This is a perpetual lament in Texas Democatic politics, only the lack of Hispanic participation was worse than usual. One obvious reason for the dropoff compared to 2002 was that an Hispanic, Tony Sanchez, was the Democratic nominee for governor four years ago, while the candidate this year was Chris Bell, who was unknown in South Texas. Here are some comparisons in voter turnout in South Texas counties.

Cameron (Brownsville):
2002 -45,754
2006 – 41,022
This is about a 10% decline.

Hidalgo (McAllen):
2002 – 71,844
2006 – 47,802
One of the lowest percentage turnouts in the state (17%). In round numbers, this represents a 33% decrease in voting.

Maverick (Eagle Pass):
2002 – 6,352
2006 – 2,997
Lowest percentage turnout of any county in the state (15%), a decline of more than half.

2002 – 6,240
2006 – 6,382
The totals represented a 23% turnout in both years. In 2002, this was the lowest in the state

2002 – 39,241
2006 – 18,388
This is Tony Sanchez’s home county, which accounts for the large turnout in 02. This year, turnout was only 18% of registered voters.

A correspondent for South Texas Chisme, a political blog, addressed the issue:

“What’s up with the decreasing Hispanic voter turnout? The Caller-Times speculates it was a combination of the popularity of [Republican Nueces County Judge candidate] Loyd Neal, the beach access issue, and the lack of a big-name Democratic candidate at the top of the ballot. Maybe I’m dense, but it seems only the third factor would depress Democratic voter turnout, and the beach issue would (arguably) cancel that out. [State Representative and blogger] Aaron Pena suggests that the South Texas voters have been neglected by the state party structure. But this area has been routinely ignored by all aspects of state government for over a century; nothing new there. Here in Corpus, blockwalkers were falling all over each other in the west-side precincts. Many of the low-performing neighborhoods had 4 or 5 visits to each door. Moreover, Chris Bell campaigned almost non-stop in the area the week before the election.

“Pena does bring up an interesting aspect in his analysis: he mentions the fact that the patron system is dying, and the politiqueras have started working for whoever pays them most handsomely, regardless of polical party. Pena may be on to something. Could the habit of working non-stop for the Democratic candidate with the fattest wallet in the primary, and then the Republican in the general election, be giving the average west-side Hispanic the idea that all politics is corrupt? Since very few people reading this blog are average west-side Hispanic voters, I may never know the answer to that question.

“There is some grumbling from a few Anglo activists, who believe the Democratic Party should abandon the Hispanic area targeting, in favor of an emphasis on increasing voter turnout in working class southside neighborhoods containing a higher percentage of Anglos. They make one valid point–why waste time, money, and energy on a populace that stays home anyway? Unfortunately, I come away from these discussions feeling a subtle form of racism–a friend called it elitism–the sense that Hispanics just aren’t quite intelligent enough to grasp the basic idea that voting is the most important way to have a voice in government. I’m willing to bet that the people with whom I’ve discussed this have no clue how difficult it is to pay attention to current events when you’re working two jobs, and you STILL have to figure out how to feed the family for two days with the last $10 before payday. Voting today will not change things overnight.

“The non-voters I know have all said the same things: it makes no difference how I vote, things will never change. Politicians are in it for their own enrichment, no matter the party affiliation. Is this because of the vultures who work for the highest bidder? Is it the persistent neglect of South Texas? Is it the mind-numbing exhaustion of poverty?

“Give me your thoughts. Better still, give me a solution. As a majority Hispanic area, we are risking relegation to the scrap heap as a voting populace.”

OK, here are my thoughts: Poverty has something to do with it. When Ernesto Cortes began his efforts to organize the Hispanic community of San Antonio into a political force back in the seventies, with financial backing from the Catholic Church, the first place he went was the “courts,” local parlance for housing projects. To his surprise, he couldn’t arouse much interest among the poor. Then he began to focus his attention on natural leaders who ran organizations in the schools and churches–working class people who had jobs and owned their own homes–and he was able to build the organization known as COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service), which became a permanent part of the San Antonio power structure and spawned similar organizations across Texas. The people he brought into COPS had a stake in the political system. They wanted improved streets and drainage, more street lights and more parks. And they got them. The problems of the poor are so severe–unemployment, lack of education, health issues, neighborhood crime–that the political system can not easily address their needs. But it can deliver neighborhood improvements for the middle class.

History and culture play a role as well. I learned a great deal about the history of Hispanic political involvement in San Antonio from the late Ruben Mungia, one of a group of World War II vets who came back to their community determined to have a voice in their city’s affairs. Ruben’s father (who was Henry Cisneros’s grandfather) was a printer in Mexico who came to San Antonio in the twenties when the revolution turned left. “In Mexico, the government never did anything FOR you,” Ruben told me. “It only did things TO you.” That culture was transplanted to Texas, where the patron system evolved, in which local political bosses exchanged favors–which were often benevolent, such as paying for funerals or even college education–for votes. This was palanca politics: Pull the [Democratic] lever and shut your eyes to what was going on. Today, politics in South Texas frequently resembles a battle of clans in which power is an end in itself–particularly since good jobs are scarce and government (cities, counties, schools) is the major employer. Candidates tinged with scandal nonetheless seek higher office, knowing that if they win the Democratic primary, they are likely to win in November on party loyalty alone. But there have been so many stories over the years of politicians who let their communities down that disillusionment is widespread. One such story appeared in TEXAS MONTHLY; my colleague Cecilia Balli chronicled the rise and fall of Conrado Cantu, a constable in Cameron County who won public acclaim for fighting crime and drugs and went on to be elected sheriff, only to be convicted of accepting payoffs to provide protection to drug smugglers. The old formula failed to work in Nueces County this year; Republicans elected a county judge and a sheriff because the Democratic candidates for county judge was the retiring sheriff, who had endured a scandal in the county jail, and the Democratic candidate to succeed him as sheriff had some of the same baggage.

There is only one answer. Democrats are going to have recruit and elect clean candidates like Juan Garcia, who defeated Gene Seaman in Corpus Christi, or they will continue to lose ground to Republicans. And their candidates have to campaign with issue-oriented messages, not appeals to pull the lever. This doesn’t mean that South Texas politics should be like, say, Collin County politics. But it can’t be about pachangas, politiqueras, and patrons either.

The November 12 posting in Aaron Pena’s blog that the writer in “South Texas Chisme” referred to seems exactly right to me:

“I am frequently asked why incumbent Court of Appeals Judge Fred Hinojosa lost his race to Rose Vela out of Corpus Christi. It seems to be out of character with the Democratic sweep across the nation and the Democratic victories in Texas. I usually respond with the obvious, namely the strong measure of respect the Vela name carries in South Texas, the growing numbers of Hispanics in the middle and upper classes and an effective advertising or advocacy effort. This coupled with the sad legacy of South Texas boss or strongman politics which relied heavily on patron managed turnout rather than the advocacy of ideas. Lastly and likely coupled with the rest was turnout in this particular election. No longer able to effectively turn to boss politicians, neglect of the fundamentals and the community by the state and national party has led to less than favorable turnout levels. In a community dominated historically by one party rule, lacking competitive elections in the general election and the near absence of party infrastructure, Republicans may see increased success in South Texas.

“The success of Governor Perry (Bell received only 41% of the Hispanic vote) in South Texas and the recent Republican victory in the 13th Court of Appeals did not come without warning. Many of us in this region have for over a decade warned state officials of the effects of continued neglect. Party officials repeatedly dismissed our protestations and instead relied heavily on strongman politics and an untrustworthy politiquera (vote harvester) system. I say untrustworthy because politqueras now go to the highest bidder and today that is increasingly the Republican. This is sadly the beginning of more to come. The next wave of elections will likely see more of the same unless action is taken.

“With an expected rise in the competition for the South Texas vote by the two parties, Austin and Washington’s neglect may yet be remedied with a return to the fundamentals of service to the needs of the community and in respectfully making our case to the individual voter. Coupled with strong and true principles, with an honest commitment to service (to people), a victors salvation comes from respecting rather than neglecting the voter.

“In meeting rooms quiet discussions among politicos about the circumstances of the Hinojosa-Vela race are being observed. Republicans will try to replicate the recipe of success in the next cycle. Democratic leaders would be wise to learn from the mistakes perpetuated over generations. The false comfort of the old methods are making the party in South Texas less competitive. The old patron, patronage driven system is dead, as it should be! In it’s place should be a principle and service driven advocacy for the hearts and minds of our neighbors and the citizens of our state. Only time will tell.”