Earlier this summer, Gov. Rick Perry walked confidently into a packed hotel ballroom in San Antonio to address the Annual Conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), a bipartisan organization representing almost 6,000 Hispanic officeholders at every level of government in the U.S. As the Immediate Past Chair of NALEO, I had a front row seat and closely observed Perry, who was in a jovial mood.
After settling in behind the podium, he let loose with a series of rapid-fire one-liners, but other than a handful of his Hispanic appointees who were in attendance for just such a purpose, nobody laughed. You could hear a pin drop. As I looked up at the longest-serving governor in Texas history and soon-to-be presidential candidate bathed in bright light, his demeanor changed. He knew he was in trouble. It's as if he were asking, "How did I get here?" And many of us wondered the same thing. Trying to get back on message, he uttered the word "jobs" about a half-dozen times and quickly exited stage right.
Why the chilly reception? It wasn’t that the jokes were in poor taste — it was that Perry’s failing record on issues important to Latinos is no laughing matter. Issues like support for public education, expanded pre-K and college access are not exclusively Hispanic issues, but they represent the infrastructure of opportunity necessary for the success of Latinos and, more broadly, the state of Texas. In fact, the futures of Latinos and Texas are inextricably linked. For years, former State Demographer and U.S. Census Director Steve Murdock has been sounding the alarm about Texas’ need to adequately invest in and educate Hispanics. Moral arguments about helping innocent children aside, Murdock — a George W. Bush appointee — has appealed to enlightened self interest: If we shortchange the public education system that Latinos depend on to get ahead, Texas will become poorer and less competitive, and that hurts all of us.
A quick survey of the last legislative session exposes how Perry’s tenure has hurt Latinos in Texas.
Hispanic students now account for more than 50 percent of the state’s 4.9 million children enrolled in public schools and make up more than 90 percent of school enrollment growth. Yet during the 2011 legislative session, Perry pushed for a cuts-only budget that took almost $5 billion from already under-funded public schools, including $250 million from pre-K. This means fewer teachers, larger class sizes and less investment in our state’s future human capital. As if that were not enough, Perry’s budget also eliminates state scholarships, including TEXAS Grants, for almost 45,000 college students. When asked about the cuts to education, Murdock concluded, “This is not something that Texas can afford to do, and the risks we’re taking come with very severe consequences.”
And while Latino growth accounted for two-thirds of the state's population gains between 2000 and 2010, Perry signed a redistricting bill that undermines the voting strength of Latinos. Of the four congressional seats gained by Texas because of population growth, no new seats were drawn so that Latinos could elect a candidate of their choice. In the Texas House map, things got worse. Instead of increasing the number of Hispanic majority seats by as many as five — as was suggested in various demonstration maps — Perry signed a bill that actually reduced the number by one.
Finally, in the face of a record budget deficit, Perry proclaimed the issue of "sanctuary cities" an emergency item. While he could not define the term or identify a single case of a “sanctuary city” in the state, he did succeed in showing his true colors with respect to Latinos. At that moment, it was clear to observers of all political stripes that the governor was willing to politically attack the Hispanic community to further his thinly-veiled presidential ambition. It was not until large groups of Hispanic Republican pastors and GOP business leaders descended on the Capitol during the special session that his infamous “sanctuary cities” emergency ended.
It hasn't always been this way in Texas. In 1994, when California Gov. Pete Wilson championed the infamous anti-Latino Proposition 187, then-Gov. Bush immediately stepped up and proclaimed such legislation bad for Texas. Early in his time as governor, Perry even signed into law a bill with broad bipartisan support that allows undocumented students who have lived in the state for more than five years to receive in-state tuition.
Those days are long gone. Now that Perry’s path to the presidency requires tough talk on immigration, he has demonstrated a willingness to scapegoat Latinos. We don’t find it funny. It’s just plain wrong.
State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, has represented District 103 in the Texas House since 2004.