Why you should care
San Antonio has long been a launching pad for leading Latino voices in American politics.
Leticia Van de Putte had been shouting at the top of her lungs, but when she finally got the floor, her voice turned eerily quiet. “That’s me in a rage,” she says now, with a chuckle. At the time, the former state senator was not amused. It was near midnight in the dead of summer, 2013, at the Texas capitol in Austin. Democrats were trying to filibuster a controversial anti-abortion bill, and Senate Republicans had turned off their microphones to quash the filibuster. But Van de Putte got hold of one.
“At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues in the room?” asked the petite, raven-haired lawmaker, whom one Texas political operative described as “the mama of the Texas Senate on the Democratic side.” Her cold calm silenced the entire chamber. And then the gallery, overfull with reproductive-rights advocates, exploded in raucous cheers. By the time Republicans had restored order, it was past midnight and the session had expired. Democrats lived to fight another day (though the bill would ultimately be passed in another session).
A little less than two years later, Van de Putte, whose last name obscures the fact that she’s Latina, professes awe at the reaction that her late-night, off-the-cuff remark generated, the nerve it hit among women of all stripes. Wendy Davis, the senator who led that night’s filibuster, was the one who gained a national following. But the political career of Van de Putte, a 60-year-old pharmacist and third-generation San Antonian, took off that night, too. The next year, she joined Davis in her gubernatorial bid, as lieutenant governor nominee. The pair drew national headlines … and 20-point losses come November. Ironically, Van de Putte’s association with Davis, which has brought her statewide attention, could be a liability in her next political gambit: a run for San Antonio mayor.
Her ties to Davis, a liberal heroine, might make it hard to reach outside party lines.
It’d be a helluva job, one that could propel Van de Putte to national office. The San Antonio mayoralty is one of the highest-profile posts a Texas Democrat can land, given the city’s left-of-center leanings and the awful chances Democrats face elsewhere in deep-red Texas. And for Latinos, it’s prime proving ground: San Antonio is one of just a few major American cities “where Hispanics have been able to run the show,” says Mark Jones, chair of Rice University’s political science department. Clinton administration Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary Henry Cisneros is a former San Antonio mayor. So is Latino wunderkind Julian Castro, who nabbed a prime speaking slot at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and a place in the Obama Cabinet.
Indeed, the mayor’s seat opened up when Castro left to follow Cisneros’ footsteps as HUD secretary in July. The race, set for May 9, is nonpartisan, pitting three Democratic candidates against one another: Van de Putte, state Rep. Mike Villarreal and former Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson. Van de Putte is considered the front-runner — though not by much.
Her challenge: to put the sharply ideological lieutenant governor’s race behind her, Jones says. While Van de Putte has a slight edge with the Democratic base, her association with a liberal heroine like Davis will make it hard to court the business community and other traditional Republican constituencies. Villarreal has made some inroads there.
As Van De Putte tells it, her lieutenant governor bid was a response to calls by Democrats who were disgusted with their GOP options. She’d previously denied interest in the mayor’s race but says, with the studied earnestness of someone who has taped a lot of political ads, that she jumped in after “the overwhelming outcry from people I admire and respect here, and everyday people.”
Texas political observers say her narrative undersells Van de Putte’s political ambition and astuteness. And really, it’s hard to imagine a woman who raised six children, built and ran her own pharmacy business and climbed to the top rungs of the Texas state legislature — all at the same time — being pulled into anything. After nearly 25 years in state politics, Van de Putte has distinguished herself as a plain-talking, proactive voice for her hometown. “I think a lot of people think of me as [if] I could be their aunt or their big sister,” she says.
Can they trust her when she claims having no interest in using city hall as a stepping-stone to national office? Bexar County Republican Chairman Robert Stovall says he’s wary. For her part, Van de Putte insists she’s a “career public servant,” not a career politician. “I figure I have a decade more of public service,” she says. “I’d love to be able to continue that public service here, right in my hometown.”
“Town” is a misnomer, of course. San Antonio isn’t just the fifth-largest city in the U.S. It’s also a glimpse at the American metropolis of the future, in terms of demographics, economics and political challenges. Its next mayor will deal with inequality, public-sector pensions and transportation improvements. “Our better days are ahead,” Van de Putte insists. She may have a chance to make that prediction a reality.