Latino caucus keeps an eye on Texas’ future
November 15, 2009

The first Texas Hispanic legislators didn't want to go public when they organized some 40 years ago out of fear they might be considered “un-American.

Written by Gary Scharrer, San Antonio Express-News

AUSTIN — The first Texas Hispanic legislators didn't want to go public when they organized some 40 years ago out of fear they might be considered “un-American.”

Today, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus is growing in influence — and raising record amounts of money — as Texas' population turns increasingly Hispanic.

The Economist magazine recently spotlighted the group as “the caucus to watch.”

“We are a legacy of the social and civil justice work that was started in the 1970s. That is forever going to be part of MALC,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, chairman of the 44-member group. “But we are not just a one-trick pony anymore. ... We have a laserlike focus on the big issues of the day that affect all of Texas.”

Its public policy interests go beyond such bread-and-butter issues as education, health care, voting rights and immigration to include water, insurance, green energy/green jobs and finance. The purpose of the caucus, Martinez Fischer said, “is to create public policy that is good for all of Texas but specifically that is unique to the Latino perspective.”

“Certainly, life is very different in South Texas than it is in the Panhandle, and it takes an organization like MALC to make sure that people in South Texas are just as relevant (to the making of laws) as those in North Texas,” he said.

Gaining clout

Hispanic lawmakers are automatically eligible to join. Non-Hispanic House members are eligible for membership if Hispanics make up at least 50 percent of the voting-age population in their district but must serve one term to compile a voting record and are admitted to the caucus after a vote by MALC members.

It's a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization — although currently there are no Hispanic Republicans in the 150-member House and 31-member Senate.

The makeup and workings of the caucus prompt other considerations of political identity besides party affiliation. Martinez Fischer says the caucus forces the Legislature to consider the diversity of Texas' people. Some outside observers say Texas Hispanics today are also diverse and finding “the Latino perspective” can be tricky.

It was a lot more obvious decades ago. The group formally organized in 1973, although Hispanic lawmakers banded together informally during the 1967 legislative session, said Paul Moreno, the group's first official chairman.

“In those days, you didn't even think of starting a MALC caucus because of the possible backlash and the possible bad publicity that we might get. Some members of the House would say, ‘There go the Mexicans, trying to be un-American,' and stuff like that,” said Moreno, an El Paso Democrat elected to the Legislature in 1966. He lost a primary election last year.

The first mission of the eight Mexican American House members in 1967 was to get a Hispanic legislator appointed to the Appropriations Committee, where state spending policy gets made. In the early days, the caucus also fought to get tenure for Mexican American college professors, Moreno said, and to make sure state agencies hired Hispanics.

The caucus is gaining clout, said Eric Bearse, a Republican consultant and a former senior aide to Gov. Rick Perry.

“They are more cohesive and organized under Trey Martinez Fischer than they have ever been. The challenge for that organization is to reflect, among the caucus, the diversity of viewpoints that exist among Hispanics across Texas today,” Bearse said.

“As the Hispanic population grows, more Hispanics are making their way into the middle class and experiencing greater prosperity. There is no such thing as a homogenous Hispanic viewpoint on issues.”

Hispanic Democrats, Bearse said, will be challenged “not to allow the MALC caucus to become simply a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party.”

The caucus won't think twice about opposing the Democratic Party in redistricting and other issues, Martinez Fischer said.

Population boom

The state's ethnic mix has dramatically shifted since 1980, when Anglos made up 65.7 percent of the population and Hispanics 21 percent. Today, the proportion of Anglos has declined to 45.9 percent while Hispanics have climbed to 38.2 percent.

By 2015, Hispanics are expected to outnumber Anglos and could make up a majority of the Texas population as early as 2026, according to the Texas State Data Center.

In the public schools, Hispanic children already make up a majority of enrollment in kindergarten through second grades.

“MALC is very determined that the Legislature reflects the diversity of our state. To the extent that it bruises people in political parties, we have no concern,” Martinez Fischer said. “That's not pro-Democrat. That's not pro-Republican. That's just being pro-Latino.”

The caucus counts major Republican contributor Bob Perry among its supporters. Perry gave MALC $50,000 last year to help on work-force development and immigration issues.

“Bob Perry understands from a business, philosophical and religious point of view that the immigration debate that is currently taking place within the Republican Party is completely out of touch with reality,” Martinez Fischer said, stressing he was not speaking for Perry and dealt only with representatives of the reclusive Houston homebuilder.

Perry spokesman Anthony Holm said Perry donated the money because he “supports legislators who fight for job creation, better schools and liberty for all Texans.” On immigration, “Bob Perry believes there's been a failure by all sides to adequately resolve the dilemma,” Holm added.

House Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, huddled with MALC members last spring as he tried to pass HB 3, a school accountability measure.

“My mode of operation in putting that bill together was looking at the people it affects, and I needed buy-in from the people it affected most,” Eissler said, adding that non-MALC members generally respect the caucus. “They have been conciliatory and willing to work with other segments.”

Martinez Fischer credits Eissler for listening.

“We ended up with a good piece of legislation,” Martinez Fischer said. “He could have told us to fly a kite but he welcomed our input.”

Heavy-hitting support

MALC raised $480,000 at its main annual fundraiser last month — shattering the previous mark by nearly $200,000 — to support its operations, including a fellowship program to groom young leaders.

Sponsors made up a corporate who's who: Time Warner, AT&T, Wal-Mart, Anheuser Busch, Chevron, H-E-B, Hewlett-Packard, Pepsi/Frito Lay, Reliant, Sprint, Union Pacific, U.S. Steel, ExxonMobil, Boeing, Coca-Cola, Pfizer, Chase, Johnson & Johnson, Marathon Oil, General Electric and dozens more.

“When you run into a (caucus) that big, that organized and that serious about its issues, hey, guess what? You better take them seriously. And that's what that list reflects,” said Bill Miller, partner in HillCo Partners, a governmental affairs consulting firm — and also a MALC sponsor. “Every company or group that's involved in politics always wants to say ... ‘I saw the future, and I saw it first.'”

To see the state's political future, just look at MALC today, Martinez Fischer said.

“In 10 to 15 years ... you are going to find that many of the statewide leaders call MALC home today,” he said

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