He still was on Thursday. But it’s getting harder all the time. The Houston businessman and former national chair of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly didn’t bother to hide his anger when we talked. The anti-immigrant rhetoric he was railing about years ago in bygone campaign seasons has found new life in his party’s primary race for lieutenant governor.
Villarreal and several other Hispanic GOP leaders are sickened by it.
“I have made the Kool-Aid for many years for other Hispanics to come into the party – I made the Kool-Aid and people drank it,” said Villarreal, who is also a former chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “And I refuse to make that kind of Kool-Aid anymore. Not for this party. Not for these leaders.”
For a party that desperately needs to appeal to Hispanic voters, a loudmouthed few among Republican candidates seem to be doing all they can to push the growing population of potential voters away.
Right now, the poster child of the loudmouths is state Sen. Dan Patrick, who has run a shockingly nativist campaign, even for Texas. He wasn’t the only candidate singing the “secure the border” mantra at the debate the other night. And all four lieutenant governor candidates want to repeal in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.
But he has relentlessly tried to tie immigrants to violent crime, skewing numbers in the process, and he has waxed alarmist about alien “invasions.”
“I don’t know of one Hispanic Republican who isn’t appalled by Dan Patrick,” Villarreal wrote in an email that prompted me to call him. “If Dan Patrick wins, he will be the Pete Wilson of Texas.”
And if Patrick wins the March primary, Villarreal, the son of a Mexican immigrant, swears another state senator will get his vote for lieutenant governor: Leticia Van de Putte, a Democrat from San Antonio.
Other Hispanic Republican leaders didn’t go that far. Some said they could never back a Democrat, no matter what the circumstances. But they seemed just as concerned about what Patrick’s inflammatory message is doing to the party’s reputation among Hispanics, Asians and anyone with close ties to immigrants.
‘We have to stand up’
“I don’t shy away from embracing my party, but at the same time we have to stand up,” said George Antuna, co-founder of the Hispanic Republicans of Texas and state GOP executive committee member who has spent decades in the party’s trenches.
He said he was so proud a few years ago when GOP convention delegates passed a platform that included the “Texas Solution” on immigration, calling for a guest worker program.
“It was almost tear-jerking. I’m at this convention, solid red crowd, and for the most part, rabid conservatives, but we still passed it,” Antuna said. “Now it’s ‘OK, Dan, we just had this convention, and then you come back and say you know better than the 17,000 delegates who attended?’ ”
Patrick didn’t respond to my request for comment. His campaign consultant, Allen Blakemore, said the candidate was on the road campaigning.
Antuna calls Patrick’s anti-immigrant strategy potential “short-term gain” for himself that could have “long-term negative ramifications” for the party.
Lionel Sosa, who many consider the “grandfather” of Latino Republicans for his decades of activism and consultancy that go back to the late 1970s under Republican U.S. Sen. John Tower, agrees.
“You can be conservative and careful what you say, but you don’t have to go out and turn off a whole group of voters by calling it an alien invasion,” said Sosa, who is working on the campaign of Patrick’s opponent, Jerry Patterson. “The bulk of Republicans are good, conservative, sane, wonderful people who will do the right thing. But we have a few folks who don’t seem to care about the long-term future of the Republican brand. And leading the pack is Dan Patrick.”
Marisa Rummell has spent her life building up the Republican Party. The longtime conservative Montgomery County activist is a member of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, and the group’s Texas chair. But as a Latina, there are some days even she doesn’t feel welcome.
Hijacking the party
“A lot of us feel like the Republican Party is being hijacked,” Rummell told me. “A lot of us are law-abiding citizens who worked hard to build businesses here and our future here. We believe in this country and everything it stands for. But for some of the rhetoric coming out of Mr. Patrick’s mouth, you would think everybody’s a criminal. It just isn’t fair.”
Unlike some critics, Rummell believes Patrick has a good chance of prevailing in March: “He has a radio station for goodness’ sakes. He’s been able to reach a lot of people for years and years.”
He’s crossed the line
What angers Jacob Monty, a former University of Houston regent and recent Gov. Perry-appointee to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, is how black-and-white Patrick tries to paint the immigration dilemma.
“We reject that false choice that if you’re not for hating on Hispanics, you want open borders and cartels running around Texas,” said Monty, the grandson of immigrants. “There’s a line and, clearly, Patrick has crossed it.”
The thing Patrick doesn’t seem to get, or maybe he’d rather not think too hard about, is that for many Texans, attacks on immigrants are personal. They’re attacks against mom or dad, or grandma.
“When Dan Patrick talks about illegals, he’s talking about my father,” Villarreal told me. His father emigrated from Mexico at 17, working 75-hour weeks at bakery jobs that paid 75 cents an hour.
He and others point out there’s a lot to be hopeful about for Republican Hispanics, including the candidacy of George P. Bush, who is running for land commissioner, and the prospect of Texas’ first Hispanic first lady if Greg Abbott is elected governor. All of them lean toward Patterson, the land commissioner, for lieutenant governor. He was one of the driving forces in making the Texas Republican Party platform more immigrant-friendly.
But hope has been squandered before, namely after Hispanics helped George W. Bush win the presidency. Bush, who sprinkled his speeches with Spanish, understood that Hispanics were a vital constituency.
“George W. Bush, he got it. He understood we were the fabric of the party. Dan Patrick wants to soil the fabric. He doesn’t think we belong.”