I haven’t always agreed with State Representative Norma Chavez, and in fact over the years I’ve disagreed with her a lot. But she’s a longtime friend, so I never publicly weighed in on her barn-burner of a Democratic primary runoff election in El Paso.
I guess I would have voted for Norma if I lived in El Paso. But I would have done so only with great reluctance, and only because I seldom side with the candidate in a race who stands with Texans for Lawsuit Reform in making sure that people who get injured have little or no access to a courthouse where they can hold accountable those who injured them. Ironically, that candidate has in times past been Chavez herself, but not this time. This time it was her opponent, Naomi Gonzalez, who won yesterday.
But for all the special interests who had hoped that Chavez’ loss would stand as a referendum on the pro-business wisdom of their policy priorities, Chavez herself robbed them of that. She also robbed those who stood with her in executing what was, actually, a very solid campaign. I know it was solid because in a situation in which the candidate herself makes so many vivid mistakes, and still loses by only 360 votes, the campaign fundamentals are there.
While I worry what Naomi Gonzalez’ legislative priorities will be, I’m also hopeful that Gonzalez will rise above the campaign rubble and become a solid representative of people, not corporations.
But the notable take-away from this race has little to do with either candidate, and everything to do with civility. And on that front, the outcome was nothing short of very hopeful.
When you win or lose by so few votes, one can point to many things in the race and accurately call each a decisive factor. After Chavez got so much ink for gay-baiting Gonzalez, I feared a subsequent win for Chavez would “teach” other candidates in other races across Texas that it is not only ok to gay-bait your opponent, but that if you do, it might actually get you votes.
If you squint your eyes just right, the math makes sense. Homosexuality isn’t popular among conservative Texans. Hispanic voters do, indeed, tend to be conservative Texans, especially on social issues. So despite all the negative media over what Chavez said, I wondered if it would ultimately hurt her at the polls. I’m delighted, bluntly, that it did.
In the end, it wasn’t a referendum on lawsuit reform, and it wasn’t even a referendum on gay Texans. I believe it was a referendum on civility and basic fair play.
Chavez always depended on her voters’ support, because, as she often says, she’s a fighter. But when she started gay-baiting her opponent, she crossed the line from “fighter” to “bully.” And while it’s usually great to be a fighter, it’s never good to be a bully.
Since I support gay rights, it’s easy for me to be offended by Chavez’ remarks. But it’s clear that Chavez lost votes even among those who don’t support gay rights. And widespread voter recognition that you don’t demean people, even those you don’t agree with, can’t be a bad thing.
Representative-Elect Gonzalez, congratulations on your victory, and welcome to the Texas Legislature. The campaign is behind you, and you now have the opportunity to forge alliances with those whose support you haven’t yet enjoyed. This would be a great time to remember the political wisdom that if you’re making enemies faster than you’re making friends, you’re doing it wrong, so please make some new friends today. And Representative Chavez, thank you for your service to Texas.
And for other candidates in future races tempted to conclude, even for a minute, that basic respect for others is little more than some optional nicety you can choose to ignore when it doesn’t suit you, remember this moment.