December 17th, 2010
Peña’s Political Leap is Really About Democrats

Truth be told, Texas state Rep. Aaron Peña’s outing himself as a Republican is not the scandal we may think it is. It’s the natural succession of political tendencies that have crept to the farthest and final bastions of the Texas Democratic political-machine establishment.

My grandfather was a stalwart Democrat. He was a businessman who cared for his community and was involved in the back-room dealings of local politics. He was also conservative, and although he may tussle where he lies, if he were alive today it wouldn’t surprise me if he were Republican.

The thing is that there’s been a slow Republican flow moving through Texas for decades. This used to be a one party state and traces of republicans or republicanism were rare. The fact that Texas is now considered a red states ignores the deeply blue corners of the southern tip where Democrats have held sway for many generations of politicians, voters, and activists.

Little by little the red wave has made it’s way south and Peña’s defection is no more than a plot point in a larger political story.

On the other hand, if you get into the weeds of the matter and ask some needed questions the story becomes compelling, in the way a train wreck gets your attention, and engrossing, the way whispered gossip makes you focus your listening.

Let’s keep our questions to one. Why now?

The fact that Peña was recently re-elected is of lesser consequence than the fact that the state legislature will soon go into session and the battles that loom are enormous.  Both sides of the political isle in Austin are preparing for epic horse trading in redistricting and spending bills. Something or someone has a powerful persuasive hold over the good representative form Edinburg, and it may just be himself. It may just be that he felt the time was finally right for a public switch (as would be expected, Monday morning political hacks are saying Peña was never really a Democrat). It could also be that the Democratic machine in the deepest part of Texas has grown rusty, tired and predictable.

We can’t ignore the fact that Peña didn’t only move away from something; in that same swoop he move toward a welcoming Republican party. And think what you may of him or of his new comrades in political arms, his former party mates had no idea what to do about it. They stutter-stepped, they flabbergasted, then they brought out their paddles for the trip up the proverbial creek.

Peña’s defection changes the political balance in Austin, and that may well be the reason, motive and bottom line.

Was he smart for doing it? He’s one of the cool kids now, but how long will that last? Just because one politico found the stones to jump doesn’t mean his constituents will follow him. Or does it? This story, then, is not so much about Peña’s leap or the lure of the Republican party. This is about a stale Democratic organization with very visible cracks in it’s old walls. It’s about the years and generations of Democratic leadership taking its south Texas constituents for granted. It’s about a needed change in the way Latinos in Texas do their political business. It’s a pail-of-ice-water wake up call, and in that sense it’s about time.

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5 thoughts on “Peña’s Political Leap is Really About Democrats

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  3. There may be a silver lining in Peña’s move after all. He’ll face a solid Democrat in the general election. A contested general election has to increase voter turnout. Too many Democrat State Reps have no opposition in the general election and do nothing to increase voter turnout. What for? They have nothing to loose. These candidates continue to pull less than 35% of their district’s vote. In the Valley, for sure, Pena’s voters in the general election will most likely also vote for the Democrat Party’s senatorial candidate, as will his opponent’s. In one of his last articles, Carlos agreed with what many of us argue that the more minority the Democrat Party becomes, the the more red the state and he wrote in the Texas Observer that the turnout in the general election in South Texas “tends to drop dramatically” since most contests are decided in the spring. I say to my friend that it’s not just in the valley but throughout the state. Peña’s race in 2012 may cost him his future politically, but it may just begin to repair those old walls your talking about. No hay otra salida.

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  5. Party Switching

    Aaron Peña’s switch reminds me of then State Representative Pedro Nieto’s move to the Republican Party right after he was elected as a Democrat in 1994. In an interview in La Voz de Uvalde County, Pedro said he did it because he would be able to bring home more bacon to Uvalde and the surrounding area. While tacos de bacon and eggs always sound good to me, the voters in his district quickly reminded him that he was not going to be the waiter doing the serving, and they promptly booted him out in the next election.

    But party switching has also gone the other way in the Uvalde area.

    In the fall of 1968, Dave C. Howard won re-election as the Democratic State Representative from the Uvalde area. This was the same seat that the late Dolph Briscoe once held in the 1950s. In January of 1969, Mr. Howard, along with all the others who got elected, made the trip to Austin to be sworn in and begin work on the people’s business.

    As the various members went before the microphone on the floor of the house to say a few words and celebrate their return or arrival, it was soon Mr. Howard’s turn. Just as he tapped the mic, cleared his throat and began to speak, he abruptly stopped, and without warning, suffered a massive heart attack and died right there on the floor in front of everyone, including all the kiddies! A four day recess was called and Mr. Howard was brought back for burial.

    Governor Preston Smith, as per the constitution, called for a special election. A total of 10 people filed and everyone said there was bound to be a run-off election with so many candidates. Sure enough, no one got the 50% plus one to win outright. The two top vote getters were, Gabriel Tafolla, 26, a school teacher, and a Democrat from Uvalde and the other guy was John Poerner, 36, a businessman, and a Republican from Hondo, Texas. Well, the thinking was that Mr. Tafolla appeared to be the right guy in the right place at the right time. After all, this was the Democratic seat that Dolph Briscoe once held from 1949 to 1955. (La cosa estaba de cincho!)

    On February 27, 1969, after the ballots were in and counted, John Poerner defeated Gabriel Tafolla! We couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t believe it. I was only 16 years old and this was the first political campaign I had worked on. How could Uvalde turn its back on a man from el pueblo? This was Democratic country, que no?

    The answer is no. The answer is, it depends. En este caso, Gabriel Tafolla had a pigmentation problem. He had a surname problem and his bigote was too big. Stated differently, Gabriel Tafolla may have been in the right place at the right time, but his was not the right color. He was a Mexican American. Más bien dicho, he was a Chicano. But this in not the end of the story.

    About five months after John Poerner became the state representative he held a news conference to announce that he was changing his party affiliation so as to “better reflect his constituency.” So John Poerner became a Democrat and just like that, (snap of the fingers) Uvalde and the surrounding area were once again became Democratic country.

    When Jose Angel Gutierrez, Carlos Guerra, Mario Compean and all the others were launching La Raza Unida Party about 5 months later and were arguing that there was no difference between Democrats and Republicans, it was not a hard sell. Hell, we in Uvalde, Texas had just watched first hand what had happened.

    But this was forty one years ago. Today things are different. The times have changed Really?

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