Once Democratic Mexican American Caucus Welcomes GOP

The Republicans rout in the midterm election had an impact at the state level, too, particularly in Texas, where the all-Democratic Mexican-American Legislative Caucus lost members. Once the new term starts, Republican members are eligible to join and the caucus may no longer have a united front. Host Michel Martin speaks with Trey Martinez Fischer, chair of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, and Larry Gonzales, a Republican recently elected.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

With the incoming freshman class in Congress this week for orientation, we'll speak with one of the newcomers. He is a one-time high school dropout turned artist, turned lawmaker from Detroit who will soon be representing his city in Congress. We'll speak with him in just a few minutes.

But first, though, we wanted to dig deeper into the potential long-term impact of the midterm election. As we told you last week, the GOP now holds more seats in the 50 state legislatures than at any time since before the Great Depression. They control 54 of the 99 upper and lower houses in the state legislatures. In Texas, Republicans now control a nearly two-third majority of both chambers, as well as all major statewide offices.

That means the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus made up of Democrats only today may soon have new voices from the Republican side. And that group will likely be voting on such hot button issues as immigration, and already Texas state representative Debbie Riddle has filed an Arizona style police checks bill.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called the head of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer. Also with us is a newly-elected Latino Republican, Larry Gonzales. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Representative TREY MARTINEZ FISCHER (Democrat, Texas): Thank you very much for having me. It's a pleasure.

Representative LARRY GONZALES (Republican, Texas): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, let's start with you, Representative Martinez Fischer. For those who are unfamiliar with your organization, it might be surprising to find out that the caucus was actually created in the 1970s so that Mexican-Americans could get a voice within the Democratic caucus in Texas. Could you just tell us a little bit about that?

Rep. MARTINEZ FISCHER: Certainly. That is a great starting point. I mean, the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus was loosely put together in the 1960s, in the late '60s. It was formally chartered in 1973. And at the time, the three, four, five brothers and sisters came together to protect themselves from a very strong Anglo-dominated Democratic Party that didn't really seem to care too much about their views and their positions on the issues.

And believe it or not, the very first thing they rallied behind was to get one seat on the powerful budget writing appropriations committee. Today, going forward, we are now the largest and oldest Latino caucus in the United States. At the time before the November elections, we had 44 members of our caucus. And, you know, we were well placed within the Texas House of Representatives as a nonpartisan issue oriented caucus.

MARTIN: And by nonpartisan you mean it is intentionally and supposed to be open to members of either party.

Rep. MARTINEZ FISCHER: We have two simple rules to be a member of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. You either have to be brown or you have to have a brown heart. And in those two categories, we have folks that are Anglos that represent majority Hispanic districts. And we welcome those. Now, to become eligible, we've had Republicans in our caucus before. But at the time of the 2010 elections, our caucus was comprised of 44 Democrats.

MARTIN: So there have been Republicans in the group before. There have never been more than two at a time, however. So, in this upcoming session, there are five potential members. So, Representative Gonzales, congratulations to you on your election.

Rep. GONZALES: Thank you very much, Michel.

MARTIN: So, what about you? Are you planning to join?

Rep. GONZALES: Absolutely. I think it's a fantastic opportunity to join with Representative Martinez Fischer and the other members of the delegation to have some great conversations about Latino issues going forward.

MARTIN: So what about the issue that's already come forward even in advance of the next session? State Representative Debbie Riddle has already filed a bill that would bring the Arizona type law to Texas. How are you going to discuss this within the Congress? Representative Gonzales, do you have an opinion about this?

Rep. GONZALES: Yeah. I mean, you know, Michel, going forward, you know, a lot of my friends there at the Capitol know that this is my tenth session going forward. I mean I have service staff for nine sessions. And so I'm very familiar with the workings of the body as a whole, but also the policy. I've not sat down yet, as we're still transitioning from campaign to elected office to read Representative Riddle's legislation.

But I think going forward, the biggest thing for me when it comes to those kinds of issues is to, you know, protect our Latin American, you know, U.S. citizens and Texas citizens from any kind of racial profiling. I mean to me it's extremely unfair and extremely prejudicial to just make assumptions based on someone's physical appearance.

And so, you know, I will look at all the legislation. But I got to tell you, a big priority of mine is to make certain that that type of language is not something that I'm, you know, going to be accepting of. I just want to make certain that everything is fair and above board.

MARTIN: Representative Martinez Fischer, when news of this bill was made public, you tweeted, game on. And I was curious what you mean by that, and has it been helpful, you think, that the group has been, I mean, it is officially open. But the fact that it is - it has had a particular political profile. And are you at all concerned about unity being dissipated and your voice on issue being dissipated because it is more diverse?

Rep. MARTINEZ FISCHER: Well, no, not necessarily. I mean, in fact, our caucus has very little control over the membership. The membership is, you know, at the selection of the voters. When the voters send lawmakers to Austin, there are those of Latino descent that will automatically be granted an extended - an invitation to join the caucus and then of course there'll be those who represent Latino dominated districts with a 50 percent voting age population age or higher.

You know, we have no control over that. What we do have control over is when we find Latinos in the legislature, are those that meet the criteria, is that we all try to come together. And this particular instance going forward, I mean it's important for us to go forward together with Republicans and Democrats. I mean, let's make no mistake that when both political parties are courting the Latinos and the Latino vote, then we win. If our issues are first and central in those campaigns, then we win.

MARTIN: Okay. But let's talk about, look, in the last session of the Texas House, one of the issues was a bill requiring a government photo ID in order to cast a ballot and these whole issues of voter integrity - ballot integrity -tend to cut along partisan lines. Democrats tend to be interested in access.

Republicans tend to be interested in what they consider ballot integrity, so they tend to be more interested in whether everybody voting who's eligible to vote. Democrats tend to be more interested in not cutting off access to voting for people who are, in fact, eligible. And they tend to be at loggerheads over things like this photo ID provision, which the caucus opposed in the last election. Now, Mr. Gonzales, it's my understanding that you support that provision.

Rep. GONZALES: I do. I mean for me, you said it - it is a voter integrity issue. But I think when you come to the table as lawmakers in January, the really successful policy, or at least successful policymakers understand that while you can disagree, you don't have to be disagreeable. You know, to me a lot of it is tone and conversation and just how you treat people going forward.

For me, it's extremely important that we sit down and just, you know, very respectfully handle those conversations. And if we can just, you know, alter that tone a little bit, I think we'll go a long way toward making some, you know, great relationships and some good policy.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking with the chairman of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus in the Texas legislature, Trey Martinez Fischer. Also with us is Republican Representative-elect Larry Gonzales. He's supposed to be the first Republican in some years to join the caucus come January.

Representative Martinez Fischer, what about you? Are you equally optimistic about the tone that you can strike in the working relationships that you can develop, especially now that, I don't know how you feel about my using this term, you're a minority within the minority.

Rep. MARTINEZ FISCHER: Sure. That's something that I'm getting used to in the halls of the Capitol. But, you know, here's really the point: Texas has always had a tradition of working in a bipartisan manner. And for the most part, overwhelmingly, if you look at our voting records, there is about 80 percent of our agenda that is done in the Texas Capitol that is usually unanimous. There's usually 140, 145 votes in support of.

There are some issue that divide us. And how we divide over those issues and how we reconcile those issues are really, really important. I think that, you know, the issue of voter ID gets a lot of attention because it was a very divisive argument.

But, you know, there has been nothing said about, you know, budget choices that are made that affect communities of color, that in some instances you can look at them through a partisan lens and say, well, there's a partisan result. Or you can look at it through, you know, just looking at the people that's affected by the policy. And sometimes, at least in Texas, sometimes the people of color tend to be Democrats. And so, that's not an indictment on (unintelligible), you know, political profile. It's more of an indictment on the constituents they represent. And on the issues that we can't, you know, agree on, we're going to do it respectfully.

I think what we both recognize is our caucus is diverse and broad enough to have a kaleidoscope of perspective, but we don't have a tolerance for those that wish to demonize and dehumanize, you know, people whether they be immigrants or whether they be children born in the United States to immigrant parents. We have to have a respectful tone. And I totally agree with Larry with regard to that.

MARTIN: So, where do you think your caucus might have a particular impact? Representative Martinez Fischer, where do you think the caucus can have the most impact in the next session?

Rep. MARTINEZ FISCHER: Well, we have a very large caucus. Currently, as we speak, we have a member on every standing committee of the House. We have nine committee chairmen, 17 vice chairmen. We have a pretty broad reach. I will tell you, we started as a civil and social justice caucus. But we have proven very quickly that we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We're not a one trick pony.

We have some very talented members, both men and women with advanced degrees, people who own their own companies, people who sit on boards and prestigious, you know, positions with national organizations. We can work on complex problems. We can work on energy policy. We can work on water, which is a big issue in the state of Texas. We can work on small businesses and corporate tax issues.

We really have unparallel reach. Now, I think our reach is going to broaden, because now we have some strategic allies that are in the Republican caucus. I think that's important. I mean, we're breaking a barrier here and I think it's really going to be what we make of it. And I think that, you know, we're starting out on a very good foot and we realize that we're not going to be able to dominate every issue of the day. But (unintelligible) gets motivated, we will find ourselves, you know, 39 votes ahead of everyone else if we stick together on issues of mutual concern.

MARTIN: And, Representative Gonzales, final thought?

Rep. GONZALES: For me, the bigger picture is showing that you can work on a good policy and that you can get in there and work together and get some very good things done, you know, without necessarily having to be divisive or polarizing. I think when it comes down to the individuals in the caucus, we share a lot in common, how we were raised and how we grew up.

And I told Representative Trey Martinez Fischer there that he represents a part of San Antonio that my grandparents lived in for 60 years. And to me, that's important. To me, to be able to understand each other on that kind of level is significant because, at the end of the day, while you have a lot of policy decisions to make, we're all individuals and we all have backgrounds that we bring to the table.

So I think big picture for me, it's understanding that we can have those conversations and there is going to be open dialogue and that we're going to work together the best that we can. And, you know, like I said earlier, we may agree on some and disagree on others, but for me it's the opportunity to prove to a lot of people who think it can't be done, that we can have that dialogue and that it can be respectful and we can work together on the things that we have, you know, mutual interest and common goals for.

MARTIN: That was Representative-elect Larry Gonzales. He will represent parts of Austin, Texas. He was kind enough to join us from Austin. Also with us, Texas Representative Trey Martinez Fischer. He is the chair of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. He represents parts of San Antonio. And he joined us from member station KXTX in San Antonio. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Rep. MARTINEZ FISCHER: Thank you very much.

Rep. GONZALES: Thank you very much, Michel.

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