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.

June 2001By Comments

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 issue during the campaign, but the media won’t let you get away with it. They will ask you whether you would sign a parental consent abortion bill and whether you think Texas should legalize abortion if a Bush Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. Then there are going to be some kamikaze liberals who don’t like oilmen, bankers, and rich guys who back Republicans, and you’re all three. These disaffected Democrats won’t vote for Perry, but they might vote Green if, as rumor has it, Jim Hightower or another big-name liberal seeks the nomination. Or they may stay home on Election Day—unless you give them a reason not to.

Do your homework. Maybe the Cuellar spat did you a favor: It provided a hard lesson on the importance of showing the public that you’re up to the job of governing Texas. I sure hope you learned it. From now on, you have to treat running for governor as your full-time job and leave the running of your business empire to others. You’re going to have to learn the issues facing Texas—and, believe me, they’re not easy. We face an impending school-finance crisis, we may need a tax increase in 2003 or massive spending cuts, Medicaid is a bottomless pit, nursing homes are closing, highways are clogged, and the list goes on and on. And you’re also going to be asked some tough personal questions—about the Cuellar incident and about your past involvement in politics and business. You can count on it.

Avoid the stereotype. You have not one but two stereotypes to overcome. One is the rich businessman who decides he wants to be governor but doesn’t have a clue what it involves; remember Claytie Williams? The other is the South Texas patrón. I don’t believe that a Hispanic politician with an inclusive message faces any overt bias in today’s Texas—but there is some wariness. South Texas has a long and colorful history involving patróns and jefes, feuds and infighting, and legendary political hardball (Box 13 in Lyndon Johnson’s 1948 Senate race comes to mind). It’s great to read about as our past, but not so great to contemplate as our future. The greatest damage of your fight with Henry Cuellar is that it brought the stereotype to life: the jefe who is obsessed with his political enemies and whose henchman hires private detectives to investigate them. It is inconceivable to think of Henry Cisneros falling into such behavior, or the late congressman Henry B. Gonzalez, or current railroad commissioner Tony Garza. You must rise above it.

Don’t play the numbers game. Every scenario I have heard from your supporters is based on a mammoth Hispanic turnout. The assumption is that if the turnout in 2002 is around 1998’s figure of 3.7 million, you will be able to attract enough new Hispanic voters out of a pool of several million (some of whom are currently unregistered to vote, some of whom are registered but seldom vote) to overcome the Republican leanings of a majority of regular Texas voters. The trouble with this theory is that a high-profile race usually drives up turnout on both sides. The higher the turnout, the more new voters you need. Sorry, Tony, but you’re going to have to win the hard way—by crafting a message with statewide appeal and building a coalition that includes a lot of swing voters.

Folks around the Capitol are betting that you won’t run—that the Cuellar blowup and the time you’ll have to spend and the scrutiny and criticism you’ll have to endure without being able to fight back will cause you to decide against making the race. I hope they’re wrong. If you work hard, if you hire a top-notch team, if you can persuade voters that you are in it for the right reasons, you can win. But win or lose, Texas politics will be better if you run.

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