Downtown Fort Stockton is buzzing.
Rick Noriega, the Democratic Party’s nominee for the United States Senate, is dropping by this lazy West Texas town for a Wednesday afternoon eat-and-greet at Zero Stone Park, right behind the historic Pecos County Courthouse. It’s a rare visit from a senatorial candidate, but it’s not what has this community stirred up. About six blocks away, Pecos County State Bank is celebrating its 80th anniversary with a free-barbecue promotion. Every few minutes, local radio broadcasts are interrupted by updates from the barbecue, with precise information on how much food remains available. Even Noriega, after chatting with supporters, decides to swing by Pecos County State Bank for some retail
Getting upstaged by a bank barbecue in a town with fewer than 8,000 people — a place best known for Paisano Pete, the world’s largest roadrunner sculpture — could be seen as a warning sign. For the Democratic Party, which has lost eight consecutive electoral bids for this Senate seat to the GOP, it could be a hint that they’re about to send another hapless lamb to a November slaughter.
More likely, though, the low-key gathering is part of a Noriega strategy to mine for votes in far-flung, lightly populated areas that generally receive little consideration in statewide Texas elections. In a year when Barack Obama is pointedly defying electoral-college conventional wisdom by opting for a 50-state strategy, Noriega seems to be testing out his own 254-county strategy.
Noriega’s Fort Stockton rally is set for noon, but when the Houston-based state representative and his wife Melissa arrive at 12:23 p.m., the park is practically empty. They pull up in a tan Ford Explorer with New Mexico plates and Noriega campaign signs on the side doors. Casually dressed in a blue-and-white checked shirt with khaki pants and a black 36th Infantry Division cap — which simultaneously trumpets his military history with the National Guard and covers his bald pate — Noriega saunters over to a couple of Democratic loyalists.
Though the rectangular picnic tables gradually fill up for the taquito buffet, only 35 people ultimately turn up to hear Noriega speak. The small scale of the gathering allows him to stand directly in front of the attendees, without a microphone, and talk informally for about five minutes. Noriega is a fairly stilted speech maker, but he’s a loose, relaxed conversationalist, and in Fort Stockton, he’s in conversation mode: introducing himself to the uninitiated, theorizing about our national challenges, and revealing that this West Texas tour is a kind of birthday gift to Melissa (he took her for a feliz cumpleaños Dairy Queen Blizzard at a campaign stop a few days earlier). It’s only when you get past the placid, summer-picnic setting that you realize that Noriega’s themes are identical to the ones he emphasized a month earlier in a more formal, structured speech at the Democratic State Convention in Houston.
At the convention, Noriega hammered incumbent Senator John Cornyn for a lack of accountability. “Isn’t it time, this election, that we, the people of the state of Texas, hold the Junior Senator from this state as accountable as we would a private in the military armed forces of this country?”
In Fort Stockton, Noriega depicts Cornyn as an inaccessible, out-of-touch tool of powerful corporate interests, and brands him a “rubber stamp for the failed policies” of the Bush administration.
Santa Acosta, a candidate for Pecos County Tax Assessor-Collector, is hearing Noriega speak for the first time and comes away impressed. “I think he’s very sincere and I think he’s a fighter,” she says. “I think he’ll get things done, make things happen. And that’s what we need: to make things happen.”
Cornyn’s Senate seat is the defining example of the way the Republican Party has come to dominate this state. Over the last 47 years, Republicans have maintained an iron grip on Lyndon Johnson’s old post, effectively stunting the political growth of promising Democratic figures such as Lloyd Doggett and Ron Kirk. Conventional wisdom would argue that Noriega, like his Democratic predecessors, is facing long odds. He remains little-known outside his native Houston, he can’t compete with Cornyn’s fundraising prowess, and he’s an unabashed progressive in a state recognized as one of the most conservative in the nation.
On the other hand, 2008 is shaping up as a Democratic year, when frustration with rising gas prices, a national mortgage crisis, a sputtering economy, and the seemingly endless Iraq War are souring the nation on Republican policies.
On the surface at least, the 50-year-old Noriega would seem to possess the necessary credentials to pull an upset. As a military veteran who served 14 months in Afghanistan, he can push for a speedy pullout in Iraq without making himself vulnerable to attacks on his patriotism or national-security credentials. He’s also a church-going family man with a one-of-the-guys air and a jock background, as a baseball player at Alvin Junior College.
He’s served for nearly 10 years in the Texas House of Representatives, earning the praise of his peers in 2001 for sponsoring and pushing through a Texas version of the Dream Act, a piece of legislation that enables students who are undocumented immigrants to attend Texas colleges and universities if they’ve made it through the state’s school system.
Pete Gallego has served in the Texas House for 18 years, representing the state’s largest border district. He considers Noriega one of his best friends in the legislature.
“He’s got a good heart, he means well, and he’s a hard worker,” Gallego says. “He’s an idea guy, he’s not afraid to try new things. He was always the guy who said, ‘Why don’t we have a hearing on this?’ or ‘Why don’t we have a hearing on that?’ He was always on the leading edge of whatever topic is important to folks.”
Noriega’s solid, man-of-the-people résumé won’t prohibit Cornyn from depicting him as an arch elitist, but it might make his case less convincing.
Utimately, though, this election is a referendum on Cornyn and George W. Bush, two Texas politicians inextricably linked, through good times and bad. And Noriega knows that the more Texans focus on Cornyn, the better Noriega’s chances get.
“It’s recorded that 95 to 97 percent of his votes are with the Administration,” Noriega says of Cornyn. “Those are recorded votes and are typically with special interests of Washington, D.C.: the pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs, the large oil companies, etc. Therefore, he doesn’t represent the values and principles and needs of Texas families.
“This election is about a job review. Do we just say, ‘That’s OK?’ I think we’re at a point as an electorate where we’re in the ‘fool me twice’ phase. We’ve got to stand up for change and have folks that have proven credibility and leadership in addressing tough issues of the day, and not the special interests of Washington, D.C.”
In 1961, Texas was as thoroughly Democratic as any state in the union. No Texas Republican had served in the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction nearly a century earlier.
In 1961, Texas held a special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by Lyndon Johnson, who’d been elected Vice President the previous year. More than 70 candidates made a run, including two San Antonio liberal heroes: future Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez, and activist lawyer
Maury Maverick Jr. Exploiting the deeply split field, and the growing disenchantment of conservative Democrats with their party establishment, Republican John Tower finished first in the election and won a runoff against William Blakley. The tide had begun to turn for state Republicans, and by the mid-1980s, conservatives (including current Texas Governor Rick Perry) were defecting, en masse, to the GOP.
Noriega would love nothing better than to be John Tower in reverse, to provide the first Texas rumblings of a seismic shift back to the Democratic Party. Whenever those kinds of generation-defining shifts occur, two factors generally come into play for the party in power: ideological division and rampant arrogance.
With presidential nominee John McCain struggling to prove his conservative bona fides to the Republican base, the first problem is starting to emerge for the GOP. And critics of Cornyn, a Trinity University graduate and former district judge in San Antonio, would argue that his five-and-a-half years in the Senate have made him a poster child for political arrogance.
In 2004, the prepared text of a speech he gave to the Heritage Foundation infamously compared gay marriage to a union of a man and a box turtle, although he omitted the passage from his actual speech. The following year, he defended the PATRIOT Act’s intrusions into personal privacy by arguing, “None of your civil liberties matter much after you’re dead.”
Cornyn has stood with Bush on the Iraq War, tax cuts, energy policy, embryonic stem-cell research (voting against it), and, most recently, the new GI Bill, which both men opposed in its initial form, because they believed it would encourage enlisted personnel to leave the military.
Poll results suggest that Cornyn may be vulnerable this year, but they tell us little about the public’s thoughts on Noriega. An early May Rasmussen poll put Cornyn four points ahead of Noriega: 47 percent to 43 percent. A month later, the same polling service found that Cornyn had expanded his lead to 17 points, and the most recent findings show the race narrowing only slightly.
“It’s going to be next-to-impossible, if you have an ‘R’ next to your name, to rest on your laurels in 2008,” says Hans Klingler, spokesman for the Texas Republican Party (Cornyn did not respond to the Current’s request for an interview). “It’s a historic year. It’s the first time in 26 years that there’s not a Bush or Clinton on the ballot. Everything’s up for grabs.
“Senator Cornyn will campaign as though he’s 10 points behind. He won’t take anything for granted, because the Democrats are energized this year. They have a renewed vigor.”
Cornyn is aided by his bulging coffers, which found him resting on $8.7 million at the end of March (his most recent finance disclosure). At the same time, Noriega, fresh off a competitive Democratic primary campaign, had about $300,000, and he’s raised less than a million dollars since then, according to his own campaign.
Money and the momentum of the state’s Republican machine are not Noriega’s only problems. His loose willingness to go off-message, while appealing in small settings, can cause headaches when they appear as flippant quotes in the papers. On June 24, Noriega was quoted four times in Midland saying that the United States should respond to exorbitant gas prices by drilling for more oil in Iraq. His campaign hurriedly responded by saying that the remark was a joke, but if so, it was remarkably tone-deaf coming from a veteran and a consistent critic of the Iraq War.
In Fort Stockton, Noriega, not altogether convincingly, posits the Midland comment as a sarcastic shot at the Bush administration’s original intentions for war. “I was alluding to a foreign-policy failure,” he says. “Frankly, we still haven’t determined what the mission was. It’s changed so many times. It was an off-the-cuff remark as it applies to the fact that there are those who think that’s why we went in there. And even then, we messed it up.”
Not surprisingly, Republicans have jumped on the comment to raise questions about Noriega’s judgment. “It shows that Rick Noriega is not ready for prime time,“ Klingler says. “With our men and women serving in Iraq and the seriousness of the problems that we’re facing, that’s not something you joke about.”
Klingler adds: “`Noriega` acts like a cut garden hose. He criticizes without offering a plan.”
In fact, Noriega has provided proposals for the country’s gas-price crisis, pushing for what he calls a comprehensive “NASA-like plan” that will offer tax breaks to those who market renewable sources of energy and will also push for expanded mass transit.
“A big part of the price of gas is due to the weak dollar,” he says. “And the dollar is weak because we’re $9 trillion in debt. And we’re $9 trillion in debt because we’re in Iraq and spending $12 billion a month on a credit card. You want to do something right now? Pull our men and women out of Iraq, and you’ll see our dollar get stronger, because those dollars will be invested domestically.
“You can’t have all your eggs in one basket, because then you are incredibly vulnerable and you put our children and our grandchildren in a horrible circumstance — really in a national-security position of vulnerability. And that’s why we’ve got to change.”
As Noriega leaves his Fort Stockton rally, he stops to ponder the steep electoral mountain he’s attempting to scale.
“I fully recognized that we’re going to be outspent and outraised, because all the special-interest money is with him,” Noriega says. “On the other hand, we’re going to be doing the $25 from teachers and $10 from moms and pops. We have always recognized that this is a David and Goliath contest,” Noriega says.
“David wins,” Pete Gallego chimes in, with a laugh. “At the end of the story, David wins.”
Noriega adds: “Like Wilt Chamberlain says, ‘Nobody ever roots for Goliath.’” •