Less than two months into his new role as Texas secretary of state, Republican Carlos Cascos traveled to Mexico City, where he met with foreign dignitaries to discuss international trade. It was the first time someone in his position had made such a trip in almost six years — and Cascos said it's going to become a familiar occurrence.
“You have to go more often than once a term,” Cascos said. “I am thinking I’d like to go at a minimum twice a year.”
Cascos is not your typical governor-appointed official. He's Mexican-born, a former Democrat and from the Rio Grande Valley; he was a Cameron County commissioner and county judge before Gov. Greg Abbott named him to his current post.
And he hopes his tenure represents a shifting tide in the secretary of state's office — away from the partisan gridlock over voting issues that has plagued his predecessors, and toward bolstering Texas' relations with Mexico and improving life along the state's southern border.
Cascos' move is not out of line with his office's official responsibilities. In addition to housing the state’s elections division, the secretary of state's office also oversees Texas-Mexico relations.
And he hopes to prove that his position really is nonpartisan. During the debates that raged at the Capitol in 2009 and 2011 over requiring voters to show photo ID to cast ballots, the office was accused of being a proxy for Gov. Rick Perry, who supported the measure.
“I don’t see [the perception] as a hurdle at all. Whomever the sitting governor is and they appoint, obviously it’s going to be implied that, ‘Oh, it’s got to be a partisan office,’” Cascos said. “This office is not a partisan office.”
State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, who led the charge against voter ID in sessions past, said it was up to Cascos to change that perception. But Martinez Fischer also said he welcomed the new secretary and was eager to see his ideas on how to grow voter turnout.
“The elections division is a division that involves politics, and frankly, it’s very difficult to avoid administering that office without coming off as a partisan," he said. "To the extent that Secretary Cascos has ideas on how he can be pragmatic and bipartisan when it comes to voting, I think we all welcome that.”
Cascos’ appointment was a clear signal that Abbott was seeking inroads with the state’s burgeoning Hispanic population. Abbott repeatedly touted his wife’s Hispanic heritage during his campaign and made several trips to the Rio Grande Valley to court the area's moderates and conservatives. When he announced the appointment in November, Abbott brandished Cascos' connection to the region and his heritage.
“I know Judge Cascos will give the Rio Grande Valley a strong voice in Austin, and will inspire the next generation of Hispanic leaders as he works on behalf of all Texans," Abbott said in a statement when he made the decision.
But Cascos was more than a token selection. Abbott chose a veteran politician who understands how to avoid thorny issues. Cascos' trip to Mexico, for example, came at a time when tensions between Texas and Mexico were high, fueled by disputes over border security and immigration.
Texas led the charge against President Obama’s executive action on immigration that would have allowed about 1.6 million undocumented immigrants in the state to work legally and avoid deportation. Abbott, in his role as attorney general, filed suit to stop the program in December. It should have gone into effect Tuesday but has been stuck in federal court since last year.
Cascos said that on his recent visit he was careful to steer away from issues that could hurt Texas' relationship with Mexico.
“My personal thoughts have really nothing to do with the secretary of state’s office,” he said. “I think you go with the mindset that you’re not going to talk about issues that are going to potentially polarize you.”
He said he preferred to emphasize the border and how much the state’s economy is tied to trade with Mexico.
“A lot of people don’t recognize the importance the border has," he said. "Not just on the U.S. side of the border but the whole state.”
Cascos is also candid about what the state has done – or failed to do – to address colonias, impoverished neighborhoods that are prevalent on the border and often lack basic infrastructure like running water, electricity or sewer lines. His office is charged with improving such areas.
“Unfortunately, [lawmakers] use it as a little photo op. They’ll go and visit, they’ll walk it for an hour, take their tie off, walk around, they walk away,” he said.
State Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, who represents dozens of colonias in east El Paso County, said she hoped Cascos would change that pattern.
“I always have hope that individual leaders recognize that we need to do something about colonias, that we cannot continue to have decades worth of blinders on when it comes to colonias,” she said. “I do hope he will take a stronger, more aggressive role in transforming colonias communities.”