By Alan Bean
Leticia Van de Putte came to Fort Worth last week and, without meaning to do so, rekindled my hope for the future of progressive politics in Texas.
Leticia, in case you were wondering, is the Democratic candidate for Texas Lieutenant Governor, a post many see as more powerful than the governorship. She is pushing 60 and looks like your favorite aunt: full figure, big smile, generous hugs–the whole bit.
Van de Putte has been in the Texas Senate for decades, fashioning a reputation as a pragmatic, principled and non-partisan legislator. She first came to my attention in 2001, when she championed the “Tulia Bill” in the Texas Senate that introduced greater accountability into the criminal justice system.
Leticia’s appearance in Fort Worth was a blessedly casual affair announced on Facebook and hosted by State Representative Ramon Romero in his enormous backyard. The evening featured Texas BBQ and lots of traditional Mexican music with a little country in the mix.
The gathering touched me the way political events rarely do. The sizable crowd looked like Texas, a colorful mosaic of Latinos, African Americans and white progressives. There were university professors, mechanics, nurses, musicians, priests and postal workers in the house. The crowd ranged from babes in arms to octogenarians with a healthy mix of young people.
We don’t like to talk about it much, but Democratic politics in Texas is a pretty segregated affair. As I chauffeur my wife between campaign events (Nancy is running for State Board of Education) I am often frustrated by the monochromatic crowds we encounter, especially when we’re talking to long-established Democratic clubs.
White Democrats tend to be old timers who remember the glory days when white Texans voted blue, or staunch pro-choice liberals who question the ideological purity of minority Democrats on hot button issues like gay rights and abortion.
I sometimes worry that, in the eyes of both liberal and old-school white Democrats, minority political involvement is seen as problematic, a mixed blessing at best. While white liberals see minorities as too socially conservative, old-school white Democrats fear that their party’s association with racial diversity will turn off moderate Republicans who have been alienated by Tea Party extremism.
Nobody every says these things, of course. Democrats aren’t supposed to think such tacky thoughts. If you think I’m wrong let me know.
Black and Latino Democrats, for their part, can’t understand why white people aren’t more excited to have them on board. As the white slice of the Texan population slowly shrinks, shouldn’t white Democrats be celebrating minority leadership?
Enter Leticia Van de Putte. Her folksy speech from the balcony of Ramon’s lovely home celebrated the racial, generational and linguistic diversity of her audience. Moving effortlessly from English to Spanish and back again, the candidate for Texas Lieutenant Governor made us feel like we were all playing by the same rules and for the same team. Her politics are inclusive, pragmatic and basically non-partisan. She wants to see Texas work for everybody regardless of social class, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation or religion.
Ah, yes, religion. While Republicans have transformed the long-suffering Jesus into a party mascot, white Democrats prefer a religiously neutral brand of politics. We are, in other words, a-religious.
There are two big problems with this approach. It plays into the with-God-on-our-side meme that contrasts godless liberals with pious conservatives. More importantly, it alienates the growing minority faction within the party, a group of Baptists, Roman Catholics and Pentecostals for whom religion is central.
When Ramon Romero asked Fort Worth City Commissioner Roy Brooks to lead the group in prayer I could have cried. Okay, I did cry.
Yeah, I know, religion should be approached with great care in a political context. We don’t want the Muslims, Jews and other religious folk alienated. And we don’t want to antagonize the smattering of atheists and agnostics in the party. On the other hand, we’ve got to inject some soul, some spirituality into our politics.
Commissioner Brooks was more than up to the task. For his prayer, he quoted a verse from “The Black National anthem”: Lift Every Voice and Sing:
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God,
where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world,
we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.
James Weldon Johnson’s lyrics provided the perfect prayer for the occasion: compelling, profound, and spiritual in the best sense of that over-used word.
The prayer gave Leticia tacit permission to reflect on her own faith journey. Appropriate religious language, the kind that doesn’t offend religious minorities or alienate the unbeliever, was part of this informal back yard gathering because white people weren’t in charge.
And that’s the lesson white Texas Democrats must learn: we can’t win until we let our non-white brothers and sisters take the lead. Latinos won’t vote in large numbers until we give them candidates they can relate to: people like Leticia San Miguel Van de Putte.
Ramon Romero’s back yard party left me feeling warm and hopeful. I suspect November’s election will mark another big win for Texas Republicans. The numbers suggest as much. But we have also seen the first glimmerings of a Texas Democratic Party that revels in its diversity and knows how to make the most of it. That’s good news for all Texans: conservative and liberal, religious and unreligious, gay and straight, young and old, black, white and Latino.