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The Other Morales: Victor Morales Resumes His Crusade for the "Regular People"

By Michael King, February 22, 2002, News

On a whistling cell phone from the highway, Victor Morales sounds like a cross between a Texas tornado and the Energizer Bunny. He has hit the road again to campaign for U.S. Senate, as he did in his memorable 1996 crusade against Phil Gramm -- turning veteran Democratic Congressmen John Bryant and Jim Chapman into roadkill on the way. Morales seemed a new type of self-generated populist avenger, an idealistic schoolteacher who had had enough of politics as usual and was determined to slay the GOP's version of Smaug the dragon: Phil Gramm.

He didn't do so -- but remains undaunted. "I got 44% against Phil Gramm and all his money, so don't you think I can beat John Cornyn?" Morales asked, as the wind whooshed through the windows of his '92 pickup ("239,000 miles") and he headed to the airport for weekend campaign stops. Before he can get a shot at Cornyn he must first defeat four other primary challengers, the most formidable being former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk and U.S. Rep. Ken Bentsen of Houston. Three weeks away, most voters remain undecided, and most observers say two of these three will head to a runoff.

Traditional Democratic partisans are fairly evenly split between Kirk and Bentsen, so when you ask insiders for their runoff predictions, they invariably choose their guy -- and Morales. "I think it'll be Kirk and Morales," one statehouse Democrat told me. "Probably Morales and Bentsen," said another. They don't care to go on the record, which suggests they're all whistling in the dark.

Kirk expects a strong showing in Dallas and North Texas generally, and has the support of more of the state party leadership. Bentsen has a base in Houston and South Texas (home to the former U.S. Sen. Uncle Lloyd), and his congressional colleagues have circled his wagon. East Texas will be a battleground -- as will the Austin area, where Kirk was raised but where Bentsen is also well-known. Kirk should have an obvious claim on a strong African-American vote -- indeed that is what the Democratic consultants figured when they assembled this "dream ticket" -- but Bentsen has the stronger record on progressive legislation, including children's health insurance and health care issues generally. A head-to-head race between Kirk and Bentsen, with a running start, would be intriguing.

A Dream Deferred?

But of course, they don't have that luxury. With Morales in the race, and two minor candidates (Ed Cunningham and Gene Kelly) siphoning off a few more percentage points, it sounds eerily reminiscent of 1996, when the two traditional Democrats split their votes and watched Morales walk away with the prize. Moreover, the "dream ticket," with South Texas Hispanic Tony Sanchez at its gubernatorial head, could just as easily backfire for Kirk supporters, if it excites so many new Hispanic voters in South and East Texas that the traditional strength of the black vote is diluted. Hello, Victor.

Morales has little sympathy for the party's predicament, and says he talked to some of the leadership ("You know their names") but was treated with disdain. There's more of an angry edge in his voice than there was six years ago: "I'm not running against the Democratic Party, they're running against me. All this talk about 'paying my dues' -- let them teach school for 20 years and then talk to me about paying dues." And he has little concern about ruining the Dems' "dream ticket." "I feel real bad about that," he laughs. "As a minority myself, I got 96% of the African-American vote, according to the exit polls. Many African-Americans from Dallas have told me they're supporting me because, they tell me, 'Kirk has done nothing for the regular people.'"

Morales also believes he is being ignored by the press, and says that if he loses, "It won't be because the voters don't agree with me, it's because they weren't able to hear my message." He wants to talk about the issues, and offers a rapid-fire recital: "I've spoken about statistical sampling [for the census], which would bring millions of dollars to Texas. I've talked about relations with Cuba. I'm against school vouchers: That's running away from the problem ... I don't believe in the missile defense shield -- we've spent all this money and got nothing to show for it, just taking care of the military-industrial complex. On crime: All they believe is in locking people up, for the prison-industrial complex, instead of rehabilitation and educating prisoners."

Not surprisingly, education issues are close to his heart. If the voters really want to do something about education, he says, they'll elect a real educator. "I'm there in the classroom all the time, and I know the difference between real 'accountability' and what we have now. All they want to do is test, test, test ..."

In Search of a Movement

As sincere as Morales is in his one-man motorcade, his isolation from the party as a whole is more a weakness than a strength. Up against Gramm by his lonesome, he got his 44% from the millions who can't stand Phil Gramm -- and Gramm never so much as blinked. Morales went back to his Crandall schoolroom, and the grassroots he sowed on sand withered for lack of a sustaining organization. Now he wants to cast that seed again. It's simply hard to believe that a part-time, amateur campaign, absent an organization let alone a mass movement, can hope to succeed in a state the size and diversity of Texas, as even he concedes. "I would love to run as an independent," he said, "but with the party there's an infrastructure, a base. It's hard enough running as a Democrat ... and I'm the kind of Democrat still very proud of the Democratic ideals."

The conventional wisdom says Morales' quest is hopeless, and the conventional wisdom is pretty much what John Bryant and Jim Chapman counted on six years ago, and what Ron Kirk and Ken Bentsen are presuming as they lock horns and divide the mainstream vote. Out on the margins are all those neglected non-voters, who long ago gave up on party politics as usual, but who keep looking for their Mr. Smith to send to Washington. A great many of them still think that in a pinch, Mr. Morales will do.

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