Bud Kennedy

For Wendy Davis, unsure footing with Latinos dates back to first campaign

From her political beginning, some Hispanic Democrats have not been totally happy with Wendy Davis.

Now, 10 days before the start of voting in her campaign for Texas governor, her first Hispanic opponent thinks he knows why.

“You have to remember, a lot of Hispanics get hung up on one or two issues,” said Lee Saldivar of Fort Worth, a disappointed also-ran in Davis’ first City Council race.

“They don’t want to hear about anything else but abortion. Or they think only a man and a woman should get married.

“There’s a lot of Catholics who are also Democrats, but they don’t want to hear about the party platform or education or anything else.”

In her first statewide campaign, Davis has encountered some of the same opposition from Hispanic voters as she once found in Fort Worth, but for different reasons.

In 1996, when the south side City Council seat came open, Hispanic leaders had hoped voters in the low-income neighborhoods along Hemphill Street could elect a second Hispanic council member.

A committee had even drafted a “Hispanic 2000” plan.

But Saldivar wound up with only 16 percent of the vote and endorsed Davis’ runoff opponent, eventual winner Cathy Hirt. Saldivar said Hirt was more in tune with low-income neighborhoods than Davis, then a Mistletoe Heights resident.

Hirt served three years before Davis succeeded her in 1999, elected in a district that was by then more than half Hispanic.

In 2001, Latino leaders threatened to sue if Fort Worth did not divide or remap Davis’ district to make room for more Hispanic representation.

The late Louis Zapata, mayor pro tem, chided the council members to “change their way of thinking.”

Nothing changed.

Fernando Florez, Saldivar’s original campaign manager and a Davis opponent back then, is among the former critics campaigning hard for her now.

Davis eventually won over the Hispanic south side voters, Florez wrote by email.

“She is for real and passionate about her beliefs,” he wrote.

But he added, “I am not sure the passion she has for common working people and the struggles has come out” in the campaign.

Saldivar said it’s difficult getting some Hispanic voters to look beyond values debates.

“What should hurt [Republican Greg] Abbott is the Republicans taking money from the schools,” he said.

“We should be emphasizing civil rights, immigration reform and education. But I don’t see a lot of organization or Tarrant County Democratic Party people at the Latinos for Wendy events. I don’t see the same kind of work the Democrats put in to elect Ann Richards” (as governor in 1990).

As the number of Hispanic registered voters in Fort Worth and Texas has grown, the number of elected Hispanic leaders has not.

More than 20 years after the first “Hispanic 2000” plan, Mayor Pro Tem Sal Espino of the north side district remains the only Hispanic on the council.

And Davis is taking on statewide challenges.