Friday, May 9, 2014

Democracy isn't always easy | Last Word

Tonight we honor Willie Velasquez, who would have turned 70 today had kidney cancer not taken his life nearly a quarter of a century ago.

I’d also like to honor, briefly, a man who played a small but telling role in the broader story of Willie’s efforts. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, Willie built San-Antonio-based Southwest Voter Registration Education Project into the nation’s largest non-partisan organization in the country dedicated to pulling Latinos into the political process.

Registering voters sounds like a simple, if tedious, job.

Tonight I’d like to tell a story that puts into perspective the task of registering Latino voters in the early days of Southwest Voter.

In 1977, I did some work for Willie Velasquez and Southwest Voter while looking for a full-time job after returning to San Antonio.

Mostly it involved editing reports and producing publications.

One day Willie asked me to go out to Pecos, a West Texas town about an hour from Midland.

At the time Southwest Voter organized a drive there, the population of 16,500 residents was about 54 percent Latino.

Yet only about 700 were registered to vote.

Willie wanted me to investigate troubles his coordinator and volunteers were having.

Some it was simple harassment.

“The police were always tailing us,” said Frank Perea, a Mobil Oil employee who moonlighted as Southwest Voter’s coordinator for the eight-county area.

And the tax assessor-collector, who was in charge of registering voters, didn’t hide how she felt about their efforts.

“She would tear up the registration cards for things like they didn’t have a phone number, even though the phone number was optional,” Perea said.

Perea and his volunteers nevertheless registered more than 2,000 Latinos, and Reeves County got its first Latino sheriff.

But Pecos’ Anglo city officials were not going down easily.

When Frank Perea decided to run for city council, he made a mistake.

He neglected to file his campaign finance reports.

Normally this leads to some bad publicity and a modest fine.

But instead, Perea said, the city secretary swore out a warrant for his arrest.

The police waited until Perea was campaigning at a Pecos dance hall one night.

Then, in full view of the crowd, handcuffed him and hauled him off to jail.

“It was timed to embarrass me in front of everybody there,” Perea said.

He posted bail and the charges were later dropped, presumably because Perea’s oversight was not a criminal offense.

He lost his City Council race.

But Perea clearly had reason to be concerned when he later decided to run for the Pecos school board.

He worried city leaders might try to get him fired.

This is where I get to say a few good words about the other man I want to honor.

Jim Winget was head of Mobil’s operations in the Midland area when Frank Perea called him to talk about his concerns.

Winget told him it was Mobil policy to encourage civic engagement.

He noted that he was on the Midland school board, and encouraged Perea to run for Pecos’s board.

What Perea didn’t know was that Winget was a serious Republican.

He was conservative enough to believe most the nation’s problems resulted from the tenure of Franklin Roosevelt.

But Winget believed in democracy, not in voter suppression.

So he encouraged an employee who was registering thousands of Democrats.

Many years later, Jim Winget would serve as Republican precinct chairman in San Antonio’s King William neighborhood.

The reason: His daughter and I lived nearby and had what was then his only grandchild.

And Frank Perea?

He would go on to serve three four-year terms on the Pecos school board – thanks to all those voters Willie’s organization helped him register.

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