Texas Latina Candidate a Powerful Latina and Tough Love Madre

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Senator Leticia Van de Putte arrives to speak 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.Laura Skelding / AP

Do not ask Texas lieutenant governor candidate Leticia Van de Putte about the Latino vote by calling it the "sleeping giant."

The words remind the Texas state senator of the lawn statues depicting a sleeping man wearing a sombrero and serape and implies that Latinos are lazy, don't care and are taking a siesta, said Van de Putte, a Democrat.

A reporter used the term repeatedly when asking her about the Latino vote, she told attendees of the League of United Latin American Citizens' gala last week.

"I told him if he used that term one more time, I was going to throw my 'chancla' at him," Van de Putte said, setting off laughter in the room of mostly Latinos, many who grew up with the threat of the "chancla" (flip flop) from their mothers and grandmothers.

Van de Putte spent two days in Washington kicking off the national fundraising effort for her campaign for lieutenant governor of Texas, where $1 million can add up to a week of television. After two days in the nation's capital, she headed to Brownsville, Texas, for Charro Days Fiesta and fundraisers in Dallas, San Antonio and Houston.

Her sleeping giant story defines the tone she is taking as she introduces herself around the country and back in her home state: she is at once a powerful Latina and a tough-love mother and grandmother who easily evokes aspects of her Mexican American/Tejana culture, while going on attack against those who she sees as giving Latinos an underclass status.

It is all but certain she'll emerge the official Democratic candidate for the state's second highest job -- one seen as powerful or even more so than the governor's job -- when Texas holds its primary on Tuesday. She is running unopposed. Four Republicans are seeking the GOP nomination in a Republican primary marked by anti-immigrant language and positions.

One of the GOP lieutenant governor candidates referred to immigration as an "invasion," and the lead Republican candidate for governor said criminal activity in South Texas resembled "third world country practices."

That sort of commentary, "me da asco," Van de Putte said to the LULAC audience, adding, "those of you who don't understand that, ask somebody." (The phrase translates to "it disgusts me" or "it makes me sick.")

Before anyone suggests she's playing up a stereotype, Van De Putte reiterates that she's a multi-generation Texan, a member of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the caretakers of the Alamo whose membership is limited to descendants of ancestors who served Texas before 1846, when it became a state. Her ancestor Pablo San Miguel had permits from Texas in the 1830s to deliver goods to San Antonio and all around Maverick County, which borders Mexico. Another ancestor fought for the Confederacy.

In addition she's a small business owner, legislator and pharmacist. Her roots are deep and everything else has grown up around them, she said. Few candidates, of any ethnicity, have similar credentials.

"No one ever tells the people, 'Leticia has always remembered where she came from (or) Leticia remembers who she was … because I still live in the same neighborhood," said Van de Putte, 59. "Latinos, they connect to their neighborhoods, connect to their schools. They connect to their famílias.

"I am una farmaceutica (a pharmacist), una madre (mother), a legislator who is very connected to the Latino community. I communicate on a daily basis and I think I connect in a way that many people don't" she said, comparing that connection to President John Kennedy's connection to Roman Catholics and to Hillary Clinton's connection to women.

Last Thursday, as she spoke before about two dozen Washington, D.C. Latinos at a fundraiser near Capitol Hill, she asked for their contributions, and said her candidacy was not just about putting her in office. She is aiming to position Texas for not just a competitive Democratic presidential race in 2016, but one that is winnable, because of the foundation laid with Latino voters in Texas, nearly three million who are eligible but do not vote.

"We can't wait for the demographics to catch up," she said.