Victory Grabbers: Female Candidates Were Primed for the Primaries

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ILLUSTRATION BY CARLOS AGUILAR
  • Illustration by Carlos Aguilar
Campaign consultant Laura Barberena cringes a little at the suggestion that female candidates scored so many victories in last week’s Texas primaries because President Donald Trump had given maleness a bad name. Or that the #MeToo movement was behind it all.

“It’s not as though people said, ‘Let me vote for the one who has a vagina,’” Barberena said. “There’s a rush to simplify this. It’s more complicated than that.”

She added: “You have to understand – these women worked really hard.”

The 51-year-old Barberena did, too. She helped Joe Gonzales crush District Attorney Nico LaHood in the Democratic primary. In fact, when we reached her Saturday afternoon, she was at campaign headquarters with a colleague preparing for the general election against Republican Tylden Shaeffer. She also worked for Democrat Melissa Vara, who beat her male opponent by 40 percentage points in a County Court-at-Law race.

The election night results are clear-cut, even if all of the reasons for them aren’t. Female candidates made huge gains over previous midterm primary elections, when the president’s party frequently loses seats in Congress. A Brookings Institution report released Thursday showed Texas women won three times as many races for their party’s nomination for congressional seats than in 2014, the last midterm elections.

In Congressional District 23, which stretches from San Antonio nearly to El Paso, Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer, took 41 percent of the vote against four other Democrats – including Jay Huling, a one-time House intelligence committee staffer who was endorsed by Julián and Joaquín Castro. She’ll face Rick Trevino (18 percent) in the May 22 runoff to determine who will take on Republican Rep. Will Hurd in the general election.

Women made their mark at every level – federal, state, and local.

Statewide, Lupe Valdez, the openly gay Dallas County sheriff, won 43 percent in a field of nine Democrats seeking to challenge Gov. Greg Abbott in the fall. She’s in a runoff against Andrew White (27 percent), a Houston businessman and son of the late Gov. Mark White.
In San Antonio, two women – Cynthia Brehm and Jo Ann Ponce Gonzalez – will compete to decide which of them will lead the Bexar County Republican Party. On the Democrat side, an under-funded Monica Ramirez Alcantara buried the swaggering party Chairman Manuel Medina, taking two of every three votes cast in the race.

Patsy Woods Martin of Annie’s List, a political action committee that recruits and supports women candidates (pro-choice and mostly Democrats) in Texas, said Trump’s unpopularity among females helped set off the surge of female candidates. In 2017, 45 percent of men surveyed by the polling firm Gallup said Trump was doing a good job in the Oval Office, but only 33 percent of women agreed. That’s the biggest disagreement between the sexes over a president at least since Bill Clinton took office in 1992.

It’s worth keeping in mind that women voters slightly outnumber their male counterparts, and that many of them are fired up, as we’ve seen in the huge turnout at women’s marches since Trump’s inauguration. “The power of the female vote has been vastly underestimated,” said Trish DeBerry, a San Antonio communications consultant and one-time candidate for mayor.

The outrages have piled up. They include Trump’s now-infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” remarks on a hot mic during a taping of “Access Hollywood” with Billy Bush. Nearly 20 women have accused him of sexual misconduct. He wanted to throw Democrat Hillary Clinton in prison. He suggested then-Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle was to blame for her tough questioning during a televised debate.

“Donald Trump is making America great again in ways we never imagined – if we can survive it,” said Woods Martin, Annie’s List’s executive director. “Many women said, ‘He is bad for me and my family, and I am going to run.’”

In 2017, about 800 women sought candidate training from Annie’s List, which Woods Martin said was four times the organization’s goal. Roughly 10 percent of the women who underwent training ended up running for office.

But Trump and voters’ reactions to him and his policies don’t adequately explain what happened in the Texas primaries on March 6. By and large, successful women candidates zeroed in on issues important to voters, talked about solutions, didn’t dwell on issues of gender and worked tirelessly.

Queta Rodriguez isn’t one of the women who won their races on March 6. But she did force Bexar County Commissioner Paul Elizondo, who’s 84 and seeking his 10th term, into a May 22 runoff for the Democratic nomination. She won 30 percent of the vote to Elizondo’s 45 percent.

She grew up on the West Side, the daughter of former Councilwoman Lourdes Galvan and LULAC hell-raiser Henry Rodriguez. She’s a veteran. She retired from the Marines after 20 years, and now serves as Bexar County’s veterans service officer. Rodriguez knocked on a lot of doors during the first phase of her campaign, and showed up at a lot of community meetings.

So, did her gender matter?

Yes, some.

“I’d be lying to myself if I said no,” the 47-year-old Rodriguez said. “When we pointed out that there hasn’t been a woman on commissioners court in 20 years” – Republican Cyndi Taylor Krier stepped down as county judge in 2001 to become a University of Texas System regent – “that made a pretty powerful impression.”

On election night, as she threaded her way through Elizondo’s crowded campaign headquarters on Fredericksburg Road, former State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte acknowledged Rodriguez had a “very compelling story.” She also talked about Rodriguez’s showing as part of a wave of successful women that, a little more than two hours after the polls had closed, was already obvious. The moment was significant for Van de Putte, and maybe a little bittersweet. At the midpoint of President Barack Obama’s final term, with Obama still deeply unpopular in Texas, she ran against Republican Dan Patrick for lieutenant governor in 2014 and lost. Within weeks of the general election, she’d entered the contest for San Antonio mayor, which she lost to Ivy Taylor in a June 2015 runoff. Van de Putte’s timing was off.

Like Barberena said, elections are complicated. To whatever degree being a woman helped Rodriguez, how much will that matter in a runoff election where the odds are on Elizondo’s side? Without exciting races higher on the ballot, fewer voters will show up at the polls a second time. And low turnout elections generally favor candidates with solid name recognition and lots of campaign funds. That’s Elizondo – though as Rodriguez noted, 55 percent of Democratic primary voters did want new blood.

A common theme in interviews with female candidates, officeholders, and campaign consultants was this: The first rule of Women’s Club is there is no Women’s Club.
Don’t make a big deal out of being a woman.

“With identity politics, you have to be careful,” said State Rep. Ina Minjarez, who steam-rolled a male challenger in the Democratic primary with 78 percent of the vote – one of the highest totals among state lawmakers in contested primaries. “I’m really engaged in the community. I’m always at community meetings … I run on my qualifications and what I’ve done for [House District 124]. You have to be careful with identity politics because there could be a backlash.”

Winning office in an April 2015 special election, Minjarez finished her first full term in the Texas House last year with more than 20 amendments to her credit and co-sponsorship of the anti-cyberbullying David’s Law, named for Alamo Heights teen David Molak who was hounded by cyberbullies and committed suicide in early 2016. Texas Monthly named her “Rookie of the Year,” noting, “She didn’t take the microphone often during debates, but when she did, her words had power.”

A quick read between the lines: Not a grandstander or aggressive self-promoter.

“When I was elected, there was a lot of scrutiny because there was this perception that I hadn’t paid my dues – because I hadn’t served on the city council, for example,” Minjarez said. “Had I been a man, I don’t think I would’ve been subjected to that kind of scrutiny. As women, we are always under the microscope. I always want to be prepared and ready to work 10 times as hard.”

If you take from her comments the idea that, because of the pressure of meeting these higher expectations, women in politics have to stick together no matter what – she’s not saying that. In House District 116, Democrat Trey Martinez Fischer beat incumbent Diana Arévalo by 115 votes in the primary. Minjarez endorsed him over her.

It was a weird situation. Martinez Fischer had held the seat for 16 years but gave it up to run unsuccessfully for the Texas Senate. He’d been a master tactician for the Democratic minority in the Texas House, sometimes able to kill major bills on technicalities. After last year’s session, which produced Senate Bill 4 and its fierce crackdown on illegal immigrants and sanctuary cities, Minjarez said Democrats needed Martinez Fischer back on the floor.
Saturday afternoon, Arévalo was clearing out her campaign headquarters. She said she’d called Martinez Fischer the day before to congratulate him on his victory, and that she wanted to help unify the district.

“My opponent ran, and he’d held the seat for 16 years… I don’t know what else there is to say,” Arévalo said. “I’m proud of the campaign we ran.”

Arévalo’s outcome notwithstanding, Latina candidates had a breakthrough primary season, especially in races for Congress. Texas has never sent a Latina to Capitol Hill, but after March 6, two stand a good chance of being sworn in next year. In heavily Democratic districts, former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar won the party’s nomination to replace Beto O’Rourke in the U.S. House, and State Sen. Sylvia Garcia in Houston beat six rivals for the seat of retiring Congressman Gene Green.

Texas’s 2018 midterm primary was the first in the country. Expect similar stories to play out across the United States in the weeks ahead.

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