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Leticia Van de Putte's Loss Dashes Hopes for Latino Mayors, Again

Senator Leticia Van de Putte speaks at the Texas Democratic Women’s Convention in Austin, Texas on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. For the first time in Texas’ history the presumptive nominees for the top of the Democratic ticket will be two women. (AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Laura Skelding)Laura Skelding / AP

A year that some thought would produce five Latino mayors of major U.S. cities has failed to materialize as one more of those hopefuls suffered defeat over the weekend.

Leticia Van de Putte, who stood to be the first Latina mayor of San Antonio, failed to best Ivy Taylor, who was appointed interim mayor of the city.

Van de Putte’s loss in Saturday's runoff was particularly poignant because even as Latinos are exerting influence at the national level, a Latina candidate lost in a city that is 63 percent Latino and that was most recently led by Housing Secretary and potential vice presidential candidate Julián Castro.

While she is a six-generation Texan whose grandmothers fled the Mexican Revolution and settled in San Antonio, Taylor was born in New York and moved to the city after graduate school.

"I was running as a San Antonian, not just as a Latina," Van de Putte said in an interview Monday. "Maybe the city is just open to opportunity."

Taylor, the first African American elected mayor of San Antonio, won with 51.7 percent of the vote to Van de Putte’s 48.3 in an election that saw about 14 percent voter turnout, according to Bexar County’s unofficial election results, up from about 12 percent in April's general election. About 7 percent of the city’s population is black.

Van de Putte’s defeat follows losses by Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in Chicago; Marcos Ronquillo in Dallas and Nelson Diaz in Philadelphia. Garcia, Ronquillo and Díaz would have been the first Latino mayors of their respective cities, had they won. Elections in Houston, not until November, still offer the possibility of a Latino mayor of a major city in the candidacy of former Sheriff Adrian Garcia, but it is a crowded field and filing doesn't end until August.

"The common denominator is that Latinos lag in voter turnout," said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, director of community outreach for the University of Texas Center for Mexican American Studies.

Also, the city's electorate is suffering a bit of voter fatigue having had a number of special elections, the mayoral election and then runoff. Many voters who turned out wanted a change from the Castro administration, she said.

"There's still a lot of work to be done," Soto said of Latino voter turnout and influence. "There's no way around it."

The losses come as Latino groups such as Latino Victory Project that are trying to build a national pipeline of Latinos to increase the influence of the community in government. The group also has a political action fund that contributes to Latino candidates, including Van de Putte.

Cristobal Alex, Latino Victory Project president, said despite the defeat, her candidacy helps pave the way for future Latino candidates who might not have considered running. "Races like this one inflict hundreds of cracks in the glass ceiling and give hope to future generations of Latinas that they can make a difference and that they can run,” Alex said.

In the Chicago race, Garcia's candidacy and the tough challenge he offered Mayor Rahm Emanuel were seen as energizing the Latino community. Garcia's candidacy led to fundraising efforts by various Latinos in several parts of the country. Garcia got heavy Latino support but white and black precincts stuck with Emanuel.

Van de Putte's race was nonpartisan and in her career Van de Putte had been considered to have cross-party appeal because of her work on veterans issues and her history as a business owner. But Taylor appealed to conservatives in the city, who were considered to have far better reliability for turnout.

Van de Putte made her bid for the mayor’s seat shortly after being the Democrats’ candidate in the state’s lieutenant governor campaign. Taylor used Van de Putte’s partisanship to her advantage, including criticizing her involvement in trying to prevent passage in the Legislature of a 2003 GOP-crafted redistricting plan thought to discriminate against blacks and Latinos.

Van de Putte said she was targeted by an evangelical group with outside funding that opposed positions she had taken on abortion and gay marriage.

She said she encountered people while campaigning who asked why she supports abortion and accusing her of not being a Christian. Van de Putte is Catholic and has six children but supported a filibuster in the Texas Senate of an abortion restrictions bill she opposed. She also supported a city non-discrimination ordinance that protected the rights of the LGBTQ community but was opposed by conservatives. Taylor voted against the ordinance

Christian Archer, Van de Putte’s campaign strategist, could not be immediately reached, but he told the Texas Tribune Van de Putte’s defeat was a wake-up call for Democrats of Bexar County, which includes San Antonio. Taylor and Van de Putte are both Democrats.

“It ought to scare every Democrat in Bexar County,” Archer told the Tribune. He said Democrats are not getting the turnout they need.

Josh Robinson, who was a campaign strategist for Taylor, acknowledged that Taylor’s support came from her previous City Council precinct in east San Antonio, which is predominantly African American and from the city’s north and northwest side, which has larger white populations and are more conservative areas.

But Taylor did pick up some of the Latino vote, giving her a broader coalition, Robinson said. He said he could not cite specific numbers yet because he had not analyzed precinct-level data released over the weekend by the county. Early indications are that Taylor did well with women and among Latinas and picked up some Democratic votes, he said.

“We know we had stronger Latino support than they (Van de Putte’s campaign) expected because we won,” Robinson said.

Van de Putte said despite the outcome the possibilities for Latinos in higher positions will hinge on improving the turnout of younger voters who generally have very low turnout. She said only 6 percent of San Antonio's voters were under age 35 and only 18 percent 50 and younger.

"I think the possibilities are absolutely there, but not until our voting percentages improve," she said.