On a late Monday afternoon, Monica Alcántara pops onto my computer screen from her home office.
Over the past two years, the first-term chairwoman of the Bexar County Democratic Party has been at the center of a tumultuous political scene. On one hand, she’s been the controversial house-cleaning successor to former party head Manuel Medina. On the other, she’s among those leading the local charge to oust President Donald Trump in November.
In six weeks, Alcántara, 47, will play that latter role at the Texas Democratic Convention, the first to be held virtually. The change is yet another reminder of the daily life hacks Texans have made amid this disruptive season of social distancing.
Even without the biennial convention to prep for, Alcántara’s hands are full. She’s in a runoff for her seat against designer Grace Rose Gonzales, she’s had to redraft her outreach strategies and she’s keeping antsy party members galvanized while keeping an eye on the evolving coronavirus crisis.
When it comes to the convention, Alcántara — who has a 24-year background working on personal injury cases as a litigation paralegal — has already hit the ground running. She recently appeared on Facebook Live promoting a drive-through voting procedure for the Democratic State County Convention.
“The rules state that we still have to go on,” she says.
The Texas Democratic Convention, rescheduled for June 4, will take on a heightened significance during this pivotal election year. Even so, for many area Democrats, the switch to a virtual gathering carries a sting — this is the first year the event would have taken place in San Antonio.
“We were so proud,” Alcántara said. “It was going to be an amazing time for Democrats here locally.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is scheduled to deliver a keynote speech online, and Alcántara is thrilled. However, she’s concerned that a virtual event may not offer Texas Democrats the emotional punch it otherwise might have had.
“The problem is it takes a little bit away from the feeling of everybody coming together and energizing our group for the general [election],” she adds.
Still, an advantage to a virtual convention is that it can accommodate more speakers and encourage more participation from rural Democrats and those who usually couldn’t afford to travel. Some political observers argue that those factors could be a gamechanger for Texas Democrats this cycle.
Because a majority of its volunteers are 65 and over — the population most vulnerable to the coronavirus — COVID-19 concerns hit Bexar Democrats right away. When the party headquarters was forced to shut down, a feeling of loss spread through the tight-knit organization.
Beyond that, social distancing creates new challenges for one of the group’s key objectives: energizing voters.
Alcántara says Bexar County residents still read their physical mail, which is why she advocates reaching them with personalized postcards. The voters she can rely on, rain or shine, tend to be over the age of 65 and aren’t necessarily online.
“Those are the voters that we know have been voting for years. But if we’re not communicating with them, then we lose them,” she explains.
When I ask her how she feels about the Republican Party of Texas holding an in-person convention, she doesn’t miss a beat.
“They’re crazy,” she says flatly. “So, we’re not even expected to peak [with the spread of COVID-19] until mid-May. And then we don’t know if we’re going to have a second [wave] of this. To put thousands of people in that confined space in July?”
Alcántara’s expression of solicitude could stem from the fact that she was a mother before she was a politician. She and her husband of 15 years have four daughters, 14 to 28 in age. During times of crisis, whether political or facing the family, she relies on her faith.
“I had a daughter who was extremely premature: she was born one pound, nine ounces,” she says. “We pretty much lived in an ICU for three months. At that point, I’d learned where to pull from and who to rely upon. If I can get through what I went through with my young one when we were going through those horrible times, I — we — can get through anything, as long as we have faith.”
Two years as party chairwoman have allowed Alcántara to make new observations about her tribe.
“I’ve learned that our Democrats — we are a passionate group — and the positives in that is that we are passionate, and we want to fight for what is good and for the needs of our people,” she says. “The downfall, sometimes, is that we are a passionate group. I think the main thing that I’ve learned to understand is that passion can be amazing and terrifying all [at] the same [time], and as long as we focus on where that passion needs to be, then we’re all OK.”
She sees similar passion in party members who hoped for a Bernie Sanders victory.
“My hope is that those people who had vowed never to vote for [Joe] Biden would understand that at this point in time, if you choose not to vote for Biden, what is the alternative?” she asks. “We’ve seen the alternative. We are living with the alternative. We cannot handle another four years.”
She can speak about party splits from experience, since there’s also been a Democratic divide in Bexar County — one Alcántara maintains predated her arrival as chairwoman.
“I think because I unseated Mr. Medina, I think that a fraction [of the party] felt harmed,” she says, seeming to search for just the right words. “I really believed that if they had been able to meet me or have a sit-down, I believe that [they would have found that] their ideas and my ideas and what we’re all fighting for [are] the same.”
A bit of advice from state Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, gave her some perspective on the unending challenges of holding office.
“He said, ‘Monica, no matter what you do there will always be 25% of the folks that don’t care for it. But just know that if you plan on doing something, set on doing it. There’s always 75% percent of the folks who will stand right behind [you].”
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