EDINBURG, Dec. 5 - State Rep. Aaron Peña says the dream that sweeping demographic changes in Texas will somehow come to the rescue of the State Democratic Party is an illusion.
The Edinburg Democrat says a growing percentage of Hispanics are shifting over to the Republican Party in part because his party no longer reflects their values. And, he predicts his party faces decades in the political wilderness in Texas.
“The Democratic Party in Texas has got decades of rebuilding to do. Their dream of demographic salvation is an illusion,” Peña said, in an in-depth interview with the Guardian about his party’s rout at the Nov. 2 general election.
“Hispanics are not being engaged with by the Texas Democratic Party. In percentages, they are moving over to the Republican ranks, as we saw in Corpus Christi,” Peña said. “As long as Republicans can get over 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, they will dominate Texas for my lifetime. And that is what is happening. That is why, after the next redistricting, not the one coming up, you will see Cameron County with a Republican leadership.”
Peña gave his comments after studying the carnage that occurred to his party on Election Night. Twenty two Democrats lost their seats in the Texas House of Representatives, giving Republicans a huge 99-51 advantage. Among those to go down to defeat were three of his colleagues from the Coastal Bend region, state Reps. Solomon Ortiz, Jr., D-Corpus Christi, Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, and Yvonne Gonzalez-Toureilles, D-Alice.
Most shocking of all, veteran Congressman Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, lost his seat to a relatively unknown Republican, Corpus Christi businessman Blake Farenthold. And, almost as surprising, in a 13th Court of Appeals race, veteran Justice Linda Yañez, a Democrat from Edinburg, lost her seat to another Republican with little name ID, Greg Perkes.
Peña said he was not entirely surprised with the sweeping gains Republicans made in the Coastal Bend area. “I have been saying Nueces County would become all-Republican. Democrats have been at war with each other for decades there and the State Democratic Party has not provided any leadership on the question,” he said. “I believe the growing strength of Republicans in Nueces County is a harbinger of what may happen across South Texas in years to come.”
Asked why Democrats were struggling, Peña said there were a number of reasons. One is that the vibrancy that comes with new ideas and spirited debate is missing, he said.
“The problem is the Democratic Party in Texas is mired in an old system from 100 years ago when the future is one of ideas and advocacy. They simply have not adapted to the modern world. The State Democratic Party is on life support across most of the state,” Peña said.
“Party members need to stop taking orders from a handful of people in Dallas and start thinking and doing things for themselves. They are the solution they have been waiting for. Washington and Austin Democrats are not the voices of South Texas. South Texans are.”
Peña said that by speaking out he knows he will make some party leaders mad. However, he said he does not care. “Who else is talking? There is nobody saying anything,” he said.
Peña said he has been warning of impending doom for his party over the past decade. In 2000, before he became a state representative, he started running for the chairmanship of the State Democratic Party. He dropped out of the race after the death of one of his children.
“I am angry about this because I have been saying these things for over a decade. When I ran for party chair ten years ago I told them this was going to happen unless things changed,” Peña said. “They fought me every step of the way.”
Peña included consultants in his criticism. “Consultants have their place, but they should not dominate. Consultants want you to spend money so they can make money,” he said.
Peña said that under his party’s failed leadership over the past decade, valuable resources have squandered on a few swing seats in East Texas. Why, because the leadership of the party was based in North Texas and East Texas.
“They have completely ignored South Texas and other parts of urban Texas. They have spent a disproportionate amount of time and money on swing voters who never come over. It has happened in every race since we started losing. They have not engaged with the base of the Democratic Party. You need to do both (swing voters and base party voters) but they have spent nearly every penny on swing voters,” Peña said.
“Unfortunately, a handful of people in Dallas and Austin have led the debate. The Democratic Party, unfortunately, is standing on one financial leg and that is the trial lawyers.”
Asked if it would help if the State Democratic Party’s central office was based on the border, Peña said: “No. That would be purely symbolic. I don’t think so. That does not sort out the source of the problem.” He gave a similar reply when asked if it would help if the chair of the State Democratic Party was Hispanic.
Peña was asked where the State Democratic Party was failing when it comes to public policy issues. He gave three examples.
“Many Hispanics, and especially rural Hispanics, support gun rights. The Democratic Party, traditionally, has not been very receptive to Second Amendment Rights.
“Many older Hispanics are Pro-Life yet the Democratic Party does not seem to be very reflective of that or respective of that position.
“Many Hispanics are pro-small business and many open and run small businesses, yet the State Democratic Party and those who say they speak for it do not stand with small businesses on many issues.
“These are examples of what has happened, so people have become increasingly polarized. When there is no Center in the Democratic Party or when there is a diminishing Center… we have lost the business vote, we are losing the rural Hispanic vote and we have lost much of the Anglo vote. Those people are not, necessarily, hard conservatives. But, increasingly, they have lost identity with the Democratic Party.”
Peña said he has seen examples of moderate and conservative Democrats being ostracized within the Texas House. “The party needs to stop attacking its centrists. They have lost the business community, they lost Main Street Texans and they attack the moderates who represent them. There is always talk about primary opponents and it will no doubt come up again,” he said.
Another problem for Democrats, particularly in South Texas, is corruption, Peña said.
“Democrats have to address the corruption in their ranks. People are looking for alternatives to the corrupt system that exists in some areas in the Democratic ranks,” he said. Asked to expand on this charge, Peña said: “I am talking about the patronage system, the idea that you build fiefdoms with patronage instead of ideas. People become loyal because they have a job, rather than advocacy and standing for issues that matter.”
In some parts of Texas, including South Texas, some Democrats are forced to run as Republicans, Peña said. “This is because the machines, the fiefdoms, do not let them through. These people are not necessarily hard conservatives. They are pragmatists. If this continues, the pragmatic center of the Democratic Party will be gone,” he said.
Peña concluded his remarks by predicting that the State Democratic Party is in for a “decades-long” rebuilding effort.
“But, what is going to happen because of these lost years is they are going to see an increased loss of about ten percent of the Hispanic population. They are going to go over to the Republican Party,” he said.
The one bright spot for Democrats would be if Republicans overreach, Peña added.
“Republicans can overplay their hand. It is happening right now. There are some Republicans who are taking the mid term victories for a mandate for further movement to the Right. Most Texans are Right of Center, not far Right of Center. Like some Democrats they would rather make a point than win,” he said.
This story appeared in the Rio Grande Guardian (@rgguardian) on December 5, 2010. Steve Taylor author.