It’s another day on the campaign trail in the Rio Grande Valley: unusually warm and humid, with traffic piled up on the access road to U.S. 183 near McAllen hours before rush hour begins.
A used sedan turns slowly into a crowded lot that serves several Hidalgo County offices. “Vote for Sergio!” yells a woman in Spanish, eliciting a brief but loud blare from the car’s horn.
“Vote for Sandra!” shouts a man in response, perhaps a tad late. But there will be other opportunities for him, and immediately he seizes one as an oversized, weathered truck pulls in after the sedan.
“Vote for SANDRA!!” he shouts at the driver.
“Vote for SERGIO!!!” yells the woman in the same direction, right on cue.
Watching what unfolds is an amused Sandra Rodriguez, a Democratic candidate for the Texas House, waving her own campaign sign and smiling the grand smile that adorns the yard signs that seem to be on almost every other corner or lawn, or in front of every other business. On alternate corners, of course, are shows of support for her opponent in the March 2 primary, Sergio Muñoz Jr.
The months-long battle to replace state Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores, D-Palmview, in House District 36 is coming to an end. (Flores decided not to seek another term in the Legislature after was indicted last year on charges that he hid sources of income, gifts, real estate holdings and other information from his legally required personal financial disclosure forms.) The primary will send a new member to Austin because, after all, this is the Rio Grande Valley; the Democratic primary is tantamount to the general election. No Republicans even filed. No Libertarians, either.
Rodriguez knows what she has to do. “It’s such a large district, and the only way you’re going to reach everyone is by walking the streets, knocking on doors, and with signs,” she says during a brief stop at her modest campaign headquarters, a strip mall storefront just a few miles from the Mexican border. “I get going about 7 a.m. I start visiting the different precincts and I stay out there a while. I try and hit all of them.”
Muñoz won't be outdone. At 4 p.m. that same day, he and his entourage show up at the Pepe Salinas Community Center to attend a carne asada: a cookout. Fajitas are thrown on the grill by the pound and Muñoz pats his stomach and wonders how much weight he’s gained by attending the campaign's daily throwdowns. “You have to take care of your people,” he says about the afternoon buffet.
Live and die by the grassroots
The “people” are some of the poorest and least educated in the state. U.S. Census data suggests that more than 54 percent of the region’s residents did not graduate high school. Unemployment is greater than 12 percent, and 85 percent of households speak a language other than English at home. Rodriguez and Muñoz both say they stump more in Spanish than English in their door-to-door stops. A quick scan of the radio dial yields more Spanish- than English-language stations.
The Hidalgo County district is a mix of rural and urban neighborhoods; it includes the cities of Palmview, Mission, Pharr, Penitas, and Hidalgo and part of McAllen. Old-school politics of the border are still rampant here. The campaigns put an emphasis on billboards and street signs. Some of the most successful fundraising comes from steak-plate sales. Not all the campaign workers know the issues — they're often recruited by someone who works for someone who works for one or another candidate. That’s all the motivation they need to stand hours on end at a polling site, placing placards on windows and shouting at honking cars.
Rodriguez says the demographics dictate a particular political strategy. By way of comparison, she cites a Democratic state Rep. from McAllen. “It’s different than, let’s say, Veronica Gonzales,” she says. “Her functions have to be very different than the kind of functions that I have. With mine you have to take it out to the colonias. Veronica can have something like a wine and cheese (tasting) and people will come. I could never do that in my district.”
Muñoz also adheres to the everyman approach. "We're block-walking," he says. "We're talking to people and reminding people about the election and the vote."
Whether it's Rodriguez or Muñoz, the winner of the HD-36 race will be hazed on the House floor, as are all freshmen, and asked mundane questions about the significance of the first bill filed in a sort of “welcome to the good time” greeting bestowed upon newcomers. But at home in the RGV, the new state Rep. will exude the confidence of a veteran. Both candidates are well known in their communities.
Rodriguez, a former board member of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District and former juvenile probation officer, ran against Flores in the 2008 primary, losing by less than 1,000 votes.
Muñoz is an attorney, a Palmview municipal court judge, and the son of former state Rep. Sergio Muñoz, whom Flores defeated and is related to (through marriage to his wife).
Rodriguez likes to pounce on the Muñoz family ties, which she says are working in her favor. “My opponent is Kino’s hand-picked successor,” she says often, drawing the ire of Muñoz. “I probably have more name ID than he does, and there is probably some repercussion with his name ID because of who his dad is. They may recognize his name, but it’s negative.”
“I am my own person,” Muñoz shoots back. “For those who know me and for those who take the time to know me, they know the difference.”
That difference, he says, is youth and a new face. “We need somebody with new ideas and new motivation,” he says. But he tempers that statement with caution. Asked if by “new” and "fresh" he means that Flores abandoned his base, he treads lightly. “I don’t think it’s that,” he says with a slight pause. “I think they just see a new face and a new generation of leadership, a new generation of leadership that wants to make a difference. That’s what I mean.”
Like Muñoz, Rodriguez can play the influential family card: Her husband, Fernando Mancias, is a former state district judge, and her father, Tatan Rodriguez, is a former member of the Mission City Council. Unlike him, she can play the gender card as well. “One of the comments that I have heard is that we continue to send men up there and they haven’t been able to help us," says Rodriguez, who considers former Gov. Ann Richards a heroine. "So if we send a woman up there, maybe that will bring the change.”