State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, speaking at the Texas Democratic Party convention on Friday night, referred to the GOP as "Gringos y Otros Pendejos" — a line that drew gasps and laughter from the audience and sputtering anger from conservatives on social media.
Need a translation? “Gringos” are Americans, and the word can be derogatory or not, depending on the context. “Otros” means other. “Pendejos” is general purpose profanity used to refer to people who are objectionable, useless or both. If you search the internet, you’ll find that the word got a lot of use when a World Cup referee called a critical late-game penalty against Mexico last weekend.
Reactions to Martinez Fischer's remarks ranged from the cheers of some in the crowd to posts from Republicans and conservatives on social media calling the San Antonio Democrat a racist who was getting away with the kind of political speech that would get someone from their side spanked.
“People that are trying to elevate debate and have a serious discussion about issues don’t hurl personal and semi-colorful language at the other side,” said Steve Munisteri, the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas. “The average Texan doesn’t want to hear people throw personally derogatory insults at each other.
“However, will it make a difference in anything that happens in the fall? Of course not,” Munisteri said. “The Democratic convention will have no impact on the average voter. The only purpose of a convention is for the bases of both parties to get energized.”
Munisteri excused the remarks in a backhanded way, pointing out that Republicans have won every statewide election since 1994. He dismissed the strength of the Democratic ticket and of organizing efforts like Battleground Texas: “I can understand him lashing out in frustration. I don’t excuse it, but I understand it.”
Martinez Fischer is well known as a political brawler. He led the Democrats in the Texas House during the 2011 legislative session that was notable for its Republican supermajority. At one point, he confronted House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, by turning to face the chamber's leader from the front podium, showing disrespect in a moment of anger. He cooled down last session, working behind the scenes instead of making scenes.
But his speech at the Democratic gathering didn’t come from the lawmaking negotiator: It was designed to shame the Republican Party of Texas for its immigration platform and for what Martinez Fischer calls its hostility to Hispanics. It was intended to spur Hispanics and others in the Democratic Party to get involved in the election.
“You shouldn’t say vile things about immigrants,” said Emmanuel Garcia, speaking for the Texas Democratic Party. “You shouldn’t say vile things about the LGBT community. It’s not just vile to Latinos, or to blacks — it is also vile to Anglos, too. It’s a comment about what he feels about the Republican Party — he’s saying it to the GOP.”
The conversation underscores an uncomfortable characteristic of Texas politics: Minority voters, on average, vote for Democrats, while many Anglos vote for Republicans. Texas Democrats have been vocal about Republicans sounding dog whistles to rouse their voters — as when lieutenant governor candidate state Sen. Dan Patrick described an “illegal invasion” coming across the state’s border with Mexico. Martinez Fischer, while calling out the Republicans, reached for his own dog whistle, hitting a racial harmonic to advance his political argument.
Martinez Fischer’s remarks landed a day after a column on race and politics by another Democrat, state Rep. Eric Johnson of Dallas, ran in The Dallas Morning News. Johnson said he is trying to figure out what the political analysis will be that will drive the Democrats to break what is now a two-decade losing streak in statewide elections in Texas.
One of two things will have happened, he said on Monday: “I predict we will find either that, wow, the Democrats finally figured out how to register more blacks and Latinos and actually turn them out in a way that they haven’t turned them out before. Or, wow, the Democrats finally figured out how to talk to white voters again.”
Johnson thinks the Democrats should be working on both — increasing turnout among minority voters who lean their way, and trying to increase support among white voters who were supportive of the party when it was winning elections.
“I think the smartest thing to do is pursue both paths with a lot of fervor,” he said. “I think the party will say that we are speaking to all of the voters. But I think we are going to go back to what we call the base these days — that’s the minority voters.”
Democrats and a fair number of political scientists think the state’s minority growth will eventually be reflected in the electorate, and that Democrats will benefit. Republicans say those new voters are up for grabs. That’s an argument for the next couple of decades. Johnson is interested in it, but impatient, too.
“Demographics in the long run are in the favor of the Democrats in Texas, but I don’t think that is a substitute for a strategy,” he said.
Martinez Fischer's line — which was in the prepared version of his speech — probably inspired some bumper stickers. He made some of his fellow Democrats feel better at their biennial gathering and generated a laugh. He riled Republicans, who are weary of being called racist when they make similar comments. In other words, it got people's attention.
It is even possible that his remarks will prompt some Texans to vote — even if they don't vote for Democrats.