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Family Politics

Writer-at-large Jan Jarboe Russell on talking to Mary Alice Cisneros about politics.

By May 2007Comments

texasmonthly.com: How long have you been following the story of Mary Alice Cisneros?

Jan Jarboe Russell: I first met Mary Alice in 1975, during Henry’s first campaign for city council. I was a young reporter for the now-defunct San Antonio Light newspaper. Sometimes on Saturday mornings Mary Alice would come to the newsroom and deliver press releases for Henry’s campaign. They both were smart enough to know that Saturday was a good day to make news because Sunday’s newspaper was the biggest of the week.

Their first daughter, Teresa, was a little girl, and I remember that during the campaign Mary Alice was pregnant with their second daughter, Mercedes, who was born a month after Henry’s election. For that first campaign, Mary Alice contacted people from the West Side who had thrown wedding showers for them when they were married in 1969. The whole campaign was very grass-roots and folksy. Mary Alice typed all Henry’s press releases on an old Corona typewriter, and the people around them were all family and friends. When he won on Election Day, he was only 27 years old, the youngest councilman elected in the city’s history. Mary Alice was as happy about it as he was.

texasmonthly.com: Where do you think she’ll go from here? What about Henry?

JJR: I’m not sure what her future is—it depends on how she likes the actual day-to-day job of serving on the city council. Her heart is in helping individual people, so I expect her to do very well when it comes to constituent service. Who knows, she may be one of those women who decide to fill their empty nest with full-time political service. She is free to do whatever she wants, and she has the talent and contacts to take this as far as she wants to take it.

As for Henry, despite his flaws, he’s still the best hope for the Democratic Party in Texas. During his entire time as a councilman and mayor of San Antonio, Henry never really faced a difficult challenge in getting elected. He’s never been through a hard-fought campaign. The question now is the same question that has haunted Henry his entire career, Does he really want to be governor of Texas or hold any other state-wide office? Right now, the answer to that question is apparently no. If in the future he decides with certainty to go for it, he’d have a good chance.

texasmonthly.com: You have covered the Cisneros family a lot (like your cover story in 2001 on John Paul). Any particular reason?

JJR: It was an accident of geography. I started my career at the San Antonio Light when Henry made that first race. Since then, Henry and Mary Alice Cisneros have been major characters in the ongoing narrative of the city. It was impossible to live and work in San Antonio and not cover this family.

texasmonthly.com: I know for that story the family wasn’t extremely willing to give you a lot of access. Were they the same way for this one?

JJR: I had pretty good access. Henry is extremely busy, and it’s always difficult to get on his schedule. Mary Alice was terrific—she gave me all the time I needed.

texasmonthly.com: What was the most challenging part of writing this story?

JJR: I would have liked more room to describe Mary Alice’s family history. It really is interesting. Her grandparents owned one of the pecan-shelling companies on the West Side, which occupy a mythic space in the city’s history. These workers were usually immigrants from Mexico who worked for pennies a day. I always think of these workers—most of whom were women—as an important part of the raw energy that made San Antonio what it is. Today, we are a city of many Fortune 500 firms, but in the shadow of that success are these hard-working families like Mary Alice’s that worked hard to provide for their children. It’s what makes San Antonio feel like San Antonio to me.

texasmonthly.com: You compare Henry with both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Who is Mary Alice an example of? Hillary?

JJR: I don’t think of Mary Alice and Hillary as the same prototype. Mary Alice never tried to present herself to the public as co-mayor the way that Hillary and Bill Clinton clearly tried to package themselves as a team. Mary Alice was more of a traditional wife who has now come into full bloom. I don’t know exactly who that makes her like—perhaps herself, which is the point of this whole story. She’s of that age when she finally has time and space to live out her own destiny.

texasmonthly.com: How much time did you get to spend with the Cisneroses? It seemed like Henry didn’t have that much to say.

JJR: Henry was very careful to make this race about Mary Alice—not him. During the announcement, people teased him about the need to perfect his “adoring smile,” like the one Nancy Reagan made famous. He took the teasing well, but made it clear that he was worried about stealing Mary Alice’s thunder. He seemed very proud of her and happy that she’s decided to do it.

At one point during the announcement, one of their friends suggested John Paul might one day run for city council himself and perhaps even mayor. Both Henry and Mary Alice laughed nervously. Neither of them thinks John Paul’s interest is in politics—the boy is born for medicine.

texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you found out? What surprised you most?

JJR: For someone who weighs 105 pounds and is so tiny, Mary Alice certainly does have an appetite. Several times during the interviews and at the party at Mi Terra restaurant, Mary Alice talked about liking to munch on pan dulce and joked about needing to take taco breaks.

The other thing that surprised me is that when Henry and Mary Alice gave me a tour of their newly renovated house, I was surprised to see that John Paul had an office right next to his dad’s office. John Paul’s office was filled with medical drawings, and Henry’s was filled with books. Apparently, the two of them spent long evenings working side-by-side until John Paul went off to college. I don’t know that many kids who have offices adjacent to their father’s office. Clearly, John Paul was a serious student. Both Henry and Mary Alice stood in John Paul’s empty office and talked about how proud they are of him and how much they miss him.

texasmonthly.com: Anything else I should know about the story?

JJR: If she runs for mayor, I look forward to doing a follow-up.

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