When the Democratic party’s presidential hopefuls take the stage together in Houston on September 12, just six weeks will have passed since the domestic terror attack at an El Paso Walmart left 22 people dead. The alleged shooter, a white man from Collin County who said he traveled hundreds of miles to El Paso to kill “Mexicans,” left behind a manifesto that echoed the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump administration. The violence has left many Latinos clamoring for answers and looking to the presidential race for a vigorous conversation about what comes next.
Texas Monthly spoke to fifteen Texas Democratic leaders, most of them Latino, about their expectations ahead of the debate at Texas Southern University. They want to hear a full-throated condemnation of the hate-fueled violence that led to the pain of this political moment, serious solutions that reflect that understanding, and candidates well-versed in Texas’s outsized role in a nation that’s experiencing rapid demographic change.
For Cesar Blanco, a Texas House representative and Navy veteran, the shooting is personal. It took place in his district; many of those killed were his constituents; his family shops at the targeted Walmart; and the vigil after the shooting took place on the same baseball field where he played Little League.
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“It’s the neighborhood I grew up in,” he said. “They say it hits close to home, but it f—ing happened at home.” Blanco says he wants to hear from the candidates, particularly the white ones, “an acknowledgement of white supremacy in this country and what action is going to be taken as a result.”
Political activist Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, who recently launched a bid to unseat incumbent Senator John Cornyn, says that as a Mexican American woman, she wants the candidates to point to the El Paso massacre as the tragic climax of the hate- and race-fueled politics that propelled Trump into the White House. “Whether trying to cut legal immigration, trying to undercount immigrants and their children in the U.S. census, or stop people from seeking asylum, it’s the same weapons as a poll tax and literacy tests to suppress the right to vote,” Tzintzún Ramirez says of the Trump administration’s policies.
One of the presidential candidates from Texas, former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro, says there’s much to criticize about Trump’s response to El Paso, especially his repeated signaling that he was open to universal background checks for gun purchases, before backing off after speaking to the NRA. Castro also said the white supremacist viewpoints he believes Trump is encouraging must be confronted, along with the president’s policy shortcomings.
“The vast majority of Americans are not racist, but some are, including this president,” Castro said during a phone call from a car in Des Moines, Iowa. “The [Democratic] party should not be afraid of embracing the truth and, unfortunately, the truth is that Trump is a bigot. There’s power in that truth.”
Texas Latinos are also insistent that ABC News make the El Paso attack, as well as its connections to immigration policy and white nationalism, a centerpiece of the debate. The possibility of a robust discussion increased when ABC announced last week that influential Univision anchor Jorge Ramos will be one of the three moderators, a journalist that Trump threw out of a press conference during his campaign with a controversial “Go back to Univision!” retort.
The Democratic National Committee, which does not control what questions are asked, instituted a rule for host networks requiring that the moderators must include female and minority representation.
Some Democratic leaders have expressed concerns about how journalists at the previous debates have used what they see as Republican talking points to ask questions about issues important to Latinos, especially immigration. At CNN’s first night of debates in July, moderators didn’t ask a single question about Donald Trump or family separations, but repeatedly peppered candidates about whether their proposals would encourage more illegal immigration.
At an August 12 meeting of party operatives at the DNC’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, Maria Urbina, national political director of progressive advocacy organization Indivisible, pressed DNC chairman Tom Perez about what was being done to address these concerns. According to a source who attended the meeting, Perez responded that the DNC has voiced its concerns to the networks about how they frame questions around immigration.
Reached between presidential campaign events in Iowa, former El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke says that it’s up to members of the press and the candidates to ”connect the dots for people about the president’s racism and rhetoric and invitation to violence and what we saw in El Paso and the way that so many Latinos and immigrants feel targeted today in this country.”
The debate could also test whether candidates, especially those not from Texas, are able to speak to voters in a state that’s usually neglected during presidential races. Democrats harbor some hopes of making Texas competitive in the 2020 presidential election, and the state’s thirty-eight electoral votes are a valuable cache for Democratic primary contenders. State representative Rafael Anchia of Dallas, chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, has some basic advice for non-Texan candidates on how to speak the political language of the Lone Star State. For instance, he says, Texans don’t talk about gun control, they talk about gun safety. The Texas economy is intimately tied with Mexico’s through trade, so any changes to NAFTA or other trade deals must be approached with care.
“Will Kamala [Harris], for example, have the lexicon to contextualize Texas in the national discussion?” he said. “No one has had to develop that lexicon because we’ve been a ruby red state, but now we’re a swing state.”
Many of the Texas Latinos acknowledged that fear of violence against communities of color has been exacerbated by the El Paso shooting. Manny Garcia, the executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, called the toxic brew of relatively easy access to guns and the stoking of anti-Latino hate a “grave” situation that could result in more mass shootings in Texas before the next president’s term. But many Latinos interviewed for this story viewed the shooting in a historical context. Mexican Americans have long been targets of mass violence in Texas; between 1848 and 1928, at least 232 people of Mexican descent were killed by mob violence or lynchings, including at the hands of law enforcement. At the same time, they said they want the presidential candidates to understand that the Latino community’s resilience isn’t new either.
“It’s important to look at how El Paso has responded in the aftermath of the massacre. We are responding no different than black Americans responded pre-civil rights,” Blanco said. “While we are afraid, just like African Americans have been afraid in the past, there is hope that we will overcome. There is hope that the country will change for the better. El Paso is taking the approach that we know there are good people in the country that will help us overcome this hatred.”