By Greg Jefferson
Art Martinez de Vara recalled his triumph at last weekend’s state GOP convention over a Diet Coke in El Chisme Cafe, a diner just outside Von Ormy where the purple walls and two chatty waitresses keep your mind off the overall shabbiness. Two days earlier, he’d stood on the
convention floor in Fort Worth, in front of thousands of grassroots conservatives, and successfully defended a provision in the party’s new platform that softens its hard line on immigration.
He said opponents waited near the microphone stands for hours for the chance to get in their shots.
“They did a full-frontal attack,” said Martinez de Vara, the 37-year-old mayor of Von Ormy – its first. He’s also an attorney, and he chooses his words carefully and says them softly. “They used the same old rhetoric… We had some bullies – they tried to intimidate us at the mics.”
In part, they wanted to beat back a new platform plank that calls for the creation of a federal guest worker program.
The government would issue temporary visas to skilled and unskilled workers in cases where there aren’t enough U.S. citizens to fill jobs – but only after the foreign hands pass criminal background checks, demonstrate proficiency in English, and pay fines if they have any past immigration violations.
Martinez de Vara chaired the subcommittee that devised the immigration plank, which acknowledges that the mass deportation of about roughly 11-million undocumented immigrants “would neither be equitable nor practical.”
Amnesty, on the other hand, “would only encourage future violations of the law.”
We’re not exactly talking about handing control of the border and immigration policy to the lefties. Indeed, the plank also argues for “birthright citizenship,” conferred only on children whose parents are U.S. citizens.
Nevertheless, it does represent a significant turn away from
inflammatory rhetoric in the 2010 Republican platform about “illegal aliens,” local police crackdowns on the undocumented, and efforts to “secure American borders by any means necessary.” The tone and substance owed much more to the strident example of Arizona’s immigration reform than to Texas’ demographics. (Hispanics accounted for two-thirds of Texas’ population growth between 2001 and 2010.) At the time, not one Republican state lawmaker was Hispanic, and the platform – the party’s official statement of principles – seemed to say that the state GOP was OK with that.
Martinez de Vara blames the harshness two years ago on a small, disciplined group of anti-immigrant hardliners led by State Representative Wayne Christian of Nacogdoches.
“His views are definitely not in the mainstream of the party,” Martinez de Vara said. “I knew in my heart that we are the majority of the party.”
Martinez de Vara is a big guy and a fastidious dresser. Monday afternoon, he wore an immaculate white dress shirt, black suspenders, and gray slacks. That set him pretty far apart from El Chisme’s other customers – a dozen men in work shirts, mostly Hispanic, sitting alone or in small groups in front of plates of Tex-Mex.
Martinez de Vara knows this part of South Bexar County intimately, and he probably did more than anybody else to ensure that the blue-collar town of Von Ormy won the right to establish its own government in 2008. His familiarity with the area got the attention of State Representative John Garza, who hired him as general counsel not long after beating Democratic incumbent David Leibowitz in an election-night shocker in 2010. Garza’s House District 117 takes in a large chunk of southwestern Bexar.
Martinez de Vara also has done more than his share of politicking across the county’s southern flank. But considering his forte is Republican politics, his work has been mostly thankless. The area is safe ground for Democrats, just like most places where Hispanics make up the majority.
He’s a founding member of the Federation of Hispanic Republicans, a grassroots group that’s trying to make inroads into Latino communities for the party. But the GOP’s anti-immigrant bent – or the perception of it, as Martinez de Vara would say – has hamstrung efforts to win
“I don’t know how many times I’ve heard in South Bexar County, ‘I’d be Republican if not for immigration.'”
Apart from the get-tough language of the 2010 platform, there was the spectacle of state lawmakers flooding the Lege last year with more than 100 bills aimed at cracking down on undocumented immigrants. But Martinez de Vara contends that a relatively small group of legislators – from rural communities not known for their racial/ethnic diversity – filed most of the legislation, and that none of it passed, unless you count Voter ID.
Looking ahead, he’s hopeful that Texas Republicans can fix their bad reputation among Latinos. The new plank could help.
“But it had nothing to do with pandering to Hispanics,” he said of last weekend’s action. “We think our core party values appeal to Hispanics.”
In Bexar County, Republicans are already having some success fielding Hispanic candidates. A record-breaking nine will compete in Bexar County for legislative and congressional seats in the general election next November.
That kind of showing will surely prove more useful in the effort to win over Latinos than a non-binding platform, and it could build on gains in 2010. That’s when voters sent five Latino Republicans to the Texas House, including Garza, and State Representative Aaron Peña of
Edinburg switched to the Republican Party after the general election.
Maybe as more Hispanics Republicans take places in the Legislature, Anglo conservatives will become comfortable casting ballots for them, and Hispanic conservatives will have more candidates they’re comfortable supporting – and the harder it will be for the Texas GOP to go on an anti-immigrant jag.
Like I said, maybe.
This article was published at Plaza de Armas