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Houston Chronicle - Conventions Give Nation a Prime-time Glimpse of Texas Diversity

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Everybody knows the Texas political stereotype: Boot-wearing, tough-talking cowboy. White. Male. Very conservative.

Think Rick Perry. Think George W. Bush. Think J.R. Ewing.

But the recently concluded Democratic and Republican National Conventions gave American television viewers a dramatically different image of the Lone Star State. Diverse. Young. Rising stars.

Think Julián and Joaquín Castro. Ted Cruz. Cecile Richards. Eva Longoria. Francisco "Quico" Canseco. Alejandra Salinas.

"The opportunity is there for a different image of Texas than perhaps the boots and spurs tradition," said Geoffrey Skelley, political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "With more national knowledge of political figures like Cruz and Castro, that's likely to change more."

That change was clearly evident at the two national conventions, where both parties tried to showcase their current and future stars. Among the dozen Texans taking to the podium in Tampa and Charlotte, the vast majority were Latino or African American. Most were women.

No Rick Perry. No George W. Bush.

"After eight years where George W. Bush branded Texas in his own image, the state boasts a collection of rising stars ready to assume the mantle of leadership," said Austin-based Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak. "The diversity of Texas is not new, but the focus on diversity by the major political parties is new, as demographic trends heighten the importance of messaging, engagement and outreach. Texas is on the cutting edge of the demographic shift that is happening across the country."

Mackowiak is right. Non-Hispanic whites have been a minority in Texas for most of the past decade. Mexican-Americans, African Americans and Asian Americans have accounted for about 80 percent of the state's massive population growth since 2000. But the groups' population growth has not yet translated into political power.

"Texas is an interesting case of a very diverse state, but one which is dominated by a very homogenous Anglo Republican majority," said Mark P. Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University. "For instance, the current GOP delegation in the Texas Legislature is the most diverse in the party's history, but Anglos still account for 111 of its 121 members. As a result, the state's considerable diversity is often partially obscured by the firm political control over the state exercised by a party whose elected officials are overwhelmingly Anglo."

That image of Anglo Republican hegemony got a bit of a makeover at the Republican National Convention, where GOP Senate nominee Ted Cruz of Houston and freshman congressman Francisco "Quico" Canseco of San Antonio were given coveted speaking slots.

"Ted Cruz's rising prominence in the party is going to work to transform this image," said Jones, "especially because it is quite likely that Cruz is going to be the state's most visible Republican in the national news media over the next few years."

The new Texas was on display throughout the Democratic National Convention, where Texans taking to the podium included the 37-year-old Castro twins, keynote speaker Julián and congressional candidate Joaquín, Cecile Richards, daughter of Ann Richards and national president of Planned Parenthood, College Democrats national president Alejandra Salinas of Laredo, Rep. Al Green of Houston and Corpus Christi native Eva Longoria, now a Hollywood star and national co-chair of the Obama re-election campaign. The delegation was led by Gilberto Hinojosa of McAllen, the first Latino chair of the Texas Democratic Party.

"If the nation was not aware that Hispanics, not Anglos or African Americans, are the dominant force within the Texas Democratic Party prior to the Democratic National Convention, they are now," said Jones. "This is old news in Texas, where over half of the Democrats in the Texas Legislature are Hispanics (24 of 48 in the House and 7 of 12 in the Senate), but is not something that has completely registered among Democrats outside of the state."

That power could grow in coming years. Just 20 percent of Asian Americans living in Texas and 27 percent of Latinos voted in 2008, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Among Latino citizens, just 54 percent are registered, versus 74 percent for both African Americans and non-Hispanic whites.

But those figures are likely to change soon. About 60 percent of Texas' population under the age of 18 is from a minority group, while seven of every ten Texans born in the past year is non-Anglo. Political demographers estimate that the Latino percentage of the state's electorate will increase about 2 percentage points a year for the next decade.

Unless Republicans make inroads in the Latino community, Democrats see deep red Texas turning purple in five to ten years. Party strategists say they can some become competitive politically in the near future -- if they can compete with Texas Republicans financially. And they believe the emphasis on the new generation of Texans in Charlotte was a good start.

"The more non-Texas Americans think of the diversity of Texas, the more likely national Democrats are to invest in Texas elections," said Austin Democratic consultant Harold Cook.


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