After a hard-fought primary win against veteran Democratic lawmaker Norma Chavez in 2010, state Rep. Naomi Gonzalez, D-El Paso, witnessed one of the most one-sided sessions in recent history, as her party was outnumbered 101 to 49 in the Texas House. The end result, she said, are drastic cuts to services that she predicts will greatly affect middle-class El Pasoans. Gonzalez, who was named freshman of the year by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and the Legislative Study Group, said she is already preparing voters for the next election, emphasizing the draconian measures she says were championed by Republicans.
Gonzalez spoke with the Tribune recently about the portrayal of her hometown in the press, why the grassroots is key to making gains for her party, and how she thinks proposed immigration legislation will hurt Gov. Rick Perry on the campaign trail.
TT: After a hard session for Democrats, what is the strategy for the party from this point on?
Gonzalez: The strategy is to get local communities involved and making sure they are part of this next election cycle. It means stressing the importance of what happened during session and translating that to a local level.
TT: What specifically happened that you want the El Paso community to understand?
Gonzalez: It was [the cuts] that were made to education and health and human services, the cuts that we made to public and higher education are going to affect so many families in every district. And the cuts that were made in terms of Medicaid funding and other areas of health are going to affect so many communities as well. So, it’s a matter translating those issues into something that every one can understand, and then getting people out to vote.
TT: Is there a sense of urgency? Some people might let that sting wear off so much that they don’t remember it as well when the next election comes around.
Gonzalez: The grassroots effort starts right now and the office has been active in that by speaking to neighborhood associations and speaking to community advocates and explaining what happened during session with specific bills and how that translates to their work and their everyday life. And so I think that it’s making a difference.
TT: How will the voter ID legislation that was passed affect voter turnout?
Gonzalez: I don’t have an answer to that right away. The way that policy was crafted it does tend to lend one to think it is going to create an obstacle for people that are elderly, and that are maybe not as educated about the voting process. So that will limit some voters. But again, that’s why it’s important to have grassroots efforts throughout the state to explain what kind of identification is acceptable and how offices and elected officials can explain to people what sort of documentation they need to vote.
TT: In the Rio Grande Valley, some Democratic Party chairs are urging their Republican counterparts to appear in public service announcements to educate voters about the legislation. Do you think this is a smart move?
Gonzalez: This was a policy that was crafted by the supermajority, the Republicans, and their argument throughout the entire debate was that this was good, sound policy for the integrity of the vote. If they truly believe that, they need to go out and do [public service announcements] with the Democrats, and they should be out in the community helping the individuals get the documentation that they need to vote.
TT: Some people say the border has become stigmatized because of what’s going on in Mexico. City officials say the border here in El Paso and in Laredo and elsewhere are safe. What is being lost? Why aren’t people seeing that, in your opinion?
Gonzalez: Because there is always a disconnect between those of us who live along the border and those that perceive the border. The media focuses on the violence that happens in Juárez, and they don’t focus on the other part, which is the safety in El Paso. That creates this image that what happens on one side must be happening on the other — and that’s not the case. People who live along the border understand the needs and understand the complexity of the border region. People further along the border don’t get it, and the news and information they get gets filtered in a way that makes it seem like the border region is lawless and very dangerous.
TT: A lot of that sensitivity comes from the fact that a lot of people still say El Paso and Juárez are one community, a lot of people still feel that pride. That said, could you say with 100 percent confidence that some of the bad people aren’t living in El Paso?
Gonzalez: No, I can’t and that’s a very good point. I can’t say that we don’t have people living in El Paso and the United States side that are doing bad things across the border. But that’s always been the fluidity of the United States-Mexico border, and it’s going to continue to be likely that there are U.S. citizens doing bad things in Mexico as well.
TT: What are your thoughts on Gov. Rick Perry’s candidacy for president of the United States?
Gonzalez: I think it’s going to be interesting to see how President Obama reacts, especially with Texas having as huge a deficit as we did this session. With the cuts that were made to education and health care and all the anti-Latino legislation that was introduced, I think that Democrats have a lot of talking points when it comes to Gov. Perry’s track record, especially with regard to the Hispanic voter. Whoever is going to win this next election is going to need 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in order to succeed.