State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, served in the Texas House for 15 years before being elected to the Texas Senate in 2002. The current vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Hinojosa was a key player in the state’s budget-writing process, which he says was controlled by Tea Party loyalists who held the negotiations hostage.
The Tribune caught up with Hinojosa in McAllen recently, and the senator shared his thoughts on border security, what the Democrats do after voter ID and what he thinks the upper chamber will look like in 2013.
TT: Moving forward after the session, what is your game plan to educate people about voter ID to make sure that it doesn’t affect turnout as badly as some say it will?
Hinojosa: If we do not get a [court] injunction against voter ID to delay it for at least a couple of years to give us time to educate our supporters and the voters, we are going to be in trouble in the sense [of] a lower voter turnout. And that’s the purpose of voter ID, and that’s why the Republicans pushed for it so hard. Studies show that it suppresses the vote. Without a doubt, we have a huge issue to deal with. We’re short on time; we’re short on money. But we have to do our best under the circumstances to educate and get our people out to vote. We cannot count on the injunction. We have to tackle it head on and do our best to educate the people as quickly as we can and restructure the way we get people to register to vote.
TT: Do you think there will be a backlash against the Tea Party during the next election? Do you think the average voter will think the Tea Party held the state budget negotiations hostage?
Hinojosa: The Tea Party is driven by ideology and not by public policy. They don’t seem to have an interest in negotiating and coming up with good compromises in terms of what’s best for our state. It’s their way or the highway. As I look at the polling, I see the number of voters who see them in a negative light continue to increase. It’s almost close to 50 percent. So I anticipate a backlash. A lot of my Republican friends, who are traditional conservative Republicans, were intimidated this session by the Tea Party. They were threatened — if they didn’t toe the Tea Party line, they would get an opponent in the Republican primary. Well at some point, the pendulum has to swing to the middle, where the independent voter is the key. The independent voter will be turned off by some of the tactics that the Tea Party is using. The Tea Party is a very small group; it’s like the tail wagging the dog so to speak, in that they have a lot more influence than their numbers dictate. I always half jokingly say we need to form a Coffee Party so that people can wake up and see the damage that’s being caused by some of these extreme groups. Initially the Tea Party had some very good ideas and goals, but somewhere along the line it morphed into this ideologically driven group that wants to cripple a lot of the institutions that provide a safety net for our civilization, such as public education, health care and affordable housing.
TT: Some people in your party didn’t like the new driver’s license provisions [that require proof] of legal residency. Why did you think it was a good idea to have this policy in place?
Hinojosa: Texas is only one of two states out of 50 states that doesn’t require, or did not require, proof of legal residency to obtain a driver’s license. Whether we like it or not our country is moving in that direction after 9/11. It is a step that we have to take reluctantly. A driver’s license is not only used for driving purposes but for identification, and we face some dangers here along the border, as a number of people coming through this country illegally through the Mexican border are not Mexican nationals. They are Asian, Indians and Muslims. We need to make sure that we have a system where we are able to identify people. There is no doubt that [the requirements] will cause hardship. The system that we have in place actually allows people who are not permanently here, not U.S. citizens but here on visas, to be able to get driver’s licenses. So we try to correct some of the problems, but the reality is that we can no longer just issue driver’s licenses to anyone. These driver’s licenses are used to gain access to airports, for banking purposes, for a whole myriad of activities.
TT: One thing the governor was very specific about that he didn’t want cut [in the session’s budget cuts], and one thing that you are very supportive of is funding for border security. What was appropriated for border security?
Hinojosa: We appropriated an additional $157 million for border security purposes. Our country faces a greater threat to our security from what’s going on in Mexico than from what’s going on in Afghanistan. The Mexican government is fighting the cartels, and there is no law in Mexico. Innocent people are getting killed left and right and the level of violence is just unbelievable, and I am a Marine Corps Vietnam War veteran. The people [in Mexico] are defenseless, and the corruption is just so great that if Mexico were to collapse we would have a major problem along the border. So far the majority of violence has been limited to that side of the border. But part of the reason is that on this side of the border we are prepared. And we have to be prepared. We can’t be caught off guard in the event we have to respond. Part of the border security money is to upgrade communication equipment that law enforcement uses. A couple of years back a Border Patrol agent was killed in Los Fresnos. And part of the reason is there was a lack of communication between the Border Patrol and DPS and the sheriff’s department because they were using different channels and different equipment. So we tried to have uniformity across all law enforcement agencies. We also provided for overtime for DPS officers [on] the border and helping sheriff’s departments with overtime; we brought in helicopters, proper weapons to defend themselves and for the public to feel secure. We also tried to target the drugs coming across and the human smuggling, [and] at the same time help stem the flow of guns and cash going south. It’s a very complicated and difficult issue but we can’t just give up and walk away.
TT: Are you disappointed that the efforts to erect southbound checkpoints [during the legislative session] were unsuccessful?
Hinojosa: I was not disappointed. Quite frankly, after I really looked at the issue I saw a lot of constitutional issues and problems. You can’t just stop somebody because you want to stop that person. Law enforcement along the border can use legal techniques when they are suspicious of criminal wrongdoing when there is probable cause to stop someone.
TT: The Texas Senate is comprised of 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats right now. Do you want to make a prediction on what it is going to look like in 2013?
Hinojosa: I think there will be some changes in the Senate, probably up in [Arlington Republican] Sen. [Chris] Harris and [Fort Worth Democratic] Sen. [Wendy] Davis’ district and up in Galveston with [Pasadena Republican] Sen. [Mike] Jackson. I understand [Plano Republican] Sen. [Florence] Shapiro may retire, and perhaps Sen. Steve Ogden. So we could see five or six possible Senate changes. In the Senate, we are only 31, so those are pretty big changes. But I think there will be more changes in the House. The Senate is pretty stable; we can usually work things out. But in the House, we have 101 Republicans. I think you will see a lot of them lose re-election.