Democrats are facing a tougher run at statewide offices in 2010 than they will in 2012, former Rep. Rick Noriega told a group of UT public affairs students Wednesday afternoon. An upbeat Noriega reflected on his own run for U.S. Senate, which ended just a few months ago, and didn't rule out taking another shot at a big-time political office.
Asked about Democrats' chances in a possible special election to replace U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (should she step down to run for Governor), Noriega said anything's possible, but Democrats should be in a better position in 2012 to win statewide. His reasons: 1) After the U.S. Census and redistricting, the addition of three to five U.S. Congressional seats to the state's total should incite additional political participation; 2) Pres. Barack Obama should top the ticket again — "He's carrying the ball for the whole team," Noriega said; and, 3) State demographics are trending in a Democratic direction.
He added as a caveat that Obama's performance, which will likely be graded according to the state of the economy, will probably dictate Democrats' fortunes while he's President, for better or for worse.
Looking back at his own campaign — he lost to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn — Noriega said it was "disappointing" to witness the visceral emotions Texans had about immigration. In focus groups for his campaign, it wasn't uncommon to hear inquiries about how to pronounce "Noriega" and people saying they wouldn't be voting for him if he called himself "Mexican-American" instead of plain ol' American. (Laughing, Noriega said he thought it was "cute" that supporters would invariably choose to hold campaign rallies for him at Mexican restaurants. "They'd find every little taqueria..." he said.)
There were plenty of good moments on the trail, too, he said, like when an East Texas couple gave up their bedroom to his wife Melissa Noriega, relegating themselves to the trailer out back. Or in West Texas, when a woman tracked him down to apologize for not donating sooner, saying she had to wait on her Social Security payment before cutting him a $25 check. "We won every part of the state that believes in evolution and global warming, and we lost every other part," is a favorite observation of Melissa's, he said.
Noriega talked about the rapid evolution of technology and its increasing effectiveness in organizing campaign supporters and raising money. He also said that Obama's success proved that a message of hopefulness and motivation can beat attempts to appeal to people's fears and cynicism.
"Community organizing is back in vogue again," said Noriega, who is working as vice president for community-based initiatives for Neighborhood Centers Inc., a nonprofit with seven community centers in Houston.
As for his political future, Noriega didn't drop any hints that he's considering any particular office, but he didn't say he wouldn't run again in the future, or even in 2010. (He did say that he's been told by various people that voters — when facing special elections attracting a myriad of candidates — will often pull the lever for the candidate they've previously supported.)
"Never say never," he said, "and never say always."