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Gilberto Hinojosa: The TT Interview

The former county judge on why he's running for chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, what would pull the party out of the doldrums and what he thinks of the Republicans.

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Gilberto Hinojosa is running for chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, a venture that would put him at the helm of a political organization that hasn't won a statewide election in 18 years. Even so, the lifelong Democrat seems eager to take the reins.

A little history: Hinojosa was raised in the Rio Grande Valley, educated at what is now the University of Texas-Pan American, earned a law degree at Georgetown University, and then worked as a lawyer for the Washington, D.C.-based Migrant Legal Action Program. He has served as a Brownsville school trustee, a state district judge, a justice on the state's 13th Court of Appeals, on the Texas Board of Criminal Justice and as Cameron County Judge. He now practices law in Brownsville.

He sat down with the Trib on Tuesday to talk about why he would want to lead a party that's had such a long losing streak, about race and politics and about whether the Democrats have a shallow bench compared to the Texas GOP.

The video of the interview is below and an edited transcript follows.

TT: Why do you want to do this?

Hinojosa: Because somebody needs to do it. Because I think I’ve been seeing how this party has been devastated in the last few elections, and it’s very difficult for me to understand why that’s happening given how our state is demographically populated now. How large the Hispanic population is, how large the Asian-American, African-American population. How many people out there fall within our natural constituency and it makes no sense that we’re, for example, in the Texas Legislature, they have 101 seats, 102 seats, in the state House. Doesn’t make any sense that we can’t win an election.

The consequences when you lose are incredible, and what you have seen in the state of Texas is that the people who are getting elected today are being driven by a fringe right-wing part of the Republican Party. And their policies are very damaging to most Texans, particularly the constituency of the Democratic Party. They’re anti-immigrant, to a large extent, it translates into anti-Hispanic. Their positions on voting are just, to me, as undemocratic, as unconstitutional as you can be. These are people who dress in their Tea Party outfit but at the same time deprive you of your most fundamental right, which is the right to vote.

TT: What is it that the Republicans are doing right and the Democrats are doing wrong? The Democrats have not won since ’94.

Hinojosa: A lot of things. The Republicans, they understand that the fight is with your base, that if you energize your base, that if you get them to go out and vote and if your base is solidified in the general election, that that base, even though it’s smaller than our base, will get their candidates elected. They feed red meat to their base everyday. Why else did Rick Perry, for example, determine that there were certain emergency measures that needed to be enacted first that had nothing to do with the $23 billion-dollar deficit that the state was facing but rather, they were all issues that dealt with his base: the voter ID bill, the anti-immigrant legislation, the issue with respect to the sonogram bill. All those things that he promoted at the very beginning were focused just to energize his base because he knew those were the folks that he needed to depend upon at election time.

We need to do the same thing. When your philosophy is to bring back those people you lost, that Ann Richards lost in 1994, and that you have got to start talking like a moderate Republican to do that, then how do you energize your base? How does your base get excited and motivated and engaged to go out there and do the things that need to be done to get the votes out? It doesn’t happen.

They stay home because they don’t see any difference between you and the other party. They don’t think that you’re the party that’s going to deliver for them the things that they need to be able to lift up their families.

TT: It’s relatively easy, and it’s probably because we came out of a redistricting setup, but it’s relatively easy in Texas right now to conflate race and politics. The Democratic Party tends to be where the minorities are. The Republican Party tends to be where the Anglos are. Is that the way the parties look or is that just a momentary thing?

Hinojosa: I think that’s what’s been sold by the Republican Party to voters out there. I mean, the Republican Party, they’re the three G’s party: guns, gays and God. I mean, that’s what they pound with their base constantly and with middle Texas as well. The people who could be voting Democrat because everything we stand for is consistent with the issues that are important to them to raise families in the state of Texas. Their interests should be with the Democratic Party, but because the Republican Party has been so effective in painting our party as nothing but anti-gun, pro-gay, lesbian and anti-God, people begin to believe that.

TT: The Republicans, partly because they’ve won elections for the past few years, seem to have a deeper bench than the Democrats. What do you do about that?

Hinojosa: I don’t think that’s true. I don’t believe that they have a deeper bench. I think that if you look at the Republicans, for example, who are running for the U.S. Senate, I mean, they’re a joke. When you see these people at a debate, they’re espousing ideas and theories that are 30 years behind the times. They’re not very articulate, half of them. They have a difficult time giving a vision for American that is consistent with the vision of most Americans. And I believe that if we had a stronger Democratic Party than we have right now, that any one of those persons would have a difficult time being our candidate.

TT: But you set up a situation where you have these Republicans that you have issues with and you have Democratic candidate Paul Sadler available to voters, and the party doesn’t seem to back the candidate that they have. I wonder if that says something about the condition of the party or if it says something about the condition of the candidates. 

Hinojosa: I think it says everything about the condition of the party. I believe that in a different environment, the Paul Sadlers of the world would shine in terms of the ability to raise money and the ability to develop a strong, passionate following that people like Ann Richards or Jim Mattox or Paul Sadler had in the heydays of the Democratic Party. These folks like Paul Sadler can do really, really well if they have a party supporting them.

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