Gilberto Hinojosa — attorney, former Cameron County judge, Cameron County Democratic Party Chairman and Democratic National Committee member — is on a mission to turn back the red tide in Texas and elect Democrats statewide!
The first Hispanic chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, Hinojosa was elected in a landslide at the State Convention in Houston, and he hit the ground running after delivering a fiery acceptance speech that had delegates on their feet and cheering.
A proud native of the Rio Grande Valley, Hinojosa went to law school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., worked as a migrant legal services attorney and then returned to Texas for a long and successful legal and political career.
He is already meeting with Party leaders (past, present and future) and talking with anyone who will listen about the future of the Texas Democratic Party. Although his voice had become a bit raspy, Hinojosa gave generously of his time for this interview, before heading home to the Valley to see his family.
QUESTION: Congratulations on being elected by such an overwhelming margin. That must make you happy — doubly eager to start fighting to elect Democrats.
HINOJOSA: I was pleased, yes. The support form Travis County was overwhelming, and that was very heartening, because both my opponents were from Travis County. So I’m overwhelmed with the support … and with the challenge.
QUESTION: You seem to be full-steam ahead on that challenge! I know state conventions are usually upbeat, but how did you read the mood in Houston? Were people despondent over our inability to elect a Democrat statewide since 1994?
HINOJOSA: There was a lot of optimism. People felt we were coming to a new era with the Texas Democratic Party, and I think that a combination of factors come into play. First, the Party recognizes that this is a doable thing, given the demographics and dynamics in Texas today. We are a minority-majority state now, and there’s a strong possibility that our time as the minority Party is short.
The other thing that’s giving people optimism is the Republican Party is becoming more and more extreme. It’s so far to the right that it’s totally out of the mainstream of America. They’re trying to exploit racial fears, and it’s almost becoming a party made up of bigoted political strategists and commentators. That’s not the way a large major of Americans think, and I think they’re getting turned off by that.
QUESTION: We’ve beaten the topic of low Latino turnout to death, but Democratic turnout in general in Texas is abysmal. The 2010 defeats we suffered statewide were due in part to poor turnout. What grassroots plans do you have to excite those stay-at-home voters?
HINOJOSA: Travis County is at the forefront of successful grassroots efforts, so you guys know that there’s nothing more effective than boots on the ground, direct contact with voters. But I think the Party in Texas has spent too much time going after the independent vote and not enough time or resources focusing on our base. Progressive Anglos, African Americans, labor, young people, the LGBT community tend to vote Democratic. Hispanics make up 40 percent of the state’s population and about 60 percent of our base, although they do turn out in low numbers. If we use our resources for multiple contacts to that low performing community, it usually results in increased turnout of 10 to 15 percent. And that’s really all you need to win statewide.
QUESTION: What about messaging? Are we doing enough to tell voters why Democrats are better for Texas?
HINOJOSA: We definitely need more effective communication with the Latino base. We need to educate them in a way they can relate to about the importance of voting. For example, we need to elect officials who will vote to support public education, which Republicans clearly have not. We need to tell people that if you don’t vote, you are turning your back on public education, and as parents, you have an obligation to give your children a good education.
QUESTION: At the convention, delegates talked a lot about candidate recruitment — and how hard it has been to fill statewide spots on the ballot. How will you convince good candidates to take on that challenge?
HINOJOSA: We need dynamic leaders — Kirk Watson, Mark Strama, Julian Castro, Wendy Davis — who can excite people to get out there and make that push. Running a Hispanic for office isn’t the only thing that’s necessary to energize Hispanic voters. Hispanics are just like anybody else. If you don’t excite them, it doesn’t matter what your last name is. Lloyd Doggett and Ann Richards energized the base and got them to the polls.
The Party has an obligation to promote our leaders. We need to get out there early and give our Democratic leaders an opportunity to be introduced to the base, to be showcased across the state and develop constituencies outside of their own districts. Then maybe they’ll start thinking they have a chance statewide and will be willing to let go of the mayoral or county or district offices they hold and give it a shot statewide.
QUESTION: And we need to start doing that soon for 2014, right?
HINOJOSA: Yes, you really have to start recruiting candidates now for the next election cycle. There should be no unanswered, unopposed elections on the ballot. We need to run someone at every stage of the election categories. That way you start developing talent and also increase turnout statewide. If you have contested elections, you see more push and pull, and that increases total turnout. The real work begins now, and it’s doable. We can turn this thing around, and we must not fail.