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Meet the woman who could turn Texas purple

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Democrat Van de Putte is running for lieutenant governor in solidly GOP Texas
  • She played a powerful role during Wendy Davis' abortion rights filibuster
  • She's the ideal demographic for Texas voters: a Hispanic woman
  • Her fundraising totals so far have been weak

Washington (CNN) -- When Leticia Van de Putte walked into the storied Willard Hotel one block from the White House last month, she didn't invoke the stares of gaping tourists or eager handshakes from power-seeking staffers.

Instead, she rolled her own suitcase wearing Texas Longhorn cowboy boots -- an accessory she was happy she brought from Texas on that snowy March day in the nation's capital.

Van de Putte gave no hints that she was running for lieutenant governor, the second-highest office in Texas -- and some would argue the most powerful. She was deferential to hotel staff and eagerly arranged oversized chairs to set up for the interview -- rare in a town where elected officials have staff at their beck and call, even to dial numbers on their mobile phones.

Her profile is on the rise

The San Antonio state senator could accomplish what no Democrat has done in 20 years: win statewide office.

The pharmacist has been a power broker during her nearly 25 years in the state legislature. In 2003, she led the dramatic 45-day walkout that Senate Democrats staged over the Republican redistricting plan. The lawmakers bolted to New Mexico, delaying a vote on the plan, although Republicans were eventually able to pass it.

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Van de Putte doesn't elicit the same star power or national intrigue as Wendy Davis, her state Senate colleague at the top of the ticket. Davis grabbed national headlines last June when she staged an 11-hour filibuster in the Texas Senate that blocked restrictive abortion legislation from being passed.

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The turning tide

That day was a big moment for Davis, propelling her into the national spotlight and into the gubernatorial race. It also re-established some relevance for Texas Democrats in a state dominated by Republicans.

For Van de Putte it was a defining day. As Davis' filibuster charged on into the night, Van de Putte missed most of it because she was at the funeral of her father, who had been killed in a car accident. After a mournful day, she decided to join her colleagues at the State House.

"I remember her walking onto the Senate floor. I could see it in her face. She was just drained," said Grace Garcia, a friend and political ally who was in the spectator gallery. "She did it because she wanted to support the women in Texas."

The emotionally exhausted Van de Putte attempted to speak on the Senate floor but the Republican majority had turned off her microphone.

Finally she raised her voice to be heard, asking, "Did the President hear me or did the President hear me and refuse to recognize me?"

"At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?" she continued.

The gallery, filled with women's rights advocates, erupted in prolonged cheers and applause, igniting a new wave of energy into the fierce debate over abortion restrictions.

"Something was unleashed at that moment. It just exploded. People started clapping and it didn't stop," Garcia said.

Van de Putte was energized from the cheers of support that June night. But her political profile received an even greater boost as political operatives in the state increasingly looked to her for higher office.

Tragic loss

But the lieutenant governor's job was not at the forefront of her mind. Her father's sudden death was the latest in a series of family tragedies. Just a month earlier her 5-month old grandson died in his sleep. And her mother-in-law also died the same year.

"When you lose so much, you realize what your priorities are," she said.

So when Garcia, her longtime friend who also runs Annie's List, an organization that works to elect women to office in Texas, met Van de Putte to ask her to run for lieutenant governor, Van de Putte refused to commit.

During their two-hour lunch at El Mirador restaurant in downtown San Antonio last August, Van de Putte told Garcia she was worried about her family.

"My family had a really, really tough, tough year," Van de Putte told CNN as tears welled up in her eyes. "I was honestly trying to keep my family together ... to heal."

Van de Putte, a mother of six and grandmother of six, said she didn't know if her family "was strong enough" to withstand personal political attacks on her during such a fragile time.

Decision time

But three months after her lunch with Garcia, Van de Putte announced that she was going to jump into the race against a cadre of Republican candidates who Van de Putte adamantly disagreed with. During the campaign, her Republican opponents have touted the expansion of school vouchers, teaching creationism in schools and demonizing illegal immigrants.

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"The topics they are talking about are certainly not what Texas voters are talking about," Van de Putte said.

Her Republican opponent could be one of two people who are currently engaged in a runoff for the Republican nomination. One is current Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. The other is state Sen. Dan Patrick.

While Dewhurst has the support of establishment Republicans, as he did in his unsuccessful primary against now-Sen. Ted Cruz in 2010, he is shifting his policies further to the right, trying to overtake Patrick, the front-runner. Patrick is running to the far right, making immigration and his self-described "illegal invasion" a central tenet of his campaign.

"As a Latino, we're over it," Ramiro Cavazos, president and CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, said of the Republican candidates' platforms. "I think it's a very backward approach."

Van de Putte called Patrick's campaign "entertaining" and decried the use of immigration as a wedge issue to divide the Republican base and suppress Democratic, especially Latino, turnout.

She promises to run a business-friendly campaign focused on education, water and transportation.

No-vote Texas

But Latino turnout in Texas is already suppressed. A term heard over and over again when talking about Texas politics is that the state is not a Republican one or a Democratic one but a nonvoting one. The problem for Democrats is would-be Democratic voters stay home on Election Day at a far higher rate than Republicans.

Many of the people who don't vote are Latino, a key demographic for the Democratic Party. In the last election, President Barack Obama received 70% of the Latino vote nationally. But in Texas, where more than one-third of people are Hispanic, 61% of those eligible did not vote. Contrast that with the statistic that shows that 61% of eligible whites did, according to the group Latino Decisions.

"The reason Texas doesn't elect Democrats is because the biggest portion of the base of the Democratic Party doesn't vote," Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party, said.

Increasing voter turnout, however, is facing a major uphill battle as new voter ID laws have made it more difficult to vote. Van de Putte said she had to vote with an affidavit because her name didn't match the voter database.

The sleeping, Latina giant

But Texas Democrats believe Van de Putte is the answer.

"Leticia's candidacy can help energize the part of the base that has not been participating in elections," Hinojosa said.

That's because Van de Putte is the perfect demographic: a Hispanic woman.

She entered Texas politics when few women and even fewer Latinos were elected to office. She has deep roots in the state. She is a sixth-generation Texan, or Tejano, whose grandmothers are from Mexico.

"Her family is a part of the cultural landscape of San Antonio," Democratic National Committee finance chair Henry Munoz said. Her mother was a leader of a culturally important and community-centered mariachi groups in the country, he said.

"This is an important moment in the history of Texas," Munoz added. "The demographics of the state are changing. We need leaders who look like us and understand who we are."

Supporters believe that Van de Putte will also appeal to women in Texas -- Latino and others.

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Garcia, with Annie's List, said that the Democratic ticket featuring two women at the top -- Davis and Van de Putte - is a stark contrast to the all-male Republican ticket for the other statewide races this election year.

Garcia said women in the Democratic Party are re-energized since Davis' filibuster, momentum that could carry into Election Day in November, she said.

"There's a great opportunity for both Leticia and Wendy to have a very important conversation with women in Texas," Garcia said.

Challenges mount

But Van de Putte has challenges to overcome.

While she is immensely popular in San Antonio as its state senator and a pharmacist in the city's culturally rich Hispanic and Tejano west side, she is largely unknown outside of the city.

She has a lot of work to do to raise her profile and introduce herself to voters in the vast expanse of the second largest state in the country that consists of more than 254 counties and 20 media markets.

Van de Putte is her married name -- a Belgium surname that doesn't completely describe her background. Although she said she has no regrets in taking her husband's Belgian last name more than 30 years ago, a name is the first way to impression voters, especially the low propensity or "virgin" voter.

She insists that Latinos will know that she is Latina. "Van de Putte is not a Latino name, but Leticia is," she said.

If that fails, she invokes her maiden name: "I'm Leticia San Miguel Van de Putte," she said.

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But Van de Putte is acutely aware of the uphill battle she faces.

"First thing we need to do is raise the resources so I can get that message out," Van de Putte said.

Introducing Leticia Van de Putte to Texas voters is an expensive venture. And while Wendy Davis, the woman at the top of the Texas ticket, has done a good job raising funds, raising more than $12 million as of the last fundraising report in January, Van de Putte's fundraising has been less impressive, raising about $290,000 the first two months of her campaign.

"I think she's going to be able to raise -- not what the Republicans can raise -- but will be able to raise enough to compete," Hinojosa said.

Van de Putte just completed a multiweek bus tour across Texas that included multiple fundraisers per week. And in Washington to participate in a women's empowerment event hosted by Politico, she used the trip to raise national dollars. She met the staff of numerous political action committees, including the Human Rights Campaign's PAC.

But Cal Jillison, political science professor at Southern Methodist University, injected a dose of reality into the equation.

"I suspect that the Democratic ticket will rise or fall -- most likely fall -- with Davis," he said. "Van de Putte could help Davis with Hispanics, but is unlikely to win if Davis loses."

Optimism mounts, too

Her supporters say her ability to build coalitions and appeal to many different types proves that she's one of the best chances Texas Democrats have.

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When she speaks, her easy transition from humor to wonkish policy is speckled with hints of a Texas drawl and bursts of Spanish idioms.

Munoz, her long-time friend and DNC finance chair, said she is known for walking into a crowd and saying, "Buenos Noches, ya'll."

Hinojosa tells a similar story. He said she can walk into a room of skeptical West Texas farmers and connect with them.

Her appeal to both Hispanics and women, combined with the Democratic Party's and allied groups' invigorated efforts at registering and persuading people to vote, could be the key ingredients for a successful campaign.

"If we don't elect her, shame on us. If we don't vote, shame on us," Munoz said.

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