Being There

Suddenly, he's on the front page of the New York Times and being feted at fundraisers in River Oaks and the plusher precincts of Dallas. But his remarkable rise from pickup-driving schoolteacher-cum-fringe candidate to Democratic U.S. Senate nominee raises the obvious question: will success spoil Victor Morales?

Morales, naturally, says not to worry, he's cool -- despite the crush of consultants and politicians and other new friends who've offered him their assistance in the wake of his victory over Dallas Congressman John Bryant in the April 9 runoff. And as of last weekend at least, Morales was without a public relations intermediary and still personally fielding reporters' calls to his Dallas-area home.

"If you write anything about who I am," instructs the high school government teacher, "you write 'Morales dances for no one,' that I never -- underline never -- say things because I think the voters are going to go for it. I say what I feel. I've done it for ten months, and that is what I will continue to do."

But it must be difficult to maintain that kind of grassroots purity when you're getting hit with offers like the one Morales says he got last week during a fundraiser at Dallas' elegantly snobby The Mansion on Turtle Creek.

"Somebody offered me a very nice place, 1,500 square feet of office space in Turtle Creek, for a headquarters," he relates. "I turned it down because it's not me, and it was not the broad population I'm trying to serve."

Instead, Morales says, he will set up his state headquarters in Mesquite. He wants it somewhere close to Poteet High School, where he taught before taking a leave from his job, "so my students will be able to volunteer."

Of course, Morales did leave his signature Nissan pickup in the garage to fly around the state with Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. But according to Leonel Castillo, one of the few Houstonians who lent Morales a receptive ear prior to his ballot success, the experience just wasn't, well, Victor.

"These Democratic senators showedup, and suddenly they put him on a plane, and put him in a $200 room in Austin," says Castillo.

Cruz Alderete, a Kingwood financier who also was an early Morales adviser, says the clash of styles was readily apparent when Morales and his entourage strolled into Houston's Four Seasons Hotel to meet with Kerrey. "Mr. Morales, have you stayed with us before?" asked a hotel bellman. "A place like this?" replied Morales. "Man, I've never stayed in a place like this!"

Alderete says the bellman looked a bit bewildered, so another Morales backer added, "Sir, we're not even Motel 6 people -- we're Motel 3."

It was quite a contrast to the reception Morales says he received about two months ago when he tried to introduce himself to leading Hispanic Democrats in Houston.

"Most times, I was not given the time of day or listened to," he says. "That bothered me."

Morales did inveigle an audience with former city councilman Ben Reyes, once considered the city's ranking Mexican-American kingmaker, but got nowhere.

"He sat and listened to my spiel, and proceeded to tell me about his political experience," says Morales. "And that was it."

Some doors, however, weren't completely closed to the 46-year-old Crandall city councilman. One of those belonged to Castillo, education adviser to Mayor Bob Lanier and onetime commissioner of the INS, who began talking with Morales about his candidacy late last fall. Castillo took an interest in Morales after being importuned by Alderete, a mutual friend. A New Mexico-born Native American and self-described Republican who heads Capital American Group, Alderete had met Morales a decade earlier through his wife's friendship with Morales' wife Dana, who is also a Native American.

Castillo says he gave Morales the standard warning: that without money, name identification and an issue "other than hating Phil Gramm," he stood little chance of vanquishing his three better-funded Democratic opponents. He concluded that Morales had little going for him, other than a big heart.

With the benefit of hindsight, Castillo now allows that Morales' candidacy blossomed in "what some people call the pet rock environment. You just have to introduce pet rocks at the right time. At a certain time, people will buy certain things or certain people. Victor just hit it right."

While Morales takes this week off to rest up, Castillo and some of the candidate's other early supporters are mulling over ways he can retain his populist appeal while meeting the demands of a big-time campaign against a big-money incumbent.

"My guess is he's going to assemble a few key folks and do some strategizing on how he can do more of the same," says Alderete. "That's get out and see a lot of people in the next 140 days, and leave some folks behind to do the administration and paperwork."

One idea Castillo and Alderete have batted around is to have a number of pickups stationed in different parts of the state that Morales could fly to, rather than spend all his time driving the vast expanses of Texas.

"Suppose [his] pickup breaks?" asks Castillo. "It's an older truck. Then what happens?" Such are the new considerations for Morales, now that somebody will actually be expecting his arrival at his destinations.

Alderete says he sees no paradox in Morales taking to the air -- other than the fact the candidate is afraid of flying. As for expensive hotel rooms supplied by the Democratic Party, Alderete suggests that Morales should just take a "when in Rome" attitude.

"You can't fabricate poverty all the time," he quips. "It's not effective."
Neither can you fabricate the three things that the prevailing wisdom says no serious candidate can do without: money, money and more money. Prior to his victory over Bryant, Morales' fundraising was of the pass-the-hat variety. That's already changed. But even if the national Democratic Party comes up with a million or so dollars for his campaign against Gramm, as has been suggested, Castillo figures Morales will need a lot more.

All this sounds suspiciously like Morales is about to be weighted down with the baggage of the standard-issue candidate. But Morales himself vows that he'll continue to speak his mind. And unlike some of the Democratic Party's other recent nominees for statewide office, Morales seems sure of his audience, as evidenced by his willingness to needle Gramm for his repeated invocations of his metaphorical Everyman, Mexia printer Dickie Flatt.

"Dickie Flatt is one small segment of the population, a small businessman, right?" notes Morales. "Are most people businessmen? No, most of us are consumers, laborers.

"No disrespect to Dickie Flatt, but I get bothered that I'm constantly told 'Well,if it's good enough for Dickie Flatt, it's good enough for Victor Morales.' I don't think so. Hey, the world's a lot bigger than that, Phil.

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Tim Fleck
Contact: Tim Fleck