dallas public schools is 70 percent Hispanic. A third reason is something that Ruben Munguia, who was active in local San Antonio politics until his death, in 2003, told me: Mexican immigrants come from a country, and a political culture, in which the government never did anything for the people; it only did things to the people. But until Hispanic voter participation increases—if, for instance, outrage over immigration issues triumphs over inertia—any change in Texas politics will be gradual.
“I never thought about running for office, not even in my fraternity,” Anchía told me. An aide was driving us through his legislative district on a blustery December day that would bring a hard, chilling rain. The district is one of those odd zigzag creations of the Voting Rights Act, designed to provide a safe (in this case, 71 percent) Hispanic seat. The outline resembles a barbell standing on end, the population weighted at the top and bottom. It begins in the affluent Kessler Park area of Oak Cliff and runs north on either side of Interstate 35, past a landscape of rail yards, small businesses, warehouses, and a DART rapid-transit line that is under construction. To the west, across the Trinity River, are the barrio neighborhoods of La Bajada and Los Altos, denoting lower and higher ground near the river. Here the one-story dwellings are small and old, with frame constructions and long-faded paint jobs. Most are renter occupied, as are 64.3 percent of the homes in the district. But this may soon be prime real estate, Anchía told me. As we approached the river again, we could see the skyscrapers of downtown and the Hilton Anatole hotel, just a few hundred yards to the east, and the site of a planned bridge, part of the recently authorized Trinity River Corridor Project, which will surely bring gentrification. I wondered how the new residents will react to the bronze statue of nineteenth-century Mexican president Benito Juárez, which is prominently displayed in a neighborhood park.
Over lunch at a diner, we talked about his entry into politics. This was the first time I had seen him in an informal situation. His appearance is subtly old-world. A staffer told me that other Hispanics, upon encountering him for the first time, think he might be Cuban. His black hair is cut just long enough, maybe an inch, to comb to one side, and his eyes have a hint of gold that can make them seem ablaze when he speaks with intensity. He is short, about five foot eight, and friends who play sports with him but have never heard of jai alai say that he is built like a soccer player, with muscular calves. Until recently, he played volleyball, and fellow players say he was incredibly quick; the ball must have looked to him as if it were moving in slow motion compared with the speed of the jai alai ball.
He had always been interested in public service—“It’s because my mother is a teacher,” he said—and he was honored for his pro bono work as a lawyer. But his only political experience was block walking for Congressman Martin Frost in 1996. Then, in 2000, the Dallas Independent School District board member for the area in which Anchía lived opted not to run for reelection. The incumbent didn’t like the candidates who were vying to replace him, so he encouraged Anchía to run. So did then-councilwoman Laura Miller, then-mayor Ron Kirk, and the vice president of the education program at the chamber of commerce, as well as people he had met through the Leadership Dallas program.
“My first reaction was ‘No way,’” he said. “A lot of people had been chewed up by the school district. I wasn’t a political junkie. I was like any thirty-two-year-old; running for office didn’t appeal to me that much.” It especially did not appeal to his wife, Marissa, whom he had met when she applied for a job with David Dean and Rider Scott. (“She was drop-dead gorgeous,” Anchía told me.) Her father had been the longtime county judge in Hebbronville, the seat of Jim Hogg County, deep in the South Texas brush country. She knew the sacrifices the families of politicians had to make; his low salary in a poor county had almost bankrupted the family.
On election night, Anchía led a five-person race with 49.87 percent of the vote. But there had been a glitch in the printing of the ballots, and Anchía was able to ask for a recount. The new tally gave him 50.52 percent. He was officially in politics. Soon he was advocating for the passage of a new bond issue for a district in which one out of every four kids went to school in a portable. The exercise in coalition building necessary to win support for the mammoth proposal was his true education in politics. “There was less logrolling than you would expect,” he told me. “We hired an engineering firm to do an independent needs assessment and let that drive the decision of what should be in the package. It came back at $1.8 billion. We settled on $1.375. People said the voters wouldn’t invest in kids that aren’t theirs and don’t look like theirs, but we proved them wrong. People don’t give the electorate enough credit. They will do the right thing if you do enough confidence building.” The bond issue passed with 80 percent of the vote.
We resumed our drive north through the district. Along the freeway there was little commercial development and no residential housing. Beyond Parkland Hospital, which sits just outside the district, the lines widened to take in Love Field and the neighborhoods on either side. We drove through one that was next to the airfield. The houses were old, but they were brick; the residents were Hispanic. Next came apartment complexes, one after another. “These were designed for singles,” Anchía told me. “Now they are entirely Hispanic. Every elementary school we pass is at least ninety percent Hispanic.” One bore the name of the late Leonides Cigarroa, a prominent Laredo surgeon. At Interstate 635, we left Dallas and crossed into Farmers Branch. This is the top of the district, an aging suburb that became famous when it sought to prohibit landlords from renting to illegal aliens. Anchía pointed out a restaurant in a strip shopping center called Cuquita’s. “That was ground zero for the opponents of the ordinance,” he said. “The owner is a Republican woman who is fed up with the stance of her party.” Beyond Farmers Branch lay Carrollton, another suburb. “Do you know how to tell that Hispanics live in these houses?” Anchía asked me. I didn’t. “It’s the Ford F-150’s in the driveway,” he said.
I asked Anchía how he decided to run for the Legislature. “In December 2003 Steve Wolens [the legislator who had represented the district for 22 years and also happens to be Laura Miller’s husband] called to say that he would not seek reelection. ‘You’re running,’ he said.” Anchía filed for the seat. Another candidate, a longtime Hispanic pol, entered the race at the last minute but was disqualified for not residing in the district, and in November 2004 Anchía was elected without opposition.
Before another session came around, Anchía had to decide whether to run for mayor. In July 2006, moments after his second daughter was born, his cell phone rang. It was Ron Kirk. “Laura isn’t running,” Kirk said. He wanted Anchía to succeed her. “The timing wasn’t right for the family,” Anchía told me. “I didn’t feel that my work in the Legislature was done. I was going to have to ask a law firm to pay me to be mayor. What if things went badly for me? What if things went badly for the firm?” Then he added, “Timing is everything. I may not get another shot.”
The date Rafael Anchía has circled in the calendar of his mind for evaluating his political future is 2012. “It’s the year after redistricting, and we’ll know after the election whether we have a Democratic majority, or a bipartisan coalition, that makes it possible to get things done,” he told me. He has thought a lot about education. “What I saw on the school board was young girls [dropping out] in middle school to take care of younger siblings or enter the workforce. I think we’re too focused on engineering and mathematics. We need more emphasis on trades. The jobs we’re creating do not require engineering and mathematics. We need to have a dual track. Do we need the four-by-four curriculum?” (Students have been required to take four core courses—English, math, science, and social studies—for all four years of high school, but Anchía, along with three Republicans, passed a bill that allows students to replace one of the eight required math and science courses with a career course.) “Kids who do graduate have to go to vocational-technical school for ten thousand dollars or more. They have to borrow that money. Those schools are filling a vacuum. [Former DISD superintendent] Mike Moses used to say, ‘Kids aren’t buying what we’re selling.’”
It is much easier to buy what Anchía is selling: the future. One track that could lead him to the governorship in 2018 would be chairman of a major policy committee such as Public Education and then mayor of Dallas. Some political savants regard mayor as a dead-end job, but Cisneros used it to build a statewide constituency, and Bill White, in Houston, appears to be trying to do the same. The choice Anchía will have to make at some point is law or politics, and it will not be an easy one. But he gave an indication of where his heart lies when he told me, “I’d like to be a major committee chairman with a chance to do some things. But if we take control and run the House the same way it has been run, I’ll be disappointed in us. I would not want to be part of a majority like that.”
In our 2007 Best and Worst Legislators story, we wrote of Anchía, “If the Legislature were a stock market, he’d be Google. Recommendation: Buy.” That’s truer than ever. And the price is going up.