DALLAS — At a time when Latinos in other parts of the country are starving to elect more of their own to high office, Texas has laid out a feast. This year, in the Lone Star State, there are nine Latinos running for statewide office.
And two--oil businessman A.R. "Tony" Sanchez Jr. and former state Atty. Gen. Dan Morales--are aiming for the top. Both are slugging it out for the Democratic nomination and the chance to square-off against Republican Gov. Rick Perry. If either Sanchez or Morales beats Perry, he will make history by becoming Texas' first Latino governor since the days of the Alamo.
But at least as interesting as the fact that there are two Latinos vying for the governorship is how there came to be two in the first place. That story begins last September, when Sanchez, a regent for the University of Texas, announced his candidacy. The timing was perfect. Some Democrats, still smarting from the mugging they got from Gov. George W. Bush in his 1998 reelection, in which he took nearly 50% of the Latino vote, were warming up to the idea of running a Latino at the top of the ticket as the surest way to keep Latino voters from straying off the hacienda.
Not that there was any consensus that Sanchez should be that candidate. Some Democrats preferred Henry G. Cisneros, who had just moved back to San Antonio from Los Angeles, where he had served as president and chief executive of the television network Univision. Cisneros was asked repeatedly if he was interested in the job, and repeatedly he said "no."
Instead, Cisneros said he was going to support Sanchez. Even with that valuable endorsement, Sanchez is a first-time candidate whose political base is the modest border town of Laredo--his hometown and that of seven generations of forebears. And so, his campaign might have been dismissed with a smirk by Democratic Party bigwigs if not for one thing: a personal fortune estimated to be in the (highly exclusive) neighborhood of $600 million.
That bankroll represents the fruits of Sanchez O'Brien Oil & Gas Corp., a successful energy-exploration company that Sanchez launched with his now-deceased father nearly 30 years ago, and a series of profitable ventures since, including investments in banks throughout south Texas.
More impressive to Democrats was Sanchez' pledge to spend as much as $30 million of it to pay his way in a battle against Perry. That assurance, together with the millions of dollars that Sanchez had contributed to Democratic candidates over the years, largely cleared the field of Democratic challengers.
But with a state this big, there is always someone who doesn't get the memo. In this case, that someone is Morales.
Once the golden boy of Texas politics, Morales spent last fall telling reporters that he was planning to run for the U.S. Senate against Republican Phil Gramm. Morales didn't seem concerned about the cloud under which he had retired from politics in 1998. Actually, it was less a cloud than a smoke ring.
Texas' participation in the multibillion-dollar lawsuit against tobacco firms put $17.3 billion into state coffers that year. It also put Morales in hot water with state and federal officials, who have investigated allegations that Morales, in utilizing the services of private attorneys in the tobacco case, funneled millions in legal fees to a lawyer friend. Morales denies any wrongdoing and says the issue has been kept alive by political foes intent on keeping him out of politics.
Then came the September surprise. On the same day that Sanchez crisscrossed Texas in his private jet to announce his candidacy, Gramm called it a Senate career and announced that he would step down at the end of this term. Within weeks, more names were mentioned as likely candidates for the Democratic Senate nomination.
Among them were Rep. Ken Bentsen of Houston, the nephew of Lloyd Bentsen, the former U.S. senator and Treasury secretary, and Ron Kirk, who, in 1995, became the first African American elected mayor of Dallas, with 62% of the vote.
The Kirk candidacy sent Democrats' imagination into overdrive. There was talk of a "rainbow ticket"--Sanchez for governor, Kirk for Senate and a former state comptroller named John Sharp, a white male, running for lieutenant governor.
But before Kirk could complete the rainbow, he had to defeat at least two likely opponents, each with higher name recognition. Worse, while Morales had not yet formally entered the race, he was outscoring Kirk in polls of likely Democratic voters.
The Democrats didn't just have one Mexican American too many; they had the potential of outright racial conflict.
In Texas, as elsewhere, many assume that gains for Latinos mean losses for African Americans. That doesn't go down well with the racial group formerly known as the nation's largest minority. Worried that, if Kirk was not on the ballot, African Americans, a loyal constituency, would "go fishing" on election day, party leaders decreed that Morales had to be kept out of the race.