Editor's Note: This story has been updated throughout.
SAN ANTONIO — Long rumored to be a contender, state Sen. Leticia Van De Putte has now made it official: She is running for lieutenant governor.
"I want to be your lieutenant governor because Mama ain't happy — because Texas, we can do better," Van de Putte said in a roughly 25-minute speech Saturday that touched heavily on the importance of family in her life.
On stage in a San Antonio College gymnasium, where her campaign estimated about 500 supporters gathered, the six-term Democratic senator did not shy from attacking the state’s Republican leadership, which she said had forgotten about mainstream Texans.
"For years, the governor's been too busy trying to be president, and for years the lieutenant governor's been trying to be in the U.S. Senate — nobody's been minding the store," Van de Putte said. "We cannot afford to keep kicking the can down the road because some Republicans are afraid of their primary voters."
Van de Putte joins her Senate colleague, Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, at the top of the Democratic ticket. Davis, who gained national attention this summer with an 11-hour filibuster of legislation restricting access to abortion, is running for governor. The Republican field in the lieutenant governor's race includes incumbent David Dewhurst, who is being challenged by state Sen. Dan Patrick, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.
A Democrat has not won a statewide election in Texas since 1994, and the last serious attempt the party made to field a competitive statewide ticket was in 2002. In 2010, the party nominated union leader Linda Chavez-Thompson, for lieutenant governor. She received 35 percent of the vote, while Bill White, the party's gubernatorial candidate, earned 42 percent.
And while Van de Putte has yet to start fundraising in earnest — and will have some time before the general election season begins to make up lost ground — she has not built up the same formidable campaign war chest as some of her colleagues during her time in the Senate. The July campaign finance reports, the latest available, showed she had about $300,000 in cash on hand.
On Saturday, Van de Putte said she knew her opponents would say the race wasn't winnable for a Democrat. But she said she would be a leader who would not ignore the "real-life priorities" of mainstream Texas families to chase after the "the most extreme five percent of Texans who control Republican primary elections."
She said that under Republican watch, the state Legislature has underfunded public schools and transportation and has played politics while veterans went without health care. Van de Putte also set up a sharp contrast between her position and that of the state's elected officials on social issues like equal pay and access to health care for women, and the right to work without facing discrimination just because of "who you love."
"I'll be the lieutenant governor who understands that fundamental rights, and dignity, and self-determination, and opportunities for women are not a pawn in some political game," she said.
Making note of the Republican Party's attempts to reach Hispanic voters, she delivered a message to her audience first in English, then in Spanish.
"Take my word for it, since I'm an actual Hispanic — you can't successfully fight for the Hispanic vote unless you successfully fight for Hispanic families," she said.
Van de Putte's decision to run for lieutenant governor follows a summer in which she was consumed by tragedy — first her infant grandson’s sudden death, then her father’s fatal car accident, then her mother-in-law’s passing. She left her father’s burial on the day of the now-famous filibuster to get back to Austin to help Davis.
“I had nothing,” Van de Putte said of that day in an interview with the Tribune ahead of the announcement. “I was at the bottom of an emotional well.”
As Davis was deciding whether to enter the governor’s race, her own father’s health declined, and Van de Putte said the two women, both suffering, consoled each other.
“The last thing in our minds was what we were both going to do politically,” she said. “It was, how do you fill the hole in your heart?”
As the weeks passed, Van de Putte’s friends and colleagues kept suggesting that she run for lieutenant governor. She considered the other options, she said, wondering, “Who else is there?”
But inspired by her family’s resilience — and bolstered by polling that she said showed her name recognition was far better statewide than she’d known — she decided to make a run.
“My question to a lot of people was … is it doable, is it winnable? I’m just a really competitive person,” she said. “Yes, I want to help out the Democratic Party, but I’m not that good of a soldier. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it to win.”
In her interview with the Tribune, Van de Putte said she checks a lot of key boxes: female, Latina, pro-business, a veterans advocate. A pharmacist by trade, she served five terms in the Texas House before her election to the Senate in 1999. In that time, she has become known for her focus on public schools and veterans issues — two areas with bipartisan appeal.
“Leticia is an extremely well-respected member of the Legislature. She is very capable, very able,” said Bryan Eppstein, a Republican political consultant. “I think she is a great advocate for the Democratic Party and for her district."
Unlike her running mate Davis, who, despite her moderate roots on the Fort Worth City Council, tends to rank among the most liberal lawmakers in the state Senate, Van de Putte is better known as a centrist.
That could benefit her in a general election against a Republican opponent coming out of a primary competing for the party’s right-wing base, said Mark Jones, the chairman of Rice University’s political science department.
“She's never been one of the most conservative Democrats, but she certainly has the record of a centrist Democrat, so it's much more difficult to paint her as an out-of-touch liberal,” said Jones.
On Saturday, Van de Putte had strong words for the way the GOP race for lieutenant governor has gone so far.
"It gets wackier every day," she said. "They are just trying to out-extremist each other."
When contacted by the Tribune, the Patrick campaign had no comment on Van de Putte's candidacy. Staples used Van de Putte's announcement as an opportunity to attack the incumbent.
"Energized Texas Democrats are the result of the failed leadership of David Dewhurst," he said in a statement. "By allowing Democrats to take over the Senate, Dewhurst made a national hero out of Wendy Davis and inspired [President] Obama's Battleground Texas."
Dewhurst himself has said he does not consider Van de Putte a threat.
"I’m not sure I’ll have to worry about her," he told reporters in Austin this week. "But it’ll be a very interesting campaign, to compare her pretty liberal views on growing the state of Texas and my views."
The next stop for Van de Putte on Saturday afternoon was a campaign event with Davis in Austin. But Van de Putte told the Tribune that while she expects her fundraising to overlap with Davis’ some, she hopes to also draw support from national groups committed to electing Latinos to statewide office.
“I think at times we will probably be at some events together,” she said. “I don’t think Leticia and Wendy are going to be holding hands at every event we’re at. That’s not a useful allocation of time management."
Both Van de Putte and Davis stepped into a phone bank Saturday afternoon full of volunteers for Battleground Texas and the state Democratic Party. The two candidates didn't appear together long enough for photos. Their visits only briefly overlapped.
In separate interviews with the media, Davis and Van de Putte spoke highly of each other and said they will regularly campaign jointly over the next 11 months.
"Both of us believe that the values of our Texas families who support strong public education, access to higher education and taking care of our veterans are some of the most important values that we possess as a community," Davis said. "And so you can expect that both of us will be talking about that on the campaign trail."
Davis said education, veterans issues and jobs will be the focus of both campaigns. "We have so much to be proud of," Davis said, "but the Texas miracle is one that we need to keep going, and the only way we'll keep that Texas miracle strong and hold to our promise to the people of Texas is to keep a strong education system so that we have a well-trained workforce."
The women acknowledged the momentous nature of their run. It is the first time two women have run at the top of a major party ticket in Texas. "It is going to be rather historic," Van de Putte said. "But there will be a great contrast I think with what most Texans will view with their future, and what the same old trite ideas that we've gotten from our current leadership."
Alana Rocha contributed reporting to this story.
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