The Senator From San Antonio
Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, on Wendy Davis, Dan Patrick, and why she doesn’t hold grudges.
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San Antonio’s Leticia Van de Putte may be a pharmacist by training, but her calling has been her work in the Legislature: she served in the House for ten years before winning a special election to the Senate in 1999, where she has served ever since. Now the 59-year-old Democrat stands as her party’s nominee for lieutenant governor. In the November election she will face Dan Patrick, a fiery Republican senator from Houston who defeated the incumbent, David Dewhurst, in a primary runoff in May.
Brian D. Sweany: Senator, we’re talking one week after the state Democratic convention, and I’m wondering if it accomplished what you had hoped it would.
Leticia Van de Putte: The Democratic convention is always a place where you see the activists in the party: the precinct chairs, the people who will walk around their neighborhoods and call their family and friends. So I think of it like I’m seeing my family. What was amazing to me was the number of young people and the increased diversity. And by increased diversity, I mean I saw so many veterans and their families. I saw a lot of small-business owners. I saw a lot of folks who are involved in their chambers of commerce. I saw farmers and ranchers. I saw inner-city business folks. Quite frankly, I didn’t see that diversity four years ago.
BDS: How do you think that will translate in the November election? The convention is about “family,” but you’ll have to reach beyond that group to be competitive.
LVDP: My family is anybody who wants to put Texas first. I’m not going to appeal to those voters who want to divide us and harp on issues that don’t create jobs or don’t solve our infrastructure problems. But if you’re here for Texas, if you understand our responsibility to the next generation, then I think my message is going to resonate. I’m known as a centrist Democrat, and I have always been a pro-business Democrat.
BDS: As you said at the convention, you’re not an “East Coast liberal.”
LVDP: I’m a small-business owner who is very proud to be a Democrat. I think that we do our state harm when we portray all Democrats as left-wing liberals or all Republicans as far-right extremists. I belong to a big party with diverse interests, and we’re not going to agree 100 percent on every single issue. But what we do agree on is that you move forward, and you do the things that are going to create success for the future. When I look at the Democratic convention, we were having fun, we were energized, we had hope. When I look at the Republican convention, they were mad, they were angry, and that was quite visible. Now, are both bases energized? Of course. But, you know, the Democratic party went through its own purity battles. It didn’t work out very well. When the pendulum swings too far to one side, in time the people will correct that.
BDS: The 2014 elections are a transformative year because you have so much activity in the major statewide races. The Republicans had very competitive primaries with multiple candidates, but I can’t say the same for the Democrats. For example, your nominee for agriculture commissioner, Jim Hogan, isn’t campaigning and he didn’t attend the convention. Does that bother you? Can you truly call the Democrats a statewide party?
LVDP: I haven’t met our nominee for agriculture commissioner, Mr. Hogan, but he reminds me of a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington type: he’s a populist, and he’s an ag person, a farmer. When I think about the Democratic party, I think we’re in a much better position than anyone anticipated. Four years ago, we had a few people working in an office in Austin. Now we have a vibrancy—we have more than forty full-time employees, but they’re not drinking coffee in Austin. They are working across the state and they are organizing voters. When I went to Amarillo for a campaign event, there were more than 250 people there. We didn’t have Annie’s List three years ago. We didn’t have Battleground Texas. This was supposed to have been a building year for Battleground Texas, so if you told me last year that they would have made more than a million and a half phone calls and signed up 14,000 volunteers, I would have been surprised. But of course if you’d told me last year at this time that I’d be running for lieutenant governor, I would have been surprised.
BDS: Despite the energy on the Democratic side, in the March primaries you turned out about 500,000 voters while the Republicans turned out about 1.33 million voters. Do those numbers suggest a gap in your party’s ability to communicate your values and connect with voters who are receptive to your message?
LVDP: I think we always have to improve. Am I content with those numbers? Absolutely not. But I’m not content with the numbers in Texas period. When you have such low voter participation, that’s not good for anybody. We should all be trying to figure out how we get more people engaged. So I think it’s a challenge for all of us, but I am convinced that we will have great numbers in the fall.
BDS: I was on the floor of the Senate on the night of Senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster, when you posed your question about twenty minutes until midnight: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand, or her voice, to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” That was the moment the gallery just exploded.
LVDP: It was 11:48. The building was shaking. It was a little scary.
BDS: You know the exact time?
LVDP: That’s what I was told. I was trying to be recognized, but I realized my mike had been turned off. The press could hear me. The gallery could hear me. And I knew I was in the queue. And all the other male senators kept being recognized. And I don’t think—and let me tell you, I respect and love Robert Duncan [the Republican senator who was presiding over the Senate]. But when you’re on that dais, you see a light come up when a senator wants to be recognized, but if the mike is turned off, the light doesn’t come on. It wasn’t that he was ignoring me; he didn’t know that I was in the queue.
BDS: Who do you think turned off the mikes?
LVDP: I have no idea, but there were a lot of shenanigans going on that evening.
BDS: Is that the moment that you considered running for lieutenant governor?
LVDP: Well, no. I had never planned to be there that day. We held the funeral service for my dad late that afternoon at Fort Sam, in San Antonio, and I was not planning on returning to Austin. My colleagues in the Senate, both Republican and Democrat, had told me that Wendy was supposed to start her filibuster and that they were just going to let her ride it out and then they would call a special session the next morning. I don’t know when that changed. But I do know that my family was gathered for supper, and my kids and grandkids had put together a photo montage of Bimple—that’s what they called my father. And about the time I was looking at that on my iPad, my chief of staff, Gilbert Loredo, who has been with me for seventeen years, came up and said, “I hate to tell you this, but they just called Senator Davis on the second point of order.” I said, “What do you mean, point of order? Isn’t she just talking?” He said, “No. They changed the plans. They’ve got two Republican senators on thirty-minute shifts, and one is watching everything she does and one is watching everything she says. They’ve decided they’re not going to let her achieve this.”
At that moment I looked up, and there’s a picture on my iPad from when I was governor for a day; I’d called out my dad, and he was standing up and blowing me kisses. And I thought of all the times that my dad stood up for me. The memories just kept coming back, of things like that he would do when I was introduced to his friends, you know, and they would say, “Oh, what a pretty little girl,” or in Spanish, “Oh, qué niña más bonita.” And my dad says, it’s the first thing out of his mouth, “She’s the smartest in her class. Es la más inteligente.” I wasn’t, but because my dad said I was, I thought I might be. And because I thought I might be, I studied a lot. And then I never had the Barbie girl figure, so I understand the little girl growing up in the fifties and the sixties who had big thighs. So what my dad taught me was that it wasn’t what I looked like, it was how smart I was and the strength that I had. My dad was so formative in those early years, when the messages to girls were very different. All that came rushing back, and I looked at Gilbert and said, “I have to go.” Then I said, “If they’ve already called the second point of order, I won’t make it.” He says, “I have DPS outside.”
I went because I thought that if Wendy saw me, she might get some strength from that, but I never intended to say anything, because I was at the bottom of an emotional well. I had nothing left. And it wasn’t just about my dad’s death—we had also lost our grandson during the session. I said what I said out of frustration. I wasn’t thinking about my political future. But it was a toxic summer. It was hurtful to see how the collegiality and the good work that we had done during the legislative session—and we did good work during the legislative session—was tossed aside.
BDS: So when did you decide to run for lieutenant governor?
LVDP: I was watching the Republicans battle it out for lieutenant governor, and I was appalled. There was nothing about how we value teachers and education. Nothing about roads and water. It was horrible, vile language about immigration. And I’m thinking, “This is what we have?” And there were good people who kept telling me, “Could you think about running?” It was past legislators, Republican and Democrat. And I said, “Ah, I don’t think so. I just can’t.” And as I kept hearing this, I thought, “Oh, no, what if Dan Patrick wins?”
BDS: You’ve worked closely with Senator Patrick. What is your sense of him as a colleague and as an opponent?
LVDP: He sits in front of me on the Senate floor, and there are rare moments when Dan and I have a conversation about grandbabies or kids. But I don’t know who’s going to show up. I don’t know if it’s radio-personality Dan, showman Dan—I never know.
BDS: Do you think that he’s an insincere figure, or do you think that he—
LVDP: No. All I know is that I work with everybody, and I try to achieve what’s best on the policy side. I never really saw myself as running for lieutenant governor, and I’ve been very proud and very happy to be a state senator from San Antonio. For me it’s been about the public policy, the work, and what we’ve been able to accomplish. With Dan it’s about the show, it’s about the sound bite. I just never know his temperament or how to approach him. You know when you’re looking someone in the eye and you’re trying to talk with him? With Dan, he’s looking at you, but he’s looking over his shoulder to see if someone more important walks in. Or he’s already thinking of the retort, so while he may be listening, I don’t know that he’s really hearing what you’re saying. So it’s not that he’s insincere, I just don’t know who he is.
BDS: You may remember that in 2001 we wrote a story about your first session in the Senate. How have you changed as a senator in that time—or how do you think the chamber has changed?
LVDP: I’ve learned that you have to have a top-notch staff, and you’ve got to trust your staff. I’m on two committees that meet at the same time. And the working relationships with the senators is so important, and you have to trust them as well. The majority of the work happens in committee before a bill even hits the floor. In the House you can see what’s going on. It’s very transparent. In the Senate it’s harder to figure out. The conversations you have with other senators and their staff is so important because there are fewer members in the Senate than the House. Bad communication can derail good public policy. [Laughing.] I also learned that Republicans aren’t the enemy: the enemy of the Senate is the House. And the real emotional issues are not necessarily partisan: consider water—who has it and who doesn’t? I’ve served under great lieutenant governors, so it’s about making sure we do our work and we put that first.
BDS: I know you never served under Bob Bullock, but I seem to recall that you touch a bust of him in the Capitol every day before you enter the Senate chamber.
LVDP: Every day. Still do.
BDS: If you win in November, Senator Patrick will be out of office because his term will have expired.
LVDP: That’s correct.
BDS: If Senator Patrick wins, you will still be in the Senate. Would that be difficult for you, to serve under your opponent?
LVDP: We’re adults. I don’t have the luxury in this atmosphere of holding grudges and being interested in revenge, and it’s not my nature to do so anyhow. I’m just not that person. I would expect that I will continue to represent San Antonio, and I will continue to do the work. But you know, I can’t fathom losing. I really can visualize myself on that dais, and I know I would be a good lieutenant governor. l respect everybody, and I could put together the right folks who could tackle the issues. And you know, that’s been the beauty of the Legislature. It’s a deliberative body, and you tap people for their skill set, not their tenure. You tap people for their ability and their passion.