On the road with Victor Morales, the schoolteacher from Crandall who hopes to drive Phil Gramm from the U.S. Senate.

June 1996By Comments

IN THE AGE OF OUTSIDER POLITICS, metaphors come cheap. No one knows this better than senatorial candidate Victor Morales, the 46-year-old high school government teacher who will face the formidable Phil Gramm this November. Last spring, in one of the most improbable upsets in Texas political history, the unknown Morales won the Democratic primary by defeating the party favorite, Congressman John Bryant; he did so by traveling more than 60,000 miles across Texas in his dented white pickup, using $8,000 in savings as his campaign fund, and not at all coincidentally, allowing himself to be turned into an icon. The victorious Morales was compared in the press to Cinderella, Don Quixote, Rocky Balboa, and David of Goliath fame, to Forrest Gump and Being There’s Chauncey Gardiner. He was labeled Señor Smith, as in Señor Smith goes to Washington.

The voters did not seem to mind that Morales was vague about his platform and weak on issues, that a question about rising gas prices could elicit a deer-in-the-headlights stare. They found him “down to earth” and “sincere” and thought it “refreshing” when he confided to one reporter, “I don’t have any formulated plans. What I have are life experiences.” Morales won big points for refusing money from political action committees, for refusing to open a headquarters in Highland Park, for refusing to stand on a phone book to enhance his five-foot-seven-inch frame during a speech. “I’ve learned a lot from him,” Senator Bob Kerrey, of Nebraska, a newfound supporter, gushed to a reporter. Senator John Breaux, of Louisiana, told the media, “He’s the type of candidate that public relations firms dream about. He’s natural and he’s real.”

Such accolades please the candidate, but they also cause his naturally taut jaw to clench even tighter. “Girl, this didn’t happen overnight,” Morales declares, evoking a movie line, as he sometimes does, for emphasis: “We played all the gin joints in town before this happened.” Dark haired and dark eyed, Morales bears little resemblance to any of the fey characters he is often compared to. He is instead an intense, sharply handsome man made more so by a recent sun burnishing received at the Rattlesnake Roundup in Freer and the Fiesta parade in San Antonio. In repose he has the sleepy smile and easy, whazzup manner of a high school hero, but repose is not a position Morales frequently assumes. Picture the best teacher you ever had—the most demanding, the most implacable, the most ferocious—and you will have some inkling of the determination that has propelled his campaign so far. “I’m gonna be myself,” Morales says, eschewing all com-parisons. “I’m gonna show Phil Gramm what a real honest man can be. He’ll have advisers, spin doctors. I’ll just be me. From the heart. If things don’t happen the way they’re supposed to, I don’t care,” he adds, only somewhat disingenuously. “For eight, nine months, I was by myself.”

And now he is not. By succeeding in the classic American role of the man beholden to no one, Victor Morales has created a genuine political ground swell. Ever since his victory over Bryant, the spacious HUD foreclosure Morales shares with his wife and two children in Crandall, an exurb 25 miles southeast of Dallas, has been inundated with $10 and $15 checks from as far away as Minnesota and as near as the west Dallas housing projects (“You are truly making American politics what it was intended to be all along,” one note read). The big checks have arrived from strangers in Florida (“If you can be Quixotic, so can I. Here’s $1,000”) and from more-familiar big-wigs, like San Antonio’s Morris Jaffe. There have been phone calls from state-wide power brokers, the temptations of private jets and ritzy hotel suites, the attention of major media: Morales has been profiled in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Miami Herald and on the Today show, Dateline, and CNN. Perhaps most important, he has sat for the obligatory, underdog-championing portrait in People.

But, with five months to go, success has brought ambivalence to the Morales campaign. The man who declares that “there were no free periods in my class” admits to being a bit weary. He is tired of fighting the press over the requisite “scandal” of this campaign, an ongoing battle with the federal government over his wife’s as yet unpaid 1978 scholarship loan. Like any candidate, he longs for more staff and more money. But unlike other candidates, he can’t have them. A victim of his own iconography, Morales must now maintain one of the most delicate—and certainly most curious—balancing acts of modern politics. The bigger he gets, the more like a typical politician he becomes, and the smaller his chances of victory. The only way Morales can possibly defeat Phil Gramm, one of the toughest, meanest competitors in the country, is to keep his operation small, remain true to the myth that anybody, no matter how inexperienced or naive, has a shot. “They’re tellin’ me stuff I already know,” Morales says of the political experts who are now jockeying for a ride on his tailgate. “‘Stay in the truck, Victor. Stay in the truck.’ And I’m goin’, ‘Duh.’”

THE U.S. SENATE RACE—RIGHT HERE,” VICTOR Morales says proudly, indicating the sunny, spacious kitchen where pots, pans, and snacks have been replaced by stacks of mail, invoices, rubber bands, paper clips, and a torn, finger-smudged calendar. “Victor’s new cell phone number” is scrawled in chalk on a small blackboard, along with a new campaign address, a Mesquite post office box. Tacked to a nearby wall is a map of Texas with Morales’ travels tracked in yellow marker, the work of his eleven-year-old daughter, Julia, and his nine-year-old son, Jesse. Out in the dining room, the table is buried under more correspondence, as is a fax machine (“Somebody sent that to us,” Morales says. “We gotta see how it works”), a video for first-time candidates titled Why Me? and a computer provided by the sole campaign staffer, the 23-year-old son of Vietnamese immigrants, Minh Huynh, a college student who still refers to his former high school teacher as Mr. Morales.

On this, another glorious spring day on the campaign trail, no one could accuse the candidate of manufacturing his little-guy status. It is Morales’ wife, Dani, who has nixed a proposed photo shoot with the drill team at Mesquite’s Poteet High School, where he is on leave for the duration of the campaign. “Victor? Drill team girls and you?” the candidate asks, imitating Dani with a definitive shudder. It falls to Minh to remind Morales that “there’s no such thing as off the record” in an interview and that the phrase “I kick butt,” even as a joke, has no place in a senatorial campaign. The phones ring constantly—not just the family phone but Victor’s cell phone and Minh’s cell phone, the only obvious concessions to big-time campaigning. Each time either answers his phone, he has to apologize for not returning an earlier call.

“Man, I ought to fire you,” Victor jokes to Minh, who is frantically paging through a small yellow pad to find the exact location of today’s rally at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Minh, who works for free, shoots back, “Yeah, cut my salary.”

For today’s event, Morales has changed from a crisp white T-shirt and pressed jeans into a crisp white button-down and a navy blue double-breasted pin-striped suit, a transformation that smooths his passage from high school teacher to senatorial nominee. Not that Morales is a candidate who needs much window dressing: “What I’ve experienced in my life has never been up there in the U.S. Senate,” he says, unwilling to admit or unaware that his story has all the elements of American political mythmaking.

As has been reported, he was born in Racine, Wisconsin, to a struggling family that eventually found its way to Pleasanton, where Morales’ father worked on road crews for the highway department. But when Victor was in his teens, his father abandoned the family, plunging it deeper into poverty; Victor’s mother, Helen, took up work as a maid and sometimes relied on welfare and food stamps. Victor, the eldest son, set about raising his siblings and assimilating. In small-town Texas in the fifties and the sixties, no one talked about ethnic pride. Morales, chased out of whites-only barbershops and enduring epithets like “taco bender,” resolved that the one way to compete in Anglo society was to get an education and blend in. Punished for speaking Spanish in school, he dropped the language, to his mother’s dismay. “I told my mom, ‘Mom, it’s America, okay? It’s not Mexico.’” (Today he admits that his Spanish is not up to campaign standards: “My pronunciation is terrible.”) Morales put himself through San Antonio College on a track scholarship until the inevitability of his being drafted caused him to enlist in the Navy reserves. He served briefly in the Philippines and in Vietnam. He married, finished college at Texas A&I in 1976, and divorced after the birth of a child, who is now 21 and in the U.S. military in Germany.

Meanwhile, Morales began to distinguish himself as a teacher, the vocation he had long aspired to. He poured his energies into his students, proud that when he taught athletics, his kids excelled at the president’s physical fit-ness test; teaching kids from low-income families at one Oak Cliff elementary school, Morales made sure his students were not denied access to archery, gymnastics, and bowling. To earn extra money, he taught dance and, at one studio, met Dani Shoemake, a redhead he subsequently married. (“We used to be Lucy and Ricky for a long time,” he cracks.) From that time on, Morales’ life continued at a placid if steady pace. He appeared to be simply another hardworking striver whose climb into the middle class was inexorable. “Mr. Morales, you deserve better,” he says his students would tell him. “Mr. Morales, you are made for bigger things.” He let the comments pass, but he did not disagree.

AT FIRST GLANCE, VICTOR MORALES’ TRUCK FALLS a little short as a symbol of American aspiration. First of all, it is a Nissan—not hearty and homespun, like a Chevy or a Ford. There are M&Ms on the floor, a crack is snaking across the windshield, and Post-it notes are on the dashboard. Because on this day he has forgotten to cover the doors with the big “Victor Morales for Senator” signs, he passes down the highway, from the cloud-swept plains of Crandall to the suburban strip centers of Arlington, almost unnoticed. In the early days of his campaign such anonymity was the norm, but the fervor and the kindness of the few who knew and understood kept him going—the elderly Hispanic woman who confessed to lighting candles for him and the overalled spectator who, during a campaign stop changed one of the Nissan’s bald tires so that Morales would not soil his suit.

Now those people wind up in Morales’ speeches, and the cell phone, transferred to the car, continues to ring with courtiers. Morales answers, listens to the caller, and is noncommittal. It’s a Houston political type, pushing a media adviser. “He told me, ‘He worked in the Reagan-Bush campaign, but he’s for you,’” Morales says, evincing a glimmer of contempt. The snubs of the campaign’s early days are still fresh in his mind, the politicians who would not call him back or who urged him not to waste his time. “I remember goin’ to his office,” Morales says of one who has recently called to offer support. “He said, ‘We’ll keep you in mind.’” As the cell phone continues to ring in fresh demands for meetings, fundraisers, and staff jobs, Morales, hanging up from another call, slaps his hand to his forehead. “For the thousandth time, I didn’t get here with a buncha money or a buncha organization, so why do they focus on it so intently now?” he snaps.

Among the instant legends currently affixed to the Morales campaign is that his students dared him to run for office. While this is essentially true, it is also true that Morales sensed the field was open. Voter apathy had created a vacuum: During the 1992 presidential campaign, he attended his precinct convention and found himself the only one present. Morales elected himself captain and sent himself to the county convention. “I took a vote; it was unanimous,” he says. “It was a wonderful political day for me.” He thoroughly enjoyed the county and state events, but a lack of money kept him from going to the national convention. He turned his attention to the Crandall city council after a chance visit provided him with a startling insight: “My God, these people aren’t any smarter than I am.” Morales ran against “somebody I didn’t want to win,” won on a second try,  and served on the council for two years. One day he caught Phil Gramm on TV. “I said, ‘Man, why won’t somebody run against this guy?’” Morales says. Then Victor Morales heard the call that fewer and fewer Americans are heeding: “Why not me?” He wondered, “Why not a schoolteacher?” Two other factors gave him hope: First, an unknown named Gary Espinosa had polled 230,000 votes against Ann Richards’ 800,000 in the last Democratic primary; second was a hunch that conventional wisdom can cut both ways. Politicos have long assumed that in a race with two minorities and an Anglo, the minority vote gets split between the minority candidates and the Anglo wins; in the 1996 Democratic primary, Morales assumed that candidates John Bryant, Jim Chapman, and John Odam would divide the Anglo vote. “The leadership,” Morales says slyly, “is never as smart as they think they are.”

I CAN’T GET THE TRUCK UP THERE. It’ll mess up my insides,” Morales grouses as Minh directs the candidate over a curb at UT-Arlington. Morales finally capitulates and drives over the sidewalk toward a group of about one hundred students wielding anti-Gramm placards. The leaders of the rally direct him to keep driving until he is at the center of the crowd; the truck, of course, has become a critical part of the act.

Morales does not have a speech prepared. “I’ve never written a thing down in eleven months,” he says. “It’s, like, ‘Live, it’s Saturday night!’” Even so, his opening remarks reveal a natural ability to satisfy the demands of anti-Washington voters—their distrust of established politicians—while speaking to the dreams of Mexican Americans, who sense that Morales has a chance to be the state’s first Hispanic senator. “My feeling was, as long as I had twelve bucks for gas, I would be all right,” Morales tells the crowd, describing his campaign’s early days. “I would ask people, ‘Share a taquito with me.’” Looking toward Washington he then says, “I want to teach but also to learn. But I won’t be an ambiache, a kiss-up.”

The question and answer session that follows has a desultory, obligatory feel, though Morales’ answers show some mastery over the thirty-second soundbite. Affirmative action, one of Gramm’s targets? “It’s not time to get rid of it yet.” Abortion? Morales is pro-choice but thinks there are too many abortions. Welfare cuts? Don’t confuse poor people with crooks. “That [Reagan administration] HUD scandal was big shots takin’ kickbacks.” Stricter immigration laws? “My grandparents came from Monterrey, Mexico. Let’s face it. A lot of people are coming because we’re hirin’ ’em.” A question about reducing the national debt, however, stops him cold. “Here we go,” Morales says. “I don’t know.” Instead of provoking derision in the crowd, Morales’ reply is met with slightly self-conscious cheers.

In explaining John Bryant’s loss to Morales, the experts point to several factors. They say that Bryant was unexciting, that he was too closely linked to Ann Richards and Jim Mattox, who were, in turn, too closely linked to the politics of special interests, whether they are monied (i.e., trial lawyers) or not (i.e., minorities and women). It has also been suggested, patronizingly, that voters might have confused Victor Morales with Attorney General Dan Morales and that the turnout for the runoff, an abysmal 5 percent, indicates nothing more than the continuing decline of voter interest. It may also be that, by the time of the runoff, Bryant simply lacked the funds to compete with a Cinderella candidate. Morales explains his success another way: in terms of class. “I don’t talk down to people, I talk to them. I’m one of them,” Morales says. “I’m the same way as everybody.” In a time of shrinking opportunities and growing class divisions, voters care far less about a candidate who knows better than about one who makes them feel better.

Back on the stump, Morales shows off his ability to do both by converting the rally into a facsimile of his high school government class. Answering a question on guns, “I have a gun, and you’re not gonna take my gun away from me,” he then asks the crowd, “Who can quote the Second Amendment to me? The right to bear arms? That’s not it,” he says, searching from one mute face to another. “Educa-shun,” he chants, “Educa-shun. Know what you’re talkin’ about.” On prayer in schools: “If you know your history, you know the Puritans came to the United States, and what did they do?” A few of the students in the crowd mumble something about perpetuating religious intolerance. “Educa-shun, educa-shun. Know your situa-shun,” Morales urges, polishing his rap. “Y’all are like my first-period class.” And so it goes, with Morales gently teaching the crowd—now double in size, brown, black, yellow, and white, young and old—how to become re-enfranchised.

At the end of the rally, the hat is passed. Today’s take of $50 would instill no fear in Phil Gramm. Off to the side, however, is something that might: the cameras for the vast Spanish-language networks, Telemundo and Univision, trained on Hispanic activist-professor José Angel Gutiérrez, another recent convert to the Morales cause. “Es una cruzada,” he says, “Es una esperanza.” It is a crusade, it is a hope; Victor Morales is holding fast as a symbol.

“I’m goin’ right up from teacher!” he exclaims on the way home, clapping his hands together and then pointing through the roof of his Nissan to the sky.

I’M GONNA GIVE YOU A SCOOP,” Morales says later in the afternoon, rummaging through stacks of videos in the living room while his son, Jesse, anxiously reminds him that it is almost time for his favorite show. Morales finds what he wants—a cassette from one of the recent school dance competitions in which he performed with the drill team—and pops it into the VCR. Set to the music of Prince, the video is titled “Purple Rain/I’m a Star.” To a scratchy, distorted soundtrack, Morales, dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, struts his stuff with a bevy of high school girls in an unabashedly sensual style. Morales swivels his hips and cocks his head in a way that suggests the 1996 Senate campaign was not, at that moment, a priority.

Seeing the tape in retrospect does, however, raise all kinds of questions about the nature of outsider politics. “I don’t dance for anybody” Morales is fond of saying, a phrase he repeats so often that it has become an unofficial campaign slogan for this candidate without history or obligations. It is the purity of Morales’ campaign—a reflection, ostensibly, of the purity of his character—that has raised the public’s hopes; what might once have been perceived as a lack of sophistication (dancing with the drill team, reciting the raps he uses to motivate fifteen-year-olds) is now a virtue. The bad guys are the inside-the-Beltway types, sophisticates so often portrayed as jaded self-dealing shills for special interests. That some of the best and the brightest have failed in the past has come to mean that all public servants are now suspect: In office, George Bush lacked vision; in office, Bill Clinton lacks character. Everyone is guilty, so popular reasoning goes, tainted by the political process itself. The electorate now views with disdain canny, compromise-seeking horse traders like Lyndon Johnson and Lloyd Bentsen (Bob Dole is their spiritual heir). They have been eclipsed by ideologues and symbols—Patty Murray, the homemaker senator from Washington; Paul Wellstone, the little-guy senator from Minnesota—whose ability to govern is, as yet, undetermined.

The dirty little secret is, of course, that only a portion of governing is symbolic; the rest requires knowledge, experience, shrewdness, and some additional, less-than-virtuous characteristics. Phil Gramm, regardless of his beliefs, has proven that he is willing to sacrifice purity for results; Victor Morales, untested, has not. Which is not the same as saying he will never be up to the job.

There is a story Morales tells casually, as if he has not yet found its use: When Morales was young, his father played the saxophone in dance halls around the state. Victor used to go along and, trusting the music, he taught himself the cha-cha and the cumbia. After his father left, Morales kept on taking the bus into San Antonio on weekends, dancing from two until midnight, always carrying with him several changes of clean white shirts. It isn’t the dancing but those shirts that stay in the mind—representing, even then, his awareness of public perception; of the power of appearances, of symbol over substance, of the importance of holding your own despite the pressure. “I don’t dance for anybody,” Morales insists, but his history shows how much he has longed to take the stage.

“ASK HIM THINGS HE’S GOING TO be able to answer,” a new, self-appointed volunteer whispers to a radio reporter approaching Morales. It is the day after the UT-Arlington rally, at a hastily thrown-together organization meeting upstairs at Kim Son, the cavernous Vietnamese restaurant in Houston that has become a nexus for the nonpolarized state and local political leaders. Considering the short notice, Morales has drawn a promising crowd; along with influential Hispanics (and the by now ubiquitous Univision and Telemundo cameras), he has attracted members of the Anglo, African American, and Asian communities. There are kids and older people, along with labor representatives—what used to be considered, before it became unfashionable, the makings of a powerful Democratic coalition.

Greeting people near the door is Mayor Bob Lanier’s education adviser, Leonel Castillo, a longtime Houston politico and, under Jimmy Carter, the chief of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. “I’ve worked campaigns for a lot of years, and I’ve never seen one like this,” he says, shaking his head in admiration. “Even Henry B. Gonzalez in ’57.” It seems an appropriate comparison—Texas’ first Hispanic senatorial candidate with Texas’ first Hispanic congressman, but Castillo sees a distinction, one that speaks to the changes in American politics in the last forty years. “Henry had a passion for ideas,” he says, adding without rancor, “Victor is more about charm.”

At this moment, however, it is the candidate who is being charmed. One woman pushes her “Victory Morales” bumper stickers. Another man compliments Morales for no longer wearing his glasses in public. A Teamsters representative wants to talk PAC donations. “The only thing that stands between you and Phil Gramm,” someone else tells him, as the candidate nods glassy-eyed, “is money.” The pros are moving in—indeed, an aide to Senator Bob Kerrey will soon be lending his expertise. Surrounded by the typical players of any campaign, Morales is beginning to look more like any other candidate—that is until, alone in the crowd, he slaps himself on both sides of the face in disbelief.

By the time he steps to the podium, however, he has pulled himself together. He is ready again to embody the myth, to dance to the music. “You get knocked down. Pero te levantas! You get up,” Morales says. “Don Quixote I might have been at the start, but now I see that windmill shakin’ all over the place.”

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