Ten minutes left on the clock.
The tension, palpable. The chaos, looming.
By now, the scene had drawn an estimated 180,000 viewers from around the country, even attracting the attention of President Barack Obama.
Orange-clad activists filled the Texas Capitol gallery in solidarity with state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Forth Worth), who stood for 11 hours to defeat one of the harshest abortion laws in the nation. Using every parliamentary trick in their arsenal, conservative Republicans on the Senate floor aimed to knock Davis off her feet during the now-storied filibuster. With moments to go before the end of the special session, they succeeded in calling a third and final strike against her.
Across the room, close friend, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) struggled to gain the attention of the presiding senate chair, who passed up the newly elected president pro tem (technically, second in command at the Senate) for her male counterparts. Frustrated, exhausted and incredulous, Van de Putte couldn’t handle it any longer.
“At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?,” she asked, eliciting thunderous applause and sustained cheers from those vigilantly watching from above—the “unruly mob” as they were later derided by Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. The echoes of the pro-choice advocates reverberated through the chamber, drowning out a final vote on the abortion-restrictive bill.
If you were present, you could feel it in your bones: the shifting of tides; the awakening of a sleeping giant; the birth of something unprecedented among the Texas grassroots. And with her powerful statement that evening—a call to simply be heard as a woman in a room dominated by men, an encapsulation of the indignation felt by hundreds of thousands watching their basic rights to their own bodies stripped away—San Antonio’s Van de Putte helped catalyze it.
But she wasn’t even supposed to be there.
Fresh off a condensed stream of unexpected personal tragedies, all within the year—including the sudden death of her infant grandson, a car accident that killed her father and the death of her mother-in-law—the senator arrived at the Capitol just hours after her father’s funeral.
“I had just buried my dad that afternoon, so I didn’t expect to be on the Senate floor that day,” said Van de Putte, during an interview with the Current at the Alamo Area Council of Governments headquarters. “I knew Wendy was doing the filibuster but it was nowhere near my mindset. I was just trying to be with the people who came to pay my dad tribute.”
So what compelled the emotionally and physically fatigued senator to step into one of the most controversial Senate debates in Texas legislative history?
A photo montage flashed across the screen during the burial service, an image of her father standing up, clapping and blowing kisses to Van de Putte as she walked across the Senate floor to be honored at the ceremonial Governor For A Day event last May. “It hit me, he was standing up for me,” she recounted, tears welling in her eyes.
Van de Putte paused, collected her thoughts, and continued, “I got a call from [Chief of Staff] Gilbert [Loredo] who said, ‘I hate to bother you, but they just called the second point of order on Davis and I think they’re gonna get her.’ I thought maybe if she saw me, if I was just there, she could get some strength.”
But when she arrived, a stunned Van de Putte was met with what she considers intentional disregard from Senate leadership.
“I realized they turned off my mic—the press could hear me, the gallery could hear me and the president of the chamber [state Sen. Robert Duncan] at the time was calling on [state] Sen. [Dan] Patrick ahead of me,” she said. “I could not get recognized, so when I finally did, what came out of my mouth was pure frustration; it was me being enraged.”
“And it resonated because they weren’t listening to any of us, they weren’t listening to women, they weren’t listening to doctors, and when thousands of women showed up to testify during the committee hearings they weren’t given the opportunity to voice their concerns.”
Now, in an act of political poetic justice, the woman who refused to be silenced will try to either unseat and replace the man who presided over the body that tried so hard to silence her, or will go head to head with the man whose voice trampled her own, though in either case she’ll face an uphill battle.
Though born on a military base in Tacoma, Wash., Van de Putte calls San Antonio home. A sixth-generation Texan, she grew up and still lives on the city’s West Side; for the last 30 years, her family has occupied the same house off Zarzamora Street and Mulberry, a block and a half from her childhood home. The oldest of five siblings in a Roman Catholic household, Van de Putte (whose maiden name is San Miguel) was constantly surrounded by family; her grandparents resided just three blocks away and cousins lived nearby. The San Miguels, she said, “ran in a pack” at school.
She describes her upbringing as a “loving, bustling environment” and reflects fondly on her childhood. But it wasn’t all easy living for the San Miguels. Though not impoverished, by no means were they well off, said Van de Putte. Her grandfather’s barter system kept fresh fruits and vegetables stocked in the fridge, but at times electricity was shut off due to expense—Van de Putte would turn those moments into a game of “camp out” to appease and distract her younger siblings.
Van de Putte also remembers when racial divisions separated the city. She recounted getting suspended as a third grader for three days for speaking Spanish on the school playground—an offense at the time. (If she had been male, the punishment could have resulted in a whipping.) In the ’50s and ’60s, Van de Putte witnessed the transition to integration and her mother, seeking to teach her eldest child that race shouldn’t be a factor in judging character, placed her in a young Girl Scouts troop, one of the few integrated organizations at the time. (They didn’t teach “little Barbie girls,” said Van de Putte, who picked up scuba diving, spelunking and HAMM radio operation as a scout.)
“I remember growing up in a San Antonio that still had segregation, an era when it wasn’t the ‘good old times,’” she said. “But I also know by the time I got into high school, the civil rights movement had begun and changed a lot of boundaries.”
Heavily influenced by her grandfather, a pharmacist, Van de Putte hoped to emulate her hero and dreamt of one day owning her own pharmacy. Even when people bought a dose of aspirin from him, they looked at her grandfather with such “admiration and respect” she said, coveting the same reverence at early age. After obtaining her degree in the field from the University Texas at Austin in 1979, Van de Putte would come to fulfill her goal, and opened her own pharmacy in the Loma Park area some years later.
In between, Van de Putte married her partner Pete, a small business owner (and, according to LVDP, the “cutest white guy who is a trombone player”), and raised six children. A political career wasn’t anywhere on the horizon for the pharmacist and mother. In fact, her foray into the political sphere was a self-described “accident.”
Early on, her only real political involvement occurred when Pete served as campaign treasurer for current Precinct 2 County Commissioner Paul Elizondo’s successful legislative campaign in 1978, and Van de Putte assisted with mailers and coffee gatherings.
But that didn’t mean she wasn’t engaged. Van de Putte was vocal when it came to issues that needed to be rectified in her community and when she spoke up, someone was there to give her a platform. For instance, when she complained about the lack of restrooms in downtown SA, she was placed on the Centro21 task force; when she noted the slow progress in getting Rodriguez Park refurbished after a major flood, she found herself on the Parks advisory board.
In 1990, a San Antonio state representative seat became vacant and Van de Putte, with a newfound taste for eliciting local change, decided to throw her hat into the ring with low to no anticipation of an actual victory. “No one expected me to win, including my husband and I. But I did and loved it and have found it exceedingly rewarding ever since,” she said.
That accidental political ride lasted Van de Putte until 1999, when she was elected state Senator. During her combined roughly 23 years on the Texas Legislature, Van de Putte’s role as a pharmacist, a business owner, military family member and Latina helped shaped her legislative accomplishments in health care, economic development, veterans affairs and immigration. That ability to “walk the walk” on several issues lent the representative credibility during her early political career.
Her legacy of accomplishments for SA includes securing funding for the downtown University of Texas at San Antonio campus, the UT Health Science Center-San Antonio, some $200 million to fund a children’s cancer research institute, assistance for the Kelly Air Force base redevelopment and allowing sales tax to fund Pre-K4SA.
“I remember I sweated and worked and wouldn’t leave the negotiating room for 36 hours because if I left they’d cut it out [of the budget],” said Van de Putte of UTHSC. “Those things don’t just happen; to get major investments done you need someone to be there to champion it.”
Van de Putte is also behind legislation to halt human trafficking, inject millions into public education funding, improve women’s health funding and increase competition within the telecommunications industry. But she is perhaps most noted for her role in looking out for military families and veterans. As Chair of the Veteran Affairs & Military Committee, Van de Putte championed legislation to improve the quality of life for service members and their families, such as providing in-state tuition for non-Texas veterans, a program to facilitate school transitions for children of military parents when transferred to new stations and allowing tuition payment exemptions for veterans to apply to their children.
Prior to last summer’s filibuster, Van de Putte’s most head-turning maneuver was leading the “Texas 11” in 2003—the group of Texas Senate Democrats that decamped to New Mexico for 46 days in order to obstruct the passage of yet another controversial state redistricting plan that would have heavily favored Republicans.
These efforts have helped her become a steady rock for Texas Dems—Van de Putte served as co-chair of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, acted as a former president of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), is the recipient of the League of United Latin American Citizens’ “Legislative Recognition Award” and in 2013, Van de Putte was named one of Texas Monthly’s Ten Best Legislators.
While her legislative career began as a whim, her next political chapter would be anything but folly.
On a Saturday in August, Grace Garcia caught up with her close friend of more than four decades over lunch at El Mirador Mexican Restaurant on South St. Mary’s.
Companions since their days at Jefferson High School, the women chatted for nearly two hours before Garcia, executive director of Annie’s List, threw on her professional hat and asked the seemingly inevitable, “Will you consider running for lieutenant governor?”
Across the table sat Van de Putte, still reeling from the deaths that overshadowed an otherwise good year, hesitant toward the proposal but also intrigued.
“It was a difficult decision for her to make because of the losses she had this year,” said Garcia over the phone from her Austin office. “She was truly undecided. I could see in her that she wanted to do it on some level, but she really wanted her family to be OK first.”
After a long stint at the State Department and the White House where she worked for President Bill Clinton and later Hillary Clinton, Garcia returned to her home state to head Annie’s List with the mission of recruiting strong female Democrats to office. Garcia said she had to remove herself and “honestly assess” her old friend’s chances at holding one of the most powerful statewide positions, personal biases aside.
A combination of Van de Putte’s reputation for bipartisan cooperation, her legislative track record (especially concerning middle-class family and women’s issues) and her ability to genuinely connect with voters in a personal way, said Garcia, made the choice clear. And in the eyes of the woman-centered political organization, endorsing Van de Putte for lite guv would also bring a historic element to the November election, marking the first time two women have been at the top of the ticket in Texas.
The work to edge Van de Putte to a bid took flight: A favorable preliminary poll by Garcia’s group showed the strength of the senator’s growing name recognition and the increasing weakness of the GOP field, instilling some confidence. A November Annie’s List luncheon with Davis at the San Antonio Marriott Riverwalk drew 1,000 attendees (double the size of last year’s event) and elicited a standing ovation when Garcia called on Van de Putte to run. A coalition of institutional organizations like the Texas Democratic Party, the AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood and the new, former Obama operative-backed Battleground Texas all rallied behind Van de Putte, urging her to run.
Gliberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party, spent several months in talks with Van de Putte, delicately encouraging her to make the jump.
“The conversation required us to not only recognize and understand the difficulty of what she was having to deal with, but also express how critical her candidacy for lieutenant governor would be,” said Hinojosa. “And how much of a difference it would truly make to the lives of the people she dearly loved; women, children and families struggling to make it.”
For the TDP, Van de Putte is suited in the best possible position to ascend to the post: She’s a passionate public speaker, she’s charismatic and she’s a policy wonk. On top of all of that—the “icing on the cake”—said Hinojosa, is the fact that she’s a Latina.
But, still, she remained undecided. What tipped the scales for the mother of six was receiving the endorsement of her family.
“While sister and dear friend Wendy Davis knew pretty quickly after the filibuster she’d be running, I was just trying to find a way to breathe, to put one foot in front of the other and to help my family grieve,” said Van de Putte, who, at the time, was still in the process of handwriting some 600 thank-you cards to those who sent their condolences to the San Miguel family. She cringed at the thought of putting her family through increased scrutiny.
“I know that although Republicans will tell you they’re the party of family values, they’ll be the first to go after your family,” she said, alluding to criticisms of Davis’ past, amplified by right-wing politicians and commentators. “And after suffering so many losses in our family, it was a very difficult decision for us and one that I was reluctant to make.”
In fact, Van de Putte said she was actively trying to recruit someone else to the statewide post.
But hearing the overwhelming enthusiasm among her allies, Van de Putte turned to her family and her faith for guidance. The Van de Puttes eventually decided they were strong enough to handle the campaign and in mid-November, admittedly late in the race, they rolled out a formal announcement.
On a chilly November morning, hundreds of Texans sardined themselves into the San Antonio College gymnasium on San Pedro Avenue. The lively sounds of a mariachi band entertained and energized the crowd. The curtain dropped to reveal a red and blue sign solidifying what all were anxiously anticipating: “Leticia Van de Putte for Lieutenant Governor.”
“Friends, mamma’s not happy. I’m not happy with how things are going. My family knows what that means—when mamma’s not happy, ain’t nobody happy,” said Van de Putte as she took the podium, launching her official bid to run for lieutenant governor. Laced with populism, Van de Putte’s speech promised to deliver economic equality to working and middle class families, veterans, students and women, who she guaranteed would not be used as a “pawn in some political game.”
Not mincing words, the six-term senator delivered a punchy, acerbic critique of the perceived failures of current GOP leadership in areas of immigration reform, transportation, public school funding, health care and the “war on women.” Real-life priorities of too many mainstream Texas families simply no longer count in the hyper-partisan state political arena, said Van de Putte. She wasn’t shy about taking pointed shots at top Republican officials for looking to higher political office and neglecting the state citizenry.
“For years, the Governor’s been too busy trying to be President, and the Lieutenant Governor’s been too busy trying to get to the U.S. Senate—nobody’s been minding the store!” she said.
“Texas deserves better. And that, my friends, is why mama ain’t happy,” said Van de Putte.
Since her announcement, it’s been fairly smooth sailing for the state senator, who ran uncontested in the Democratic primary. However, the road ahead is expectedly arduous.
The tired (but painfully factual) reality for Texas Democrats is their failure to elect anyone to statewide office since 1994; a Democrat hasn’t sat in the lieutenant governor’s seat since 1999, when Gov. Rick Perry (briefly) took over after Bob Bullock, before replacing George W. Bush as guv. And if you ask local and state Republican leaders, that reality isn’t changing anytime soon.
“We always take the opposition seriously and we never take anything for granted. Having said that … I think she has very little chance of winning,” said Republican Party of Texas Chair Steve Munisteri, pointing to what he considers a poor job by Dems of engaging low-propensity voters (at least as far as the primary was concerned) and the deep red conservatism of the state. Case in point: A February University of Texas at Austin/Texas Tribune poll showed voters opting for any of the (pre-primary election) four GOP lieutenant governor candidates—including frontrunners David Dewhurst and Dan Patrick—over Van de Putte by a 9-12 point margin.
“Texas is still a very red state. The average Republican candidate starts off with a 10-12 point advantage against their Democratic rival. So, the biggest barrier for Van de Putte will be closing that gap,” said Mark Jones, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Rice University,
“It’s extremely unlikely that she’ll be elected the next lieutenant governor of Texas,” he admits, “but it’s quite possible that she’ll outperform her fellow Democratic candidates.”
Munisteri also cast doubt on the state senator’s ability to substantially fundraise.
“To run competitively in this state to beat a Republican, you have to be able to spend tens of millions of dollars, and I think Wendy Davis is sucking all the financial oxygen out of the room for the Dems,” he said. “They’re going to focus so much time, attention and money to get her $40-$50 million, and I think it’s really going to … hurt Van de Putte.” Jones backed up this assessment, “in some ways, she’s competing with Davis for the same donors.”
Another hurdle: While she’s known in SA, Van de Putte will have to build the resources to be able to make a name for herself outside the city to garner statewide votes.
With an entrenched Republican culture working against her and less than eight months to boost her name ID, onlookers must honestly wonder, what makes the race winnable? Perhaps the answer lies not in dissecting her race but rather, that of her opponents.
The initial four white, conservative men—Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Agricultural Commissioner Todd Staples, state Sen. Dan Patrick and incumbent David Dewhurst—vying for the GOP lieutenant governor slot have been blasted for shamelessly pandering to the Tea Party fringe. All men hold staunchly anti-immigrant views. All men oppose abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. All men promote the idea of teaching Creationism in public schools. Dewhurst and Patrick (early in the race) endorsed repealing the 17th Amendment, stripping voters of the power to elect U.S. senators. All men bash Obama in ads, despite not running federal campaigns.
In short, their respective primary campaigns devolved into a race to out-extreme the other and, for some, distracted from the critical, though less sexy, issues like water funding, education and transportation.
In a primary race that fulfilled the predictions of a heavy Tea Party influence, Dewhurst trailed ultra-conservative favorite Patrick by 13 percentage points but still managed to swing enough votes to land the two candidates in a May runoff election. Come November, Van de Putte will face off against either one of these men in a duel that turns “stark contrast” into an understatement.
“I think what sets me apart is that I am not out there talking about getting rid of the 17th amendment, or saying the most pressing thing is to repeal the DREAM Act,” said Van de Putte. “While they are all really trying to get the five percent of the Texas electorate that controls the Republican primary, I’m focusing on basic things like building a strong education system, good jobs and fixing our roads.”
Van de Putte touts her centrism and pro-business record proudly—facets of her political career that could have a hand in attracting moderate Republicans, fed up with the divisiveness and extremism of their party, to her campaign and making the Democrat a viable threat to opponents.
“I’m a pretty centrist, pro-business Democrat. I want good jobs, I want to create opportunities for small businesses, for veterans, for teachers … and I think that makes me dangerous to the Republicans,” she said.
Her allies agree. They contend moderates are quietly switching over from the GOP side to vote Van De Putte.
“She’s told me she’s had individual conversations with Republican women who have indicated they’re looking to support her,” said Garcia. “There’s a growing dissatisfaction among them due to the tone and priorities of the Republican Party.”
Polls buttress the anecdotal. While 50 percent of suburban women identified themselves as Republicans in an October 2010 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, two years later that number dwindled to 43 percent. By June 2013, the figure dropped again to 38 percent. Within the same time frame, Democratic self-identification increased by nine points.
Similarly, Hinojosa alluded to frustration among Republican business owners: “I don’t want to name names, but we have seen that particularly in Sen. Van de Putte’s campaign and particularly from the business community, [they] are very, very concerned about the direction the Republican Party has turned,” he said.
Detractors are bound to counter, “of course her supporters point to party switchers without naming names”—the Republican business owner who votes for Van de Putte sounds like a political Chupacabra and probably is. The critique isn’t unreasonable. But not so fast, naysayers.
Enter Louis Barrios.
Owner of three San Antonio eateries, including the relatively new Viola’s Ventanas, Barrios, a “pro-enterprise Republican” has fundraised for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, Gov. Rick Perry and currently serves on Attorney General Greg Abbott’s fundraising team for his gubernatorial bid. Barrios calls U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz a, “bright, exceptional force within the Republican Party” and he’s historically voted for the GOP ticket.
But come November, Barrios will cast his ballot for Van de Putte. And not only that, he’s going to ensure her war chest is replete by holding a fundraiser this week at his restaurant with co-chairs Mayor Julian Castro and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.
“Poisonous and extremist rhetoric” from the GOP lite guv race has driven Barrios to cross his party’s line. Calling immigration from Mexico an “illegal invasion” (as Patrick has), the lack of investment in education and the consistent dehumanizing of Latinos, compelled the business owner to detach.
“Not in my life have I heard the rhetoric that I’ve heard come out of Dan Patrick,” he said. “I don’t see him as a uniter, I don’t see him as a problem solver, I see him as someone who is grasping at the low hanging fruit, shaking the tree of the far-right Republican base.”
He readily admits he isn’t in accord with all of Van de Putte’s beliefs (including her pro-choice stance) but said that as a Latina business owner and champion of education, she understands how to solve the problems in order to stimulate a strong Texas economy. And while he considers Dewhurst’s record moderate, the pressure of running against a right-wing conservative has unleashed an extremist side that Barrios cannot support.
“I believe I’m saying what other moderate Republicans want to say, but can’t because there is a sitting Republican lieutenant governor that has been somewhat moderate,” said Barrios. “But I’m taking a stand.”
While Abbott is certainly not the most moderate Republican around, he’s largely avoided the type of flashy anti-immigration pronouncements that cut Barrios to the quick. Of the lite guv candidates, Barrios said “sometimes, you have to police your own party.”
According to her ally network, no matter what the outcome, Van de Putte’s brazen words on the Senate floor in June (along with Davis’ epic filibuster) have already empowered a generation of new female leaders. Garcia said as a result of Davis’ and Van de Putte’s combined actions, hundreds of women have come out of the woodwork with eagerness and interest in running in local elections. “A number of these women said they were inspired and motivated by what happened over [the] summer,” said Garcia. A small snapshot: Annie’s List candidate training sessions have more than tripled, from an average of 30 attendees to 100.
And for Texas Democrats who can’t seem to catch a break, the Davis/Van de Putte ticket bestows renewed hope that their candidates will be seen as formidable. “I don’t think we’ve had a slate of candidates, particularly at the top, especially with Wendy and Leticia, of this quality and of this level in over 25 years,” said Hinojosa, who has been in the game since Richards was first elected. “They’ve really changed the complexion of the Texas Democratic Party and helped us rebuild substantially.”
Eyeing her cell phone, which buzzes every few minutes, a busy Van de Putte managed to remain engaged in conversation. For her, the decision to run, sparked by her comments on the Senate floor, goes back to reclaiming a voice at the table.
“Women from all walks of life have told me … ‘even when we’re at the table we’re not at the table because of what you said—it’s about not listening, not being valued, not being respected,’” she said.
“My mom thinks this ‘War on Women’ is not just about women’s health, it’s really about control,” Van de Putte continued. “Now, maybe that’s the perspective of her generation but I have to believe when something violent is done against women, whether it’s sexual abuse or discrimination, it’s never about the violence, it’s about the control.”
It’s up to Texas voters in November, then, to decide who will be in control, who will be silenced and who will be given a voice.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.