There are 31 members of the Texas Senate. Not a penny of state money gets appropriated, not a cent of state-wide tax is collected, not one law is passed or resolution considered, without the approval of at least a majority, and sometimes a supermajority, of those 31 seats at the table.
There are two contested races for the Texas state senate in the Democratic primary – both in West Texas, both reaching the Rio Grande rift. One is for District 19, which stretches from San Antonio to the Lower Valley, where Luis Juarez is challenging incumbent Carlos Uresti. The other is for District 29, covering most of El Paso County, where three candidates, José Rodriguez, Liza Montelongo, and Louis Irwin, are vying for the open seat being vacated by Eliot Shapleigh.
Given the importance of two contested senate seats, one would think that the focus of political attention on these races would be second only to the attention on the governor’s race. Not so. The number of stories in the El Paso Times and in El Paso Inc. on the two races has totaled exactly three. The Times didn’t even commission a poll on either race, though they have polled repeatedly and written numerous stories about the contest for County Attorney, State Representative district 76, and State Representative district 78.
Senate District 19 affects El Paso only marginally; that race will be decided in San Antonio and the western Hill Country. But the open seat for Senate District 29 is a totally El Paso County affair. But as far as the media have been concerned, it is either totally unimportant, completely uninteresting, or destined to a foregone conclusion.
The race for County Attorney features a competent and well-qualified but relatively new incumbent, Jo Anne Bernal, against an aggressive, highly-negative and confrontational veteran of slash-and-burn politics in El Paso, Theresa Caballero. Long-standing political factions and historic feuds are fueling the human interest story of this campaign, which has generated a great deal of heat but little light.
The contest for House District 76 in the Democratic primary pits incumbent Norma Chavez against an aggressive challenger, Naomi Gonzalez, who is running almost solely on Chavez’ well-publicized squabbles and social miscues with other members of the local delegation and the legislature. So much heat has been generated in this race, that actual physical confrontations have been precipitated at some of the rallies. The media have had a heyday over this political cat fight.
The Republicans have again decided to have a tiff in House District 78, to see who gets to try to knock off incumbent Joe Moody (unopposed in the primary on the Democratic side). The familiar candidacy of businessman Dee Margo is being challenged by entrepreneur Jay Kleberg, who recently settled in El Paso after running an ecotourism business for several years in Brazil. Kleberg is young, energetic, and relatively visionary, while Margo is well-connected and firmly established in conservative circles. Whether Margo can avoid a third electoral defeat against an attractive and motivated newcomer gives this race an interesting human interest angle.
The contest for Senate District 29 features three competent candidates, all with elective office experience, all with substantive ideas about state government, services, and taxation, and all committed to sticking with the issues instead of personalities. This is the kind of political contest that everyone says they want to see. This is what the local commentators and talk-show hosts say the voters need to focus on. This is exactly the type of race, both in style and substance, that the media should be highlighting, if we are to believe their sanctimonious admonitions.
But they don’t believe it themselves. At least their actions give no indication of it. The talking heads on local radio spend endless hours obsessing over who Caballero will or will not talk to, whose relative of Naomi Gonzalez kicked which family member of Norma Chavez (or was it vice versa?), and whether Dee Margo really will end up being a three-time loser. The human interest stories get all the ink and all the noise. The candidates trying to give politics a good name in the race for Senate District 29 are simply proving the adage that no good deed goes unpunished.
We have come to this point as a society, where reality and the reality show are indistinguishable. Merit is apportioned according to its entertainment value. Substance is of little import unless it can be dramatized. We have dumbed ourselves down that far.
One hundred and fifty years ago, politicians like Lincoln and Douglas would debate one another back and forth for three hours, and people would stand under a hot sun to listen to them. In our own electronic age, where information overflows and access is near-total, a 60-second soundbite is fast becoming a luxury, and soon will be regarded as too long-winded.
Members of the local media don’t really seem to care that much what our politicians actually think, nor are they interested in probing the philosophy that will inform the decisions that a candidate will make in office. What they really care about is the entertainment value of the candidate, and the ratings that said entertainment value can generate.
I believe that voters will take in the material they are given. I think the electorate, at some level, really does want to be informed, really does care about substance, and actually would like to cast ballots on a rational basis. If substance were given to them, they would act on it. But give them only entertainment, and that’s what they will feast on. What choice do they have?