In San Antonio, Ambitions Rising Among Hispanic Democrats

Nothing better demonstrates San Antonio's distinction as a political springboard for Hispanic Democrats than the political turnover triggered when Mayor Julián Castro left to join the Obama administration.

State Sen. Leticia Van De Putte and state Rep. Mike Villarreal — both Democrats from San Antonio — will face-off in the race to become the city's next mayor.
State Sen. Leticia Van De Putte and state Rep. Mike Villarreal — both Democrats from San Antonio — will face-off in the race to become the city's next mayor.  Marjorie Kamys Cotera

In the beginning, there were two Henrys.

Henry B. González made history in 1961 by becoming the first Hispanic from Texas elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Twenty years later, Henry Cisneros followed, becoming the first Hispanic mayor of a major U.S. city when he was elected to lead San Antonio in 1981. 

When González and Cisneros rose to prominence, Hispanic Democrats were few and far between in their respective political arenas.

Now, the Alamo City's political cup is filled to overflowing, with an abundance of ambitious Hispanic Democrats — and some Republicans — vying for political posts or waiting their turn to do so. 

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“San Antonio has always been an incubator for Latino talent that has then moved to the statewide and national stage,” Cisneros said in an interview. “We have a lot of talent, and there’s not enough seats to go around.”

Nothing better demonstrates the city's distinction as a political springboard for Hispanic Democrats than the political turnover triggered when Julián Castro left behind his post as mayor to join the Obama administration.

The mayoral race is now set for a showdown between state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte and state Rep. Mike Villarreal who are both giving up seats in the Texas Legislature to focus on that race. State Reps. Trey Martinez Fischer and José Menéndez were quick to throw their hats in the ring to capture Van de Putte’s Senate seat. If one of them wins, another spot will open up in the House. Public relations consultant Melissa Aguillon and San Antonio City Councilman Diego Bernal will duke it out for Villarreal’s seat. With Bernal stepping down from his post at City Hall, he’s opening another spot there.

The viability of Hispanic Democrats in San Antonio in part reflects the city’s demographics, with Hispanics making up 63 percent of the population. But the political prosperity of Hispanic Democrats like Castro, who picked up national attention at the 2012 Democratic National Convention as the first Hispanic to deliver a keynote address, sheds light on the attractive launching pad San Antonio has become for Hispanics seeking higher office.

“San Antonio is a good reflection of the opportunities that are available, and young bright people are identifying those opportunities and going for it,” said San Antonio political consultant Christian Archer, who served as Castro’s chief political strategist. “If you’re a Democrat, I think San Antonio is kind of the bulls-eye right now.”

But he added that most Hispanic Democrats today “stand on the shoulders” of leaders like González and Cisneros. “Those are really the people that kicked down the doors,” Archer said.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The city’s bumper crop of aspiring Hispanic Democrats is unsurprising considering their role modelssaid Walter Wilson, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“To some extent, it’s just been a part of our politics for a much longer period than other cities in Texas or the United States,” he said.

Since San Antonio's demographics most resemble what Texas will become, winning elections there lays a good foundation for runs at statewide office in the future.

"It’s a good possibility that there could be positive effect for future candidacies by Latinos," Wilson added.

San Antonio has had only three Hispanic mayors, but Hispanic Democrats calling the city home have made their way to the Statehouse in substantial numbers, dominating the San Antonio-based seats in the Senate and the House.

In the last election, four of the six Hispanic Democrats with San Antonio-based House seats ran unopposed. The two that picked up opponents took an overwhelming percentage of the vote in Bexar County.

Republicans have had some success. They have kept control of two San Antonio-based House seats for years, and picked up an additional spot earlier this month when they wrangled a House seat from a Democratic incumbent.

Though Hispanic Democrats are the ones that have garnered national attention for their leadership in San Antonio, their success helps encourage prospective Hispanic candidates — both Democratic or Republican — to become politically involved, said George Antuna, co-founder of the Hispanic Republicans of Texas.

The Texas Tribune thanks its sponsors. Become one.

He added that it’s Democrats’ long line of Hispanic candidates who have achieved political affluence, particularly in areas like San Antonio, which led to the formation of his group, which recruits Hispanics to run for office under the Republican label.

“I’ve got to tip my hat to Democrats,” Antuna said. “They have decades of this going on.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at San Antonio is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.