Leticia Van de Putte wears many hats in a state that’s known for some major headwear. As a Texas state senator, the chair of the state Senate Democratic Caucus, a pharmacist and the mother of six, her nomination as a convention co-chair only adds to an already manic schedule.
She achieved national attention by leading the 2003 walkout of the “Texas Eleven”— 11 Democratic senators who left the Texas state house and holed up in New Mexico, where their 45-day stay temporarily prevented Republicans from establishing a quorum and passing redistricting legislation that benefited the GOP. Her star has also been on the rise this year, as she was selected to give the Spanish-speaking Democratic response to President Bush’s final State of the Union address in January.
Here, she talks about the highs and lows of having the convention in Denver, and explains in great detail the importance of the Latino vote to Democrats, with particular attention to her Spanish-speaking response to the State of the Union and this year’s first-ever Spanish language simulcast of the convention.
Westword (Joe Horton): Congratulations on your nomination. I can tell you many of the Denver political folks are excited to have this big party coming to town.
Leticia Van de Putte: Well, I think the Democratic Party really wanted to come to the Rocky Mountain West, because I think we thought Denver as the host city would be fabulous. The host committee has done a great job, but particularly the folks in Denver and in Colorado and the whole Mountain West; they’ve been so incredibly accommodating even when logistics and timing were just totally off. We’ve never had a convention in recent memory where we haven’t had a presumptive nominee early on. And so it’s almost as if the convention committee had to do a Plan A and Plan B. Plan A is if we have a presumptive nominee, Plan B we had to go on the assumption of what if we had two campaigns still here. So I think they’ve done an incredible job.
WW: Following in the path of Texas congresswoman and 1976 Democratic National Convention keynote speaker Barbara Jordan, and Texas governor and 1988 Democratic National Convention keynote speaker Ann Richards, what do you hope to bring to the table as a convention co-chair?
LVP: I was very pleased [for] Howard Dean and the committee to really look towards the local level. Because normally, your convention co-chairs are rock star congressmen or U.S. senators or huge, big-city mayors with really high profiles. You know, Gov. Sebelius is just fabulous to work with and I’d known her before, and Mayor [Shirley Franklin], but I was just so pleased that they would reach to the state level. And particularly for me, with as much [as] is happening with the Latino vote, to have someone of Hispanic ethnicity in the mix is just an unbelievable source of pride and joy for me.
WW: As chair of the Texas Senate Hispanic Caucus and as the first Hispanic and Texan president of the National Conference of State Legislatures, how do you think Democrats should appeal to Hispanic or Latino voters in the West?
LVP: I think this convention is probably the one that is the most accessible to Spanish-language speakers with the real-time satellite hookup and simultaneous simulcast being translated and then everything being archived and done in Spanish, web-based as well. So for the 35 million Spanish-speaking Americans, they’ll [feel] very much included. Number one, I was excited about that. But I think our key…we know that we’ve got to put a tremendous effort into making sure that Colorado and Nevada and New Mexico shift totally for Barack Obama.
WW: You delivered the Spanish-speaking response to President Bush’s State of the Union this year, and co-chair Kathleen Sebelius gave the English address. Do you see this as the foreseeable future of the party, with two versions for each major message?
LVP: I think it’s the same version; it’s just delivered in a different language. And a lot of those Spanish-speaking Americans will turn on CNN or to an English broadcast. But a lot of them will prefer to stay with a Spanish broadcast. So I think it’s making it accessible and easy for people to understand and to best communicate in the language that they feel the most comfortable in. We’re at the level of numbers so that that can happen. You know, I’ve got friends in communities here in central Texas that are of German heritage, and they’re very proud to still have German-language schools and German-local schools, but it’s not at the level that would warrant a full translation in German, for example. Spanish—we are, what, the third or fourth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world? So we’ve got 35 million Spanish speakers and then an additional 200 million Spanish speakers worldwide. And I think that’s what is very exciting for me with having this simulcast and available on the web, is that people from around the world will be able to catch firsthand all the excitement and energy that’s going on at the convention.
WW: You were a strong supporter of Senator Clinton during the campaign.
WW: How would you advise anyone to coalesce around this candidate – in particular Latino voters, with whom Clinton had more success? How do you get beyond strongly supporting someone to then support someone else?
LVP: Sen. Clinton’s strong showing in the Latino community wasn’t anything negative on Barack Obama or his campaign. It’s just that there is no way that he could catch up to her 30 years of involvement in our community. If you look for example, she was in Texas, living in San Antonio in 1972—before she got married to Bill, out of law school—registering Latinos to vote when it wasn’t a really cool thing to do. So she lived in our communities and had great relationships over the last 30 years with [the] Latino community. And so I don’t think it was that Latinos preferred Hillary Clinton—because it was her strength, not necessarily his weakness—there was no way he could catch up to that sort of level of engagement that she’s always had.
For us now, I think the challenge is, we’ve got less than 140 days for the Latino community to know Sen. Obama and to let him come into our communities. But like I said, I really was very, very supportive of Sen. Clinton and I’m taking my lead from her. She said, “I want you to work your heart out for Sen. Obama, and I know what’s at stake.” So that’s what I’m going to do. But we’ve got work to do.
But I think the importance of the Latino vote is critical. I’m hearing people that love Sen. Clinton and voted for her and they’re members of the Latino community saying, “Well, you know, Sen. McCain’s not all that bad on immigration.” And yes, until he flip-flopped. And now he has become, I guess, more conservative on the area. But it’s about the economy and it’s about our foreign policy and it’s about our dependence on foreign oil and the environment. So there are a lot more things that Latinos are gonna have as kind of their bellwether issue. It’s not just bilingual education and immigration reform. Probably the most important one is the economy and access to healthcare insurance, those sorts of things. I think we just need to make sure to get that message to the Latino community. Because the choice is simple once you know all the facts and what’s at stake. And I think we were very loyal to Sen. Clinton, but I think we just need to make sure to redouble our efforts in the Latino community. And I think her involvement will go a long way. I know her coming into my community with Sen. Obama and pledging her full support and asking our folks here who block-walked for her, who organized for her, to work as hard for him as we did for her will go a very long way.
WW: You touched on it very briefly there: do you seen in your constituents, in your community, that John McCain may take some of those votes of people who maybe are unsure of their candidate or Sen. Clinton was their candidate? Have you seen that or have you seen just kind of a general flow over to the other Democratic candidate?
LVP: Oh no, I’ve seen it. From the beauty parlor to the grocery store to the guy who does my alterations. And luckily people are talking about it. They’re not quite there yet with Sen. Obama. I’ve got some work to do in my community. So I know that if it’s happening in my Hispanic community, we’re not all that different from the Latino community in New Mexico or Nevada or California. And it’s predominantly Mexican American. So when I say Latino I really can’t tell you what would be happening in Puerto Rican New York or Dominicans from the Northeast. I don’t have that sort of background. But I can tell you that what I heard on this makes me uncomfortable. We’ve got a significant amount of work to do.
But I think one thing that Sen. Obama does understand is that his campaign is focused and it’s very strategic and he ran a fantastic effort state to state. He’s not going to come in here and do sombrero politics—and that’s what I call it—you come into a community, you say a few phrases in Spanish and then you’re out again. Our campaign efforts have got to be sustainable. They’ve got to have a lot of grassroots with a lot of community activists and supporters and families. We tend to vote in family blocs just like we tend to do a whole lot of other things in family blocs. So I think that he understands that…and he understands also that Latinos are very capable and have a great skill-set, and they’re people very knowledgeable about the environment, education, the economy. So I don’t think he’ll be just relegating the Latinos on his staff just to do those “Latino issues.” I think he’s way more savvy than that and understands he’s going to pull on some expertise of a lot of folks.
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But it’s going to take a lot of work. My community is not there yet. What I want to make sure is, what I talked about before, is that level of engagement. Sure, they may go and then they’ll vote and think, “Yeah, well, OK, I’m going to vote Democratic,” but they’re not going to be excited to tell their co-workers or their comadre or call up their friends, and that’s the level of engagement that really drives voter turnout. And that’s what I need from my community. So I know that we’ve got work to do.
WW: Senator, thank you very much.
LVP: I’m going to tell you what—this is going to be a bold convention. It’s going to be the most green convention that we’ve seen with all the stuff. We think that the number of people [is] going to be unbelievable who’ve never even seen a convention or participated, and so there’s going to be a lot of first-time activists that are going to be able to see this. But also, I think it’s going to be just fabulous in Denver and Colorado because that is a battleground state for us. So I’m excited to be there.
-- Joe Horton