With just under two months until Democrats choose their nominee against U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, one of the more prominent candidates is grappling with two controversies of her own making.
The candidate, Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, apologized Monday for making what she described as a joke about her last name, saying it was "more Mexican" than names like Garcia or Lopez. And last week her campaign deleted a tweet touting the endorsement of actress Susan Sarandon, who is notorious to many Democrats for refusing to support their party's presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 election.
In both cases, much of the backlash appeared to be concentrated on social media and coming from close political observers, but they nonetheless registered as attention-grabbing moments in a primary that has been mostly undramatic so far. The one major exception was the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's decision to endorse MJ Hegar last month, which Tzintzún Ramirez and other candidates decried as undue influence that overlooked the field's diversity.
Tzintzún Ramirez has emerged as one of the more serious contenders in the 12-way primary through her fundraising and endorsements, which include the Working Families Party and former staffers for Beto O'Rourke, some of whom drafted her to run. She also has worked to distinguish herself as the leading progressive alternative to Hegar, a former Air Force helicopter pilot.
Tzintzún Ramirez is the founder of a nonprofit group that mobilizes young Latinos in Texas politics. Other candidates include former Houston congressman Chris Bell, former Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards and state Sen. Royce West of Dallas.
The comments about her Mexican roots came in a Dallas Morning News profile published Thursday. The author opened the story by writing that Tzintzún Ramirez "says there’s power in her name" — then quoted a recent speech she gave in Plano.
“Tzintzún is more Mexican than any Garcia or Lopez,” Tzintzún Ramirez said. “We were the only indigenous group in Mexico that were not defeated by the Aztecs. So you know I come from good lineage and I’m ready to defeat John Cornyn.”
The quote prompted online reactions ranging from befuddlement to outrage. The episode touched on Tzintzún Ramirez's background as the daughter of an Irish father and Mexican mother whose surname, initially Costello, has changed over the years through her parents' divorce and a marriage.
A few days later, as the scrutiny simmered, Tzintzún Ramirez posted a series of tweets saying that she has known she will be "attacked from both sides" over her identity "— and it’s already started." She concluded by asking followers to share their own stories about being one of the "millions of Texans that that don't fit into any particular box."
On Monday morning, Tzintzún Ramirez more directly addressed the backlash to the quote.
"I was coming from a place where people often assume Tzintzún isn’t a Mexican last name, which is why I made the joke on the trail, but I clearly took the wrong approach and want to apologize," Tzintzún Ramirez said. "I’ve spoken openly about the fact that my identity has been questioned and attacked my whole life, and I have always said there’s no wrong way to be Latina/Latino/Latinx and I truly believe that."
Tzintzún Ramirez was also on the hot seat about a week earlier due to the endorsement from Sarandon, who supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary but endorsed the Green Party's Jill Stein in the general election. Along the way, Sarandon was vocal in her criticism of Clinton, suggesting at one point that she was "more dangerous" than Donald Trump.
It was not long after Tzintzún tweeted the Sarandon endorsement on Dec. 31 that she amassed an overwhelmingly negative response, with people replying to the tweet saying they could not support someone who embraces Sarandon. Others called it an unforced error by a campaign that had been gaining momentum in their view.
The next day, the tweet was gone, and Tzintzún Ramirez's campaign acknowledged it had been a misstep.
"The endorsement was beginning to distract from what we are trying to accomplish," campaign manager David Sanchez wrote on Twitter. "We want to focus on what this campaign is about: bringing people together around big ideas for Texas."