The Sanchez Factor

Can big bucks and a Spanish surname buy Democrat voters' love?

Laredo half-billionaire Tony Sanchez had a mid-workday gubernatorial coming-out party last week that was more notable for what was absent than present. The reception room of the Hyatt Regency downtown drew a mixture of about 350 mostly Hispanic Democratic activists and a smattering of party officeholders. They cheered and clapped at all the right moments, but the affair lacked a certain passion and electricity that might have been expected of a groundbreaking candidacy.

Part of the political thunder had been co-opted the day before when the GOP's irascible veteran Phil Gramm announced his impending retirement from the U.S. Senate, effectively bumping a Sanchez piece off the front page of The New York Times. It also sparked a groundswell of rumors about the politicians who might run for Gramm's seat -- and who might in turn run for theirs. Sanchez also had made Houston the last stop on his two-day announcement tour across Texas.

Judging by the Houston speech and a precampaign appearance at the local Democrats' Johnson-Rayburn dinner earlier this year, Sanchez himself is far from ready for prime time. The stocky 58-year-old banker/energy exec/business investor looks a lot like former good ol' boy governor Dolph Briscoe. And his speaking style at this stage has the wooden Indian persona of Mayor Lee Brown. Sanchez's stump speech also has the same "I picked pineapples and melons" stories of youthful hard times as Brown -- delivered in the same rote style.

Sanchez's Houston debut: Light on charisma, heavy on cash.
Deron Neblett
Sanchez's Houston debut: Light on charisma, heavy on cash.
Sanchez's Houston debut: Light on charisma, heavy on cash.
Deron Neblett
Sanchez's Houston debut: Light on charisma, heavy on cash.

His public personality calls to mind the doomed figure of Bob Kruegerin 1993, when he lost a special election runoff to Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison. The senatorial appointee of then-governor Ann Richards was a veritable black hole of charisma. He could enter a charged gathering and instantly drain it of energy.

So far, Sanchez's handlers have shielded him from rough-and-tumble questioning by the media. As an untested political neophyte, he's in the same position as that similarly self-funded GOP gubernatorial beginner, rancher Clayton Williams, whose loose lips blew a big lead against Richards in 1990.

The Sanchez campaign also has gone through early turbulence. Robin Rorapaugh, Sanchez's initial adviser, has since departed, to be replaced by Austin veteran Glenn Smith, whose last statewide campaign was for Richards in the 1990 primary.

Sanchez also carries the stigma of having supported then-governor George Bush in his 1998 re-election, which earned him an appointment to the University of Texas Board of Regents. While some die-hard liberals like Billie Carr find his infidelity hard to swallow, others, like Heights political activist and import-company owner Macario Ramirez, are willing to look past Sanchez's Republican flirtations.

"The first thing he said was 'I have money to run,' " Ramirez notes. "He's basically a Democrat, and that's going to help out."

Sanchez does possess the two things that Democrats desperately need in their attempt to crack total Republican domination at the statewide level: unlimited cash and a Spanish surname.

Bill White, the Wedge Group CEO and former state Democratic Party chairman who led the party through a period of financial drought, figures the former asset outweighs the latter.

"To be real candid, I don't think Tony's ethnicity is as important as the fact that he will have a well-funded campaign," says White, who served as an energy undersecretary in the Bill Clinton administration. "In Texas right now, the second-largest state in the nation, to win one of these contests against people who have unlimited funds requires $15 to $20 million. Tony can get that kind of financial support."

Considering Sanchez is a guy worth an estimated $600 million, he can probably get that kind of change from his local ATM.

"We'll raise some money," campaign manager Smith says with a touch of smugness. "This campaign will have funds."

An aide for a Houston Democratic official agreed, with a caveat: "Oh, they'll have plenty of money, but will they spend it effectively? That's the big question."

Congressman Gene Green, the Houstonian who has held his majority Hispanic district for a decade without a major challenge, figures Sanchez can appeal to working-class whites as well as Hispanics, but it will take some work.

"It's going to take a lot of personal effort from himself to build that coalition and that support…George Bush is very personable, and that's his success. I want Tony Sanchez to also be that personable to win folks over."

Even if Sanchez wins the party primary but fails against the GOP's unelected incumbent Rick Perry, Harris County Democrats could be major beneficiaries of the effort.

State Senator Mario Gallegos has been critical of his party in the past for failing to water its Hispanic grass roots at election time. He believes the Sanchez campaign will make 2002 a very different year.

"You'll see the largest minority turnout ever," predicts Gallegos. "Even larger than what came out for Richards." With the county's judiciary almost totally in the hands of the GOP, the senator predicts major changes if Democrats field candidates for every position.

"The time is right for us to take some of those court benches back for the Democratic Party and make things more equal. I think we can get 'em all, to tell you the truth."

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