The entry of Leticia Van de Putte into the race for lieutenant governor will be closely watched for its impact on Hispanic turnout. Democrats have been waiting for the Hispanic vote to start influencing Texas elections in a big way, but it just hasn’t happened. Exactly why the Hispanic vote hasn’t matured remains a mystery. A big Hispanic turnout was supposed to boost the Democrats’ multicultural “Dream Team” ticket in 2002, but it didn’t materialize, and Rick Perry easily defeated Democratic nominee Tony Sanchez to win the race for governor. The Hispanic vote has not been a factor in any subsequent election.
I have a high regard for Van de Putte as a politician, who earned a spot on this year’s Ten Best legislators list. She is no ideologue. She’ll work with the other side — and did so during the regular session, when she joined forces with Rick Perry to push for more rigor in House Bill 5. She’ll be an asset to Wendy Davis on the Democratic ticket, and she’ll be a worthy opponent for whoever wins the Republican primary.
One of the problems for Democrats is that in counties with large Hispanic populations, particularly in South Texas, the primary is where the action is, not the general election. In the Rio Grande Valley, the races that motivate are those for local positions — city councils, school boards, and courthouse jobs. The elections frequently come down to a battle of one prominent family against another. The winner gains power and something else that is very important in areas that suffer from poverty: good-paying jobs. Another issue for Democrats is that the Hispanic vote is by no means unilaterally Democratic. Republican candidates such as John Cornyn and Rick Perry have always been able to count on a third or so of the Hispanic vote. A lot of Hispanic voters are small business operators who are traditional conservatives.
And then there is the problem of history. Hispanics emigrated to America from a country whose government seldom did things FOR people, but rather did things TO people. In such circumstances, the degree of trust or belief in government and politicians was, and remains, negligible. All too easily, the culture of Mexican politics was transplanted to the Texas side of the border.
Van de Putte’s job, then, is to motivate Hispanics to vote. If she and Davis can do it, they have a chance to transform Texas politics. But Democrats have been waiting for the so-called “brown wave” to roll over Texas for generations, and no such event has appeared. At the very least, she will be a strong running mate for Davis and she can be a strong advocate for the Democratic ticket as well. It’s still going to be an uphill battle, at best.