Year of Fear, Chapter 30: Where are the campaign signs and the politiqueras?

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The Rio Grande Valley in deep South Texas embraces local political campaigns with gusto unlike any community I have ever lived in. Most candidates for officefrom constables to sheriffs to judges to congressional hopefulscome from gigantic extended families. They typically have hundreds of cousins and friends who rally and block-walk for them in the weeks preceding an election. They post colorful and bilingual campaign posters throughout their districts and convince homeowners to put smaller versions of them up in their front yards. They sit outside voting offices under tents in every weather climatefrom near triple-digit heat to freezing temperatureswearing T-shirts bearing their candidate’s likeness or slogan, and literally tooting horns, waving banners, yelling, and trying to snatch that last vote before someone goes in to cast a ballot.

I’ve often admired the tireless energy and devotion to the American electoral system here, just a few miles north of the border with Mexico. I’ve also marveled at how it all operates under the watchful eyes of politiqueraspaid campaign operatives who carefully craft and structure the region’s political scene. They are much more than mere employees. They are part of the Mexican-American culture here. They are the ones largely in charge. They are the kingmakers who determine who will run for officea decision often made by considering the size of the family and fan baseand they get the votes from la gente to make it happen.

But COVID-19 has struck this region hard, and the energy that normally pulses through the political landscape––which should be especially stoked by the upcoming presidential election––has substantially diminished. There is now one month until early voting begins on October 13 in Hidalgo County, and it almost feels like there’s no upcoming election whatsoever. As I wrote last month, McAllen and South Texas are struggling. And the campaigns appear to be as well. The roads that are usually overwhelmed with colossal political billboard-like signs are now almost completely devoid of the expensive advertisements, customarily placed atop one another with lumps of sandbags holding them down against the Gulf of Mexico winds. A few political operatives told me they have substantially cut back on the number of signs they have ordered this election season in Hidalgo County. They have instead restructured their social media campaigns and purchased large TV ad buys.

On Monday, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez lifted a shelter-in-place order which was in place since March 25 due to the overwhelming number of coronavirus infections that have crippled this region. An overnight curfew still remains, and there are still refrigerated trucks full of bodies on the roadways. But overall, new infections and deaths are decreasing.

Hidalgo County currently has the second highest death rate from COVID-19 in the entire Lone Star State, with over 1,400 fatalities, and 29,400 coronavirus cases in a population of just over 860,000. The carnage has many residents scared and it has affected the normally jubilant campaigning. Block-walking by major candidates, like US Representative Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat from McAllen running for his third term in Congress, won’t happen, his senior campaign advisor Martha Hinojosa told me recently. They are instead diverting their funds to social media. But will online ads reach the low-income colonias where so many families live, many without internet services?

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Hinojosa said almost everyone has a cellphone, and the campaign is using geofencing-like marketing to text and call anyone within the area who has a mobile device. TV ads, especially those on the Spanish-language stations, have been acquired with the hopes of reaching the Hispanic community that dominates this region. This year’s swag will include hand sanitizer and masks with Gonzalez’s name on it. The campaign hopes to cover the mouths and noses of as many people as possible, Hinojosa said.

They’re calling it a “contactless campaign,” and Hinojosa––who is related to former Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, a Democrat who held the seat from 1997 to 2017 and who Gonzalez replaced––said she initially doubted whether it could work. “At first I thought it was not doable. I thought there was no way. We are always used to contacting people and having that in-person relationship,” she said. “But I think it’s worked out great so far because we have adapted. We don’t have the physical contact but we definitely have a lot of outlets.”

This year, Gonzalez is re-using his popular slogan from his first run for office: “Vicente con la gente!” (Vicente for the people.) He won in 2016 largely by investing over $2 million of his own funds from his successful McAllen law firm. The rhyming phrase still catches one’s ear and Hinojosa said Gonzalez’s wife, Lorena, a soft spoken former schoolteacher, came up with it. 

The Hinojosa clan are representative of the organized, well-oiled political machines that have dominated this region for decades. Nearly all are Democrats, although some of the wealthier families have more conservative views; but in order to hold an office of importance in deep South Texas, they register as Democrats. Names like the Palacios and the Guerra family, whose members have held several elected offices in the town of Edinburg and Hidalgo County are well-known. JE “Eddie” Guerra has been sheriff of Hidalgo County since 2014 and is up for re-election. His cousin, State Representative RD “Bobby” Guerra, a former broadcast journalist, has represented House District 41 since 2012, and is bidding for another term against Republican John Guerra, an OB-GYN who is not related. Not much has been written about John Guerra as well as other lesser-known opponents. And with COVID still dominating the daily news cycle, even remarkable reporting about political races goes largely unnoticed.

The people have the power, don’t forget it, to change the course of history. Right now with these elections they can make this system work for real.

For example, in neighboring Cameron County on the Gulf Coast, Vanessa Tijerina––the Republican challenger to longtime State Senator Eddie Lucio Jr., a Democrat who has held office since 1991––is not being endorsed by the Texas Republican Party after numerous arrests this summer, including charges alleging she drove intoxicated with children in her vehicle, the San Antonio Express-News reported. But the news of her arrests and how they might affect her challenge has been largely ignored. Lucio’s son, State Representative Eddie Lucio III, is 41 years old and has represented the Texas 38th District since 2007 when he first took office at age 29. He also is in a re-election bid that is being run mostly on social media, where supporters can check off a box to request a campaign sign, or to volunteer with the campaign.

But with contactless campaigns operated via social media the biggest question remains: where are the politiqueras this season? It’s true that their outspokenness took a back seat after they were tied to several voter fraud schemes since the turn of the century. In a 2013 report, the Justice Department found that more political officials were convicted of corruption in South Texas than in any other region of the country. But the politiqueras are still usually a force. They are rumored to control the many vans that are rented to transport the elderly and low-income voters to the polls on Election Day. They are especially effective and influential in the poorest of communities and they always promise that their candidate will deliver people from poverty.

Hinojosa is one of the best-known campaigners in South Texas and, in addition to Gonzalez’s campaign, is also running the re-election campaign for the mayor of the town of Donna. She told me she has never actually met a politiquera. But then she laughed and said some might suspect her of being one because of her involvement in so many campaigns. She said Gonzalez forbids the hiring of politiqueras.

Last Friday, la Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), a well-known nonprofit group that helps low-income communities in the Rio Grande Valley, launched its 2020 general election get-out-the-vote campaign specifically targeted at colonias. Their campaign is designed “to shift power and resources away from the small set of hands who have deepened the crisis by squandering public resources and put decision-making power back where it belongs: with the people,” the organization said in a news release.

“The people have the power, don’t forget it, to change the course of history. Right now with these elections they can make this system work for real,” said LUPE member and GOTV canvasser Tomás Martinez. Their pitch sounds a lot like what the politiqueras promise.

LUPE officials claim current office holders have squandered federal CARES Act funds and have failed to give to the poor and needy, instead hoarding funds for themselves and big businesses.

“Together, we have the power to win representation that will govern by, for, and with the people so that we can recover from the pandemic with dignity and direct the resources we pitch in together to the things that make our communities thrive,” said LUPE Vote Coordinator Daniel Diaz. 

That’s quite a charge in today’s fearful COVID environment. I wonder if they have already reserved a fleet of rental vehicles for November 3.

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Sandra Sanchez has been an award-winning newspaper journalist for the past 30 years—including many years covering the Southwest border and immigration for USA Today. She began her career in her hometown of Washington, D.C., working for the Washington Post. In 1994, she moved to Austin as USA Today’s Southwest correspondent. During her tenure with the nation’s largest newspaper, she covered the Los Angeles riots, Oklahoma City bombing, Hurricane Hugo, and many immigration stories from Arizona to Brownsville, Texas. She was the opinion editor for The Monitor newspaper in McAllen, Texas, from 2013 to 2018 during the initial surge of migrants on the Southwest border. She is passionate about border and immigration issues and enjoys being a correspondent for Nexstar Media Group’s BorderReport.com.