Friday, June 22, 2012

Informed Hispanic voters | Casey's Last Word

Before last month’s election I talked to a professional political numbers-cruncher in Houston, a man whose analyses of the political lay of the land in that city I had come to admire.

His firm had been involved in some San Antonio races, so I was curious how he was handicapping some of the contests here. One of his comments surprised me.

The race between Bexar County Tax Assessor-Collector Sylvia Romo and long-time Congressman Lloyd Doggett of Austin was, he said, “Romo’s to lose.”

His reasoning was that the Republican Legislature (with assent of federal courts) had finally succeeded, on their third try, in drawing a district that they thought Democratic nemesis Doggett was likely to lose.

For one thing, nearly half the district was in Bexar County, where Romo had served both as state representative and long-time tax assessor. It was foreign territory to Doggett. Only about a third was in Doggett’s Travis County.

For another, in both counties the portions carved out for the district were heavily Hispanic. The Bexar County portion was 69 percent Hispanic, and the Travis County section 65 percent.

This, the expert felt, gave Romo a decided advantage. It was an advantage, but not enough to counter Doggett’s advantage: He was a better candidate.

Doggett carried the district’s Bexar County portion by 54 percent to Romo’s 38 percent. A third candidate, Maria Luisa Alvarado, won 8 percent.

And Doggett carried Travis County with 93 percent of the vote. District-wide, he won with 73 percent to Romo’s 23 percent.

Why the lopsided victory? Doggett heavily outspent Romo and worked the new district with his customary energy.

But Romo failed by running a campaign based on the simple fact that she is Hispanic. Appearing on Texas Week with Doggett and Alvarado, Romo gave the argument spice, if not force.

After praising Doggett for his work in Washington, she said the district was drawn to be a Hispanic district, and needed to have a Hispanic representative.

“I can’t know what it is like to have a vasectomy,” she told Doggett, adding sexual identity to her ethnic argument. “And you can’t know what it is like to walk in my shoes, or my high heels.”

History shows that this argument isn’t enough for Hispanic voters here, at least in low-turnout elections like this one in which those who vote tend to have paid attention.

The best example came in 1995 when a San Antonio mayor’s race drew six candidates, only one of whom had a Spanish surname. It was Cisneros, not a bad surname in the Hispanic community. But Joseph Cisneros was a gadfly who had failed repeatedly at the polls.

He garnered 6 percent of the vote.

San Antonio voters are like the rest of us. If they don’t know anything about the candidates, they’ll tend to vote for the ones most like themselves.

In 1989, the normally low-turnout election for the board of the Edwards Underground Water District shared the ballot with a referendum on whether to establish a sales tax to build what would become the Alamodome – an election that drew hordes of football fans, especially from the Hispanic community, where Mayor Henry Cisneros campaigned heavily for the dome.

The result was that the late Fay Sinkin, a long-time champion of aquifer protection and a veteran on the river authority board, lost to a candidate named Charles Rodriguez who barely campaigned. His only political “asset” was that he shared the name of a recently disgraced police chief who had been forced to resign.

It is no surprise that voters, whatever their ethnicity, act irrationally and tribally when they know nothing about the candidates.

But political experts and candidates themselves who expect that kind of voting from informed Hispanic voters are in for a surprise.

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