As 2009 drew to a close, a Democrat running to replace U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison grew tired of waiting for her to retire and moved over to the race for governor.
Her name is Alma Aguado. She’s a physician in San Antonio who was inspired by changes in state demographics to make her first bid for public office. "Texas is in crucial need of a Hispanic leader," she says.
When private investigator Bill Dear flicked on the news in his Mt. Calm home, he only heard two Democratic candidates mentioned. “They were talking about the former mayor, Bill White, and Farouk Shami, who's putting up $10 million,” says Dear. “There was no mention of the rest of us as candidates. No mention of myself at all.”
After what Democratic Party spokeswoman Kirsten Gray calls “a very positive filing period,” the Democrats have a total of seven candidates for governor. While White and Shami may have generated the most media attention, most of them, like Dear and Aguado, are relatively unpolished, underfunded, and unknown.
Rather than play David to the Goliaths of the party, these individuals had the option of attempting bids as third party or independent candidates. Ed Tidwell felt snubbed by the Republican party and found a more comfortable home as a Libertarian candidate for governor — of which there are five. “Do I realize the third party doesn’t have the respect? Yeah, I realize that,” he says. “If I’m going to present myself as a certain type of person, then I’ve got to be true to that. If it means running for a third party and maybe not having the shot that a Republican or Democrat will have, then I’ve got to accept that.”
A refrain emerges when asking candidates why they didn’t go the way of Tidwell. “No one can win that way,” Dear says, “If that had been possible, I would have done that, but I’m not there to waste my time, my effort, and that of all the people I know on something that is lost.”
In lieu of campaigning with the money of the favored candidates, which Dear doesn’t have and says he wouldn’t put up anyway (he says, "Anyone who pays $20 million for a job that pays $120,000 a year has something wrong someplace"), Dear says he’s currently conducting most of his campaign via the Internet and hopes to begin traveling the state soon. Aguado plans to invest her money in a television ad and a radio spot.
A combination of hard work and the backing of enthusiastic Tea Party supporters has paid off in the form of an invitation to an official debate for Debra Medina, the lone long shot candidate in the Republican primary. It's a testament to the possibilities of candidates who initially appear to be on the fringe of the party establishment.
“If any of them have talent, they will get noticed,” says Jason Stanford, a Democratic consultant formerly associated with the Shami campaign. “That’s what happened to Victor Morales.”
Morales was a school teacher who surprised the state with a 1996 bid to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm. He rolled across the state in a 1992 white pickup truck with nearly 100,000 miles pitching his candidacy to anyone who would listen. He won the primary against more experienced candidates — including two sitting members of Congress — and came out of the general election with an impressive, if unsuccessful, 2.4 million votes.
Fellow educator Felix Alvarado has been running in the current Democratic race for governor longer than any of his six opponents. Alvarado recently referred to White as “an anointed candidate” that has “yet to prove his leadership skills outside his circle of acquaintances." The Fort Worth native doesn’t see the discrepancy in his fundraising relative to Shami and White as an obstacle.
Alvarado draws daily inspiration from a poster outside his classroom that reads, “The ultimate measure of leaders is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand in times of challenge and controversy.”
“The millions don’t matter. I bypass the millions of dollars by going directly to the Democrats themselves,” he says. “They are not interested in somebody with millions of dollars, they want to see somebody who is clearly a Democrat."
However, money is more than just a luxury.
“Victor ran out of money in the end,” says Stanford, acknowledging that funding can, ultimately, make a difference. “What Victor had was a compelling persona.”
This season’s crop of fringe candidates isn’t short on personality. Whether they will catch the imagination of John Q. Public and then translate into the most important prize — votes — has yet to be seen.
Dear, who prefers the label “Conservative Democrat” and has already caught flak from less conservative Democratic activists for anti-Muslim remarks on his website, has been called “the real life James Bond” by British tabloids. He has a soon-to-be-released movie documenting a new take on the O.J. Simpson investigation.
Clement Glenn, an associate professor at Prairie View A&M University with a research focus on “whole brain education,” is running a campaign with a strong focus on building communities and empowering people with the knowledge to live a quality lives. “If you can help a person know their blood type, there’s a great many things that person can do in terms of food choices,” he offers as an example. “Food has three qualities —medicine properties, nutritional properties, and poisonous properties. That’s just education that people are unaware of when we’re dealing with the health crisis.”
Star Locke, who won 3.5 percent of the vote in the 2006 Republican primary and now considers himself a Democrat in the style of former U.S House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Bonham, recounts many compelling stories on his website. One stand out is the time he punched a stingy bar owner until he was “Knocked-Out Cold!” as the legendary John Wayne looked on. Locke's site also shares some of his values, including the lament, “Sadly many kind-hearted and well meaning Christians and Texans have fallen for the GREAT LIE of Islam.”
Locke, a homebuilder who says he's running on behalf of "the average guy, the working slob like me," expects his campaign to “stand or fall” based on a detailed report he will release on February 15 that lays out his plan to close the border.
“I’ve toyed with the independent parties and the third parties,” Locke admits. “I found that some of those third parties are way out in left field. There are some really fringe concepts going on out there.”