The Clinton volunteer waves her sign above her head. "Hussein means good," I point out. She isn't listening. "We don't want a person like that in the White House," she says. Likely this woman is part of the fringe element--and there is one--a geezer with a tickle in his throat about the superhighway between Mexico and Canada sticks to me like a burr--at the grand opening of the Clinton headquarters in Houston's crumbling and largely Hispanic East End. Since the campaign is short of money, Houston supporters make their own signs for the occasion. The "Hussein" sign is just flotsam bobbing to the surface from the undercurrents of this race for the Democratic presidential nomination in Texas. As David Plouffe, Obama's national director, predicted in a press conference call earlier in the day, 'It's going to be a harshly negative campaign."
There are two strands to the Clinton Campaign here. On the one hand, it's saddling up for range war. At the Clinton event, I talk to three women friends, all a Texas classic: blonde, attractive, vivacious and tough. "Politics is a blood sport," Nell says. "That's what it's supposed to be, and we're looking forward to it." "Yes, blood," Carol says, with relish. That's how some people like it down here. Texans appreciate Hillary Clinton's hard edge; they admire her resilience. Barack Obama is going to have to show some gumption, as well. It would be a good thing for his national communications team to lose the slightly whiney tone of the last week, in response to each perceived deviousness of the Clintons. (In contrast, Josh Earnest, Obama's communications director in Texas and a native Texan, knows to keep a stiff lip.) In the conference call/email war for the media, the Obama team is in danger of becoming the little boy who runs to the playground monitor every time the big, bossy girl in the class doesn't play by the rules.
The other strand is congeniality. Hispanics for Clinton are out in force, and they color her campaign with an infectious brio and are seemingly oblivious to how the odds of winning the nomination are not in their candidate's favor. This positive spirit is a powerful asset to the Clinton Campaign that it otherwise likely would not have at this point. Hence the atmosphere at the Clinton party, where the turnout (250 or so) is half Hispanic. "Hillary is our lady," Angie Ortiz says. "I love her husband, too," says Dave Morales. "She helped start the Texas Chips [SCHIP: the State Children's Health Insurance Program]. She's been there," Lisa Alvarado says. In talking to a hundred or so Tejanos over the last few days, I've heard the SCHIP program mentioned again and again as a reason for supporting her. But in the end, it's experience. Almost every single Clinton supporter, of all ethnicities, mentions "experience." Tejanos seldom bring up Obama. Anglos, however, are forthright in their criticisms of him, and several have flagged his refusal to debate in Wisconsin as a reason for doubting him.
What's left of the old patron system of Tejano politics is on display in the East End, as well. The guest speakers are Henry Cisneros, the fomer mayor of San Antonio, his wife Mary Alice Cisneros, a San Antonio councilwoman, and Antonio Villaraigosa, the mayor of Los Angeles. However, the bigwigs are late, and under the hot afternoon sun in the courtyard the crowd begins to melt away. Time goes by as the Cisneros entourage, which includes a Secret Service agent, is ushered from stretch limo around to the back of the building so that the pols can make a grand entrance into the dwindling crowd. Unlike their wilting audience, Cisneros, his wife and Villaraigosa are formally and beautifully dressed. The two mayors wear hand-tailored suits. Villaraigosa sports a very expensive pink silk tie. Mary Alice Cisneros has chosen a dinner suit in bright blue shot through with silver spangling that catches the light. There is no pretense here that he or she is "one of us." Maybe that's why Cisneros and Villaraigosa dazzle the circle of Clinton supporters. 'I've heard good news--the polls are up," Villaraigosa announces. None of the local press, mostly Spanish-language TV, calls him on this. It doesn't matter really what Cisneros and Villaraigosa say; the people like what they see, and every Tejano left standing has his or her picture taken with both of them.
Whereas the Houston-for-Clinton opening has been an endorsement showcase, Cisneros and Villaraigosa do some serious wooing at the meeting of the Harris County Tejano Democrats several hours later. Here, the thinking must have gone, are the hardcore political enthusiasts, the grassroots, who actually know what's going on and can get things done. Harris County Tejano Headquarters is packed with every candidate for local office and his or her supporters--all of whom have showed up for the Tejano club's endorsement night. The pace of moving through the Democratic roster and choosing whom to endorse has been glacial, but Cisneros and Villaraigosa don't know this when they interrupt the meeting to make the case for Clinton. Nor do they know, since they've helicoptered in, that they are preaching to the choir. In fact, the state-wide Tejano Democrats, at their convention, have already endorsed Hillary Clinton by a two-thirds margin. Every Tejano in the room, including the chairman of Harris County Tejanos, is a Hillary supporter. At times, the endorsement meeting has been more like a Hillary rally than a serious attempt to choose among the Democrats in contested races.
Nevertheless, the Clinton Campaign is taking nothing for granted with Houston Hispanics. Cisneros and Villaraigosa have been dispatched, and they both make long and eloquent cases for Hillary Clinton. "She's a person who has a big heart for the American people. She's the person who's ready to do it right now," Cisneros says. "In California, we voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton," Villaraigosa asserts. The crowd's attention is wandering--nobody knows or cares about California, and Villaraigosa is talking a lot about himself in California. I'm woolgathering about the coincidence that Cisneros and Villaraigosa share with Bill Clinton scandal-tarnished reputations in the realm of marital fidelity. But nobody in the room seems to know or care about that either.
Earlier in the evening, the Obama Campaign has sent Texas state senator Rodney Ellis to make the case for Barack with the Harris County Tejanos. "Just in the event some of you are thinking about an alternative candidate," Ellis suggests. He recommends Obama as "a son of an immigrant," a characterization that is untrue (Barack's father was in Honolulu and then very briefly in Cambridge on a student visa) but widespread among Hispanic supporters. Since none of the Tejanos are going to change their minds, likely it doesn't matter that Ellis's case for Obama is weak. "It's the Obamakins," he says. He doesn't want to see all the young people who are enthusiastic about politics and are supporting Barack Obama to leave the Democratic Party. People don't think much of his argument. This is not a community that makes decisions to please their children.
Among the local candidates endorsed by the Harris County Tejanos is Armando Walle, an up-and-coming young man who is running against the Republican incumbent (widely perceived to be part of a corrupt cabal) in Texas state house district 140. Despite the gerrymandering that favors the incumbent, Walle and his team think they have a chance. Having launched a grassroots operation, they've been out registering to vote 40,000 poor Hispanics. If these new voters in #140 make it to the polls for Walle, they will vote the Walle/Clinton ticket. This is the circles-within-circles of influence and interconnectedness among Texas Hispanics that will have a ripple effect upon the presidential primary.
The situation for Barack Obama among Tejanos is not as discouraging as it might seem. The average age of a Tejano is 25. By an overwhelming majority, most Hispanics are under the age of 45. If younger Hispanics turn out in numbers for the primary, and if Obama can capture many of their votes, then the support for Clinton from the Texas Tejano political infrastructure will be countered. "The road to the White House comes through Houston, Texas!" This has quickly become a slogan to get out the vote here. But it's going to be a quick trip. The Clinton office in Houston has no phones, no computers, no posters--nothing. It's a warren of near-empty rooms with a few folding chairs and tables where volunteers can meet to organize and to learn how to be a precinct captain. So maybe it's not a question of money but of time. The primary is two weeks away, and early voting (weekdays 7 AM to 7 PM throughout the city) has just begun.