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.
Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

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.

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