For the final two weeks before Romero’s run-off, Pedro Parga canvassed many neighborhoods in southeast Fort Worth, using his Spanish language skills to try and convince Hispanics to vote, many for the first time.
Parga, a University of Texas at Arlington student, talked to about 300 people in those two weeks. Many of them were surprised to hear that a Hispanic was running to represent them at city hall. They were often skeptical that their votes would matter and, most importantly, completely unaware of the latent political power of their community.
“For the first generation, they don’t know that the power can be obtainable in the different levels of government. Sometimes, they don’t think it’s possible to have a Hispanic representative,” Parga said.
There actually isn’t much debate about how to fix that problem. Hispanics aren’t going to turn out at the same rate as blacks and whites until they are equally knowledgeable about the political process. A concentrated effort at long-term grassroots organizing could accomplish that. It’s just that no one has spent the time and money to do it.
Hispanic and liberal activists often say that the Texas Democratic Party dropped the ball 20 years ago. When Republicans took power in the early 1990s, slowly bleeding the Democratic Party of its moderate and conservative Anglos, Democratic leaders tried desperately to stem the flow.
They failed. Democrats haven’t won a statewide race in Texas since 1994.
“What I think we failed to realize was that the solution to our problem was not [appealing to moderate and conservative Anglo voters], but rather to grow our Hispanic base,” Hinojosa said. “That’s where we didn’t make strategically sound decisions in strengthening our party.”
Of course, there’s a serious financial gap at this point between the Democratic and Republican parties in Texas. What’s held Democrats back from broad organizing among Hispanics in recent years has been the huge financial investment required to create a successful message and inject it into Hispanic communities across this vast state.
In most Texas races, it’s difficult to find enough money to organize among lifelong black and white Democrats who can be expected to turn out and among Hispanics, who often lack a voting history and may need a bit more coaching about, say, the difference between a city council race and a congressional one.
Hinojosa remains convinced that Texas Democrats could attract more Hispanics to the polls, and he points to California as the prime example. In the 2010 mid-term elections, Latino turnout ensured that the state remained blue, but that was only possible because California’s powerful labor unions spent millions of dollars organizing among Hispanics.
“What we lack in Texas is the organizing force that occurred in California,” Hinojosa said. “And that’s something that you’re beginning to see more and more in Texas today.”
In July, two Hispanic state representatives, Ana Hernandez Luna of Houston and Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio, launched a new political action committee aimed at getting out the message to Hispanic voters. They’re hopeful that One Texas PAC, along with other voter engagement groups, can make a difference come November.
“It bothered me to know that we did not have a Hispanic leadership vehicle,” Martinez Fischer said. “The Democratic Party has a great message, but sometimes we don’t have the best messengers.”
The political action committee “has been on a rocket” all summer, he said, and is investing heavily in at least six state House races.
“When you talk to Hispanics, they want more than anything else to see people who look like them representing them,” he said. “As the state changes, and Hispanics begin to see folks just like them with the same life stories, I think that’s going to excite a few people.”
It won’t be easy getting there.
Romero experienced firsthand the amount of effort required to educate a community about the political process, but it’s just that kind of grassroots organizing that may turn the tables on Texas’ Republican establishment, he said.
It’s just not clear whether that will happen any time soon.
“People at my church say their children are into politics now,” he said. “There were tons of people on my Facebook page that thanked me and congratulated me for running. They said, ‘I’d never voted before, but now I’m going to vote in every election.’ These weren’t just 18-year-old kids. Some of them were 27, 28 years old.”
In smaller, local races, the candidates usually don’t pay for exit polling, so it’s hard to know how many Hispanics actually vote in them.
Like city council races in most places, overall turnout in District 8 was less than 10 percent for both the general primary and the run-off. Hispanics aren’t the only group that largely fails to show up in local elections, just the biggest, Romero said.
“This country should not be a country of 6 percent voter turnout,” he said. “We had lots and lots and lots of first time voters… . I hate that I lost. But we said from the very beginning: All districts should increase voter turnout.”
It’s a war of attrition: Organizing among Hispanics continuously until they have an ingrained culture of voting.
If Romero runs again next election –– which he is already considering –– Hispanic residents will remember him, Parga said. The first generation needs a model to follow. Without family members to set the example, candidates like Romero may need to try and try again until the turnout reaches a boiling point.
Given Romero’s near-win, the heat is on.
“I actually thought we were going to win,” Parga said. “If 79 more people would have gone out and voted, it would have made a big difference.”
In a second-story room in Fernando Florez’ house on South Hemphill Street, the walls are covered with dusty paintings of New Mexico landscapes and stoic Native Americans. There’s an enigmatic child playing with a toy and a nude portrait of a delicate white woman looking over her shoulder.
Florez once dabbled in the art business, and dozens of oil and acrylic paintings now languish in this 100-year-old house. For 25 years, he’s opened it up for political campaigns and meetings of the United Hispanic Council of Fort Worth and South Hemphill Heights Community Association.
An army veteran and longtime Fort Worth activist, Florez now spends most of his time drawing up redistricting maps to improve Hispanic representation on the city council.
He’s currently fighting against the maps approved by the council this summer.
“It gets a little discouraging,” he said. “People have been disenfranchised.”
He lists the ways the political establishment –– in Texas and elsewhere –– has tried to limit Hispanic voting: Voter ID laws. Redistricting. Anti-immigration laws. He holds up a news article with a photo of an anti-immigrant protest. The protester’s sign says, “MEX, Get the hell out of my country.”
Florez, one of four brothers who served in the military, seems to despair as he talks about it.
“America’s not going to change. We don’t want it to be like Mexico. We don’t want that, we just want to be part of America,” Florez said. “If we don’t get off our butts, this will continue.”
Ask anyone but Republicans about their policies of the last few years, and you’ll hear more or less the same observation: They seem more interested in scaring off the Hispanic vote than appealing to it.
Arizona’s “papers, please” law, which effectively requires local law enforcement to ferret out illegal immigrants, is perhaps the most extreme among many recent laws, but hardly unique. Texas Republicans’ passage of similar laws here, along with laws requiring photo identification at voting booths and the creation of political districts that dilute Hispanic voting power, likely haven’t improved their appeal.
With the exception of George W. Bush’s gubernatorial elections, most Hispanics who vote tend to treat GOP candidates like rabid circus elephants –– they keep a safe distance.
There is still disagreement, however, about how successfully Republicans could appeal to Hispanics in the future.
Joanne Green, a political science professor at Texas Christian University, believes the Hispanic community is not monolithic. As a culture, they’re usually socially conservative and fiscally liberal, to varying degrees, she said.
Green pointed to the election of Cuban-American Marco Rubio to the U.S. Senate from Florida, where the Republican successfully won over the large Cuban population, though she acknowledged that Cubans nationally are a smaller and more conservative subset among Hispanics.
“Both parties have a legitimate appeal to Hispanics,” Green said.
It happened in Texas too, where Ted Cruz, another Cuban-American and Tea Party favorite, is the state’s presumptive new Republican U.S. senator after winning a contentious primary. At the national political conventions this summer, both parties chose Hispanics for their first speakers: Cruz for the GOP and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro for the Democrats.
“Look at the prominence he got nationally,” Green said of Cruz’ quick rise to national stardom. “They are trying to court the Hispanic vote.”
Jillson sees things a bit differently.
Republicans are courting Hispanics –– even as they continue to disenfranchise them, Jillson said. He doesn’t buy for a second that Hispanics won’t see through the smoke screen.
“Their recruitment of Hispanics is like hauling rocks uphill,” he said of Republican efforts to compete with Democrats for the Hispanic vote.
After all, Cruz and Rubio didn’t win because of massive support among Hispanics. They won with the support of dedicated, largely white, right-wing bases. Asked why white Republicans would elect Hispanic candidates while simultaneously advocating policies that dilute Hispanic voting, Angle didn’t hesitate.
“People like Ted Cruz and Herman Cain and Condoleeza Rice make white Republicans feel good about themselves,” he said. “They get to say, ‘Well, geez if we’ve got somebody like that, we can’t be racist’.”
The reality is that while Hispanics are often socially conservative, they care deeply about education, Jillson said.
In Texas, that’s not an advantage for Republicans, who ripped $5.4 billion out of education last year, with additional cuts likely in the legislative session next year.
Major cuts to education in the first year that Hispanics become the majority of Texas public school children –– that doesn’t look good.
“They’re thinking, ‘I may be opposed to abortion and gay marriage, but when I look at the kids, that’s not what I worry about. I worry about education and healthcare’,” Jillson said.
The situation is ripe for Democrats to exploit, though it remains unclear if they’ll be able to take advantage of it, he said. And there’s an ongoing debate about whether Republican policies on voting and immigration will have a “chilling effect” on the Hispanic community, which Democrats say was the intent all along.
Green said the opposite effect is just as likely.
“If you talk about turnout, you’re talking about a community of people who are here legally,” she said. “If anything, I would think it has the potential to mobilize.”
Voting trends from previous elections suggest that as little as an 8 to 10 percent increase in Hispanic turnout could transform Texas, the country’s most populous Republican stronghold, into a battleground state. That could open up state offices to Democratic victories for the first time in 20 years, and make it extremely difficult for Republicans to win a national presidential election.
Until the November election results come in, it’s impossible to know for sure if the GOP’s hard-right policies have sufficient motivated the Hispanic community.
For Florez, the primary concern is not which political party wins the most Hispanic votes or whether Hispanic candidates are able to win elections.
“We’re not just for Hispanic candidates,” he said. “We’re just trying to get a seat at the table.”
Sitting behind his desk, flanked by a statue of a vaquero on a rearing horse and a Mexican tapestry, he said he’s tired of hearing fellow Hispanics say their voices don’t matter, that voting doesn’t matter.
Convincing them otherwise will take time. But he’s convinced they will come around sooner or later.
“I’m an optimist by nature,” he said. “In this business, you have to be.”