By Melissa R. Michelson
On Saturday, June 13, San Antonio voters went to the polls in the runoff election for their city mayor, which pitted two women of color against each other: Ivy Taylor and Leticia Van de Putte, and resulted in Taylor’s election as the first African American mayor of this majority-Latino city. Unofficial results released that evening by Bexar County indicated a victory by a margin of 3,331 votes, with voter turnout at just under 14.1 percent of registered voters. Van de Putte noted the turnout issue when she conceded on Saturday evening, as did Democratic consultant Colin Strother, who told the Texas Tribune: “At the end of the day, we needed 3,000 Democrats to get off their asses and go vote, and they didn’t.” Turnout in the first round (in May) was just 12.4 percent.
As John Tedesco put it, “It’s no secret that San Antonio’s voter-turnout rate stinks.” How did Taylor beat Van de Putte despite the preference of voters for candidates with whom they share an ethnoracial identity, in a city that is majority Latino and only 7 percent Black? As I’ve noted elsewhere (here, here, and here), hundreds of randomized experiments have shown that low-propensity voters can be motivated to go to the polls, particularly when contacted personally and with a message that resonates with them. Which raises the question: did Van de Putte lose because voters didn’t go to the polls, or did voters fail to go to the polls because they didn’t like their choices? Sharon Navarro documents in her book Latina Legislator: Leticia Van de Putte and the Road to Leadership (2008) that Van de Putte was able in previous elections to leverage the intersectionality of her ethnicity and gender. She hoped to again use that identity to become the first Latina mayor of San Antonio. But that crossover appeal wasn’t enough to overcome the partisan disadvantage that distinguishes Texas politics, and Van de Putte lost her bid to become Texas Lieutenant Governor in 2014, losing to Republican Dan Patrick by a margin of 18 percentage points (57-39). Coming into the mayoral race, she was labeled by that loss, not the string of victories that kept her in the Texas state Senate for 16 years, and the Texas state Assembly for 8 years before that. It also helped opponents tag her as “a career politician simply on the hunt for her next job.” In the weeks and months leading up to Saturday’s runoff election, the shine had dulled from Van de Putte’s star, down from a peak in January 2014 when she jumped off a stage to help a woman in the crowd who had fainted. In March 2015, questions were raised about her plan (later reversed) to rollover about $300,000 from her statewide campaign. At one of the five runoff debates, Van de Putte referenced a report that Taylor and her husband had not pursued criminal charges against a man who shot at his car and bail bonds business. “How can the citizens of San Antonio expect you to stand up for the safety of our families when you won’t stand up for the safety of your own family?” Van de Putte asked Taylor. At the end of the debate, Taylor refused to shake Van de Putte’s hand, noting on Twitter, “In Texas, if a person attacks your family then smiles and extends her hand, you don’t shake that hand.” Observers noted the negative turn to the campaign, including Prof. Henry Flores, who told the Texas Tribune, “It’s gotten more personal and in fact there’s been very little of substantive policy issues, and we do have a lot of issues that need to be addressed in our local government.” Mike Beldon, former chairman of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce (and a Taylor supporter), noted, “the hatchet job that’s been done on Ivy is really, really sad.” But negative campaigning is unlikely the source of Van de Putte’s loss. In the bitter and brutal 2005 mayoral runoff between Phil Hardberger and Julian Castro, turnout was almost 19 percent. The race was non-partisan, but ideology and issues did play a role. Taylor was clearly to the right of Van de Putte, allowing her to appeal to more conservative (and higher turnout) voters in the North side of the city, including Republicans, who liked Taylor’s history of opposition to a nondiscrimination ordinance and to a downtown streetcar system. Overall, however, as noted by Flores, the campaign was more about personal attacks than about issues facing the city of San Antonio. In the end, this really does end up looking like yet another story about a missed opportunity to mobilize voters. Some news reports indicate that Van de Putte understood the importance of reaching out to folks to encourage them to vote. Her sisters and mother were working the phones, as were hundreds of volunteers. Her “Leticia’s Leaders” program encouraged high school, undergraduate, and graduate students to work (for no pay) on her grassroots field effort. But surprisingly little information is available about the extent of her efforts to reach out to eligible voters, or the quality of that mobilization effort. Campaign finance reports filed with the state for her bid for Lieutenant Governor last year suggest little financial support to those efforts. Observers in San Antonio know from experience that turnout in the city tends to be low. As documented in Prof. Matt Barreto’s Ethnic Cues (2010), the presence of a viable Latina on the ballot probably increased Latino interest and participation. But it wasn’t enough. Based on the information available, it looks like Van de Putte failed in her bid to be mayor not because of a negative campaign or questions about her honor, but because her campaign didn’t invest the time and resources into a quality get-out-the-vote campaign.
Melissa R. Michelson, PhD, is professor of political science at Menlo College in Atherton, CA.