PHARR, RGV – Gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis and lieutenant governor candidate Leticia Van de Putte should pay close attention to a Texas House campaign that has had little media attention thus far.

This is the view of Leslie Gower, president of Hidalgo County Democratic Women, and an in-demand campaign strategist. Gower is campaign manager for Mari Regalado, a business owner from Pharr who is challenging state Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., an attorney from Mission, in Texas House District 36.

“Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte can win in November by mounting the sort of campaign Mari is mounting in this primary. Mari’s campaign is grassroots-driven. It is all about building up momentum through house meetings, by going after non-traditional voters. It is succeeding by growing the base,” Gower said.

A number of Democratic candidates have asked Gower and her firm, Proyecto Azul Consulting, for help this election cycle. However, she said she is focusing almost all of her time on Regalado’s campaign.

“Effectively, we are running this campaign for two reasons. One is for Mari, but we are also setting the groundwork for Wendy and Leticia. We are showing how it can be done when you are the underdog. We have been all over the place learning about this type of campaigning. We have learned from President Obama’s campaign and we are putting in place the strategies we have learned, in this particular race, one we have control over, one we can run the way we want.”

Gower pointed out that voting is traditionally low in District 36, one of the poorest in the state of Texas. The district comprises 100 percent of the cities of Granjeno, Hidalgo, and Palmview, 25 percent of McAllen, 76 percent of Pharr, and 70 percent of Mission. Its voting age population is 90.8 percent Hispanic. According to the American Community Survey, in 2011 the per capita income in District 36 was $13,080. The same survey found that 57,829 people in the district lived in poverty and 38,901 did not speak English well or at all.

Mari Regalago and Leslie Gower at work in 'The Cave.' (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)
Mari Regalago and Leslie Gower at work in ‘The Cave.’ (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)

“In the last election, about 10,000 out of 50,000 voters voted in House District 36. Now, the electorate is up to 65,000. Normally it is the politiquera votes that determine this election. We are going for a whole new constituency of voters. We want to show you can get the Zero Threes, the One-of-Threes to vote by talking to them.”

Zero Three is the term political campaigns give to voters who have not voted in the last three elections. A One-of-Three is a voter who has voted in only one of the last three elections.

Gower acknowledged Muñoz started out as hot favorite. He is, after all, the incumbent. He has name ID, not just because he has been in office for two terms but because his father, Sergio Muñoz, Sr., was also a state representative for District 36. Muñoz has a big money advantage. He has a lot of campaign workers. He has picked up endorsements from political action committees that operate in Austin and from various mayors.

However, Gower said that through the use of her computerized data analytics program, Regalado can focus on the One-of-Threes, the Zero Threes, the thousands of voters who rarely, if ever, vote. Interviewed in “The Cave,” the war room Regalado has set up in Pharr, Gower and her team are running a sophisticated phone bank operation.  Once early voting starts, Gower’s staff will zero in on those One-of-Three and Zero Three voters who indicated interest in Regalado’s message and who have yet to go to the polls.

“We know we cannot win this race based on the normal turnout. We can only win if we expand the base and get non-traditional voters engaged.  This is what we are doing. We are expanding the base. This is how we are going to win with Wendy and Leticia,” Gower said.

Asked how effective such a strategy can be, Gower pointed to last November’s South Texas College $159 million bond election. Gower’s firm was hired to maximize a “yes” vote. They concentrated on the less affluent areas.

“We did it with the South Texas College bond issue. We proved it could be done. We proved that Zero Threes and One-of-Threes will vote. Forty four percent of the turnout in the Early Vote period was non-traditional voters. They voted because we talked to them.”

Gower said Democratic officials in Austin should pay attention to HD 36 because of what the race represents. “It is all about women, all about turning Texas Blue and getting Texas into the 21st Century. We have got to start doing what Obama did. You cannot just rely on paying politiqueras five dollars a vote. It is not going to cut it. That brings you only a finite number of people. We have got 65,000 in this district to go after.”

In her exclusive interview with the Guardian, Gower then recalled how the race got underway.

“It all started with the People’s Filibuster in the Texas House during last year’s legislative session. I was up ‘til 4 in the morning texting Oscar and Terry and Sergio, saying please use any delaying tactic you can to stop the anti-women’s healthcare bill. Bobby, Terry, Oscar, they all responded. Sergio was nowhere to be seen. He was not doing anything. Finally, I texted him and said, if you cannot vote against this bill then at least abstain. He did not. He voted for the bill.”

“Oscar” is Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-La Joya. “Terry” is Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg. “Bobby” is Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-McAllen.

“Not only that, the House Democratic leadership encouraged their members to break quorum. Terry and Oscar were calling their wives and saying they are turning their cell phones off, saying they were going into hiding. They (DPS) could not find them. Three Democrats stayed with the Republicans. One of them was Sergio Muñoz. Not only did he not vote with the women, he stayed with the Republicans to make sure there was a quorum. Three Democrats from the Valley stood with the Republicans to make sure there was a quorum to defeat the women’s bill,” Gower said.

The three Valley Democrats that broke with the majority in their caucus were Muñoz, Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, and Rep. Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco. Guillen and Martinez have not drawn Democratic primary opponents.

Gower said the morning after the ‘People’s Filibuster,’ Muñoz called her. “I was so angry I did not even want to talk to him. He called to give me his excuses. There were no excuses. When we went to Blue Women Lobby Day at the Capitol earlier in the session, Sergio promised us he would vote for us. I said, you were a baby on the sonogram bill, the session before. I understand that, I said, but this time you have to stick with us women. He said ‘I have got your back. Planned Parenthood has come to see me.’ I replied, I will stand by you as long as you vote right. He did not vote right. Three days after the filibuster a group of Democratic Women were sitting having lunch lamenting. That is when we recruited Mari.”

Gower said the key to Regalado causing the political upset of the season is getting non-traditional voters to the polls. “I think we have identified enough and reached enough of these voters. Now, it is all about making sure they get out and vote,” she said.

Asked if she would like help from Austin, Gower said: “Of course. We are in the race of our life down here, we are in the trenches and it is guerilla warfare.”

<I>Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part story about the race for Texas House District 36. The second part will be posted in the coming days.</I>