In South Texas, one of the state’s remaining Democratic strongholds, people love the Clintons. They know Bill’s favorite taco restaurant in McAllen, a city of about 150,000 on the Mexico border. They mobbed him at a Barnes & Noble last fall. They named a school after him.
So things should look pretty good for Hillary Clinton in next week’s Texas primary.
It’s simple, says local operative and former Democratic National Committee member and superdelegate Billy Leo, a longtime Clinton supporter: Locals think of Bill, who has visited the region many times, as the president who finally paid attention to Hispanics, the majority group in this historically poor and isolated region of the country. They know Hillary from when she helped register voters in the 1972 presidential campaign. Hillary has visited for major fund-raisers and stump speeches; Chelsea came last week; and Bill is planning to visit McAllen again the day before the election.
Obama visited the area last week for the first time since the start of the campaign.
Leo, the mayor of La Joya, a city of a few thousand near McAllen, is counting on the notion that in the Rio Grande Valley—where Hispanic support will be critical for Clinton to offset the pro-Obama black votes in cities like Dallas and Houston—loyalty trumps momentum.
“We’ll certainly embrace Hillary Clinton and call her the closest thing we have to a Hispanic,” says Leo, who has also called her husband “the closest thing we’ve ever had to a Hispanic president.”
“We’ve always maintained: You always go with the experience,” Leo adds, paraphrasing a Spanish saying that warns against trusting an unknown leader.
Still, Leo, a kinetic, talkative man who’s a major political power broker in the region, worries that some Clinton organizers are squandering South Texas’ goodwill. Two of the region’s superdelegates, both U.S. representatives, are campaigning for Clinton, and the majority of local officials have endorsed her, too. But the campaign hasn’t tapped enough local politicians to help stump, failing to recognize how much power they wield in the region, Leo says.
Leo was upset to see Clinton’s campaign pass up William J. Clinton Elementary, which Leo helped name, as a rally site—and then fail to fill the stands at a big sports arena instead.
“The leadership here is piss-poor, pathetic, not organized,” Leo said of Clinton’s out-of-town event organizers. The staff in charge of recruiting delegates for the county conventions are better, he adds.
He’s not worried about Hillary Clinton’s latent support, estimating that more than 70 percent of Rio Grande Valley Democrats would choose her over Obama. But in Texas, where some delegates are awarded based on turnout, getting enough people to the polls will be key. This is where Leo feels the Clinton effort is lacking.
“They’re kicking our butt in organization,” Leo said of the local Obama campaign.
Still, he says, “Obama magic is not as strong like it is in other areas. He’s already given it his best shot.”
As for “Yes We Can,” the English version of the campaign slogan Obama borrowed from Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, Leo says local Hispanics, many of whom were involved in the movement in the 1960s, just laugh it off.
“Wait a minute, where did this guy come from?” Leo joked. “Si se puede?”
He concedes a few South Texas Hispanics may distrust Obama because of a political rivalry that has often played out in that part of the country between blacks and Hispanics. But he predicted that if Clinton isn’t the nominee, most local Hispanics will nonetheless rally to the Obama banner.
“We’re good Democrats,” he says. “Obama is better than McCain!”