|Hinojosa hails from the Rio Grande Valley, born in Alamo and raised in Mission. As he puts it, "My father was a disk jockey on a Spanish radio station. He went into the military, he was drafted without speaking English. I went to what is now Pan-American University, then went on to law school at Georgetown around the time of Watergate."
In 1978 he graduated from law school and took a job as a migrant legal services attorney in Washington DC doing migrant farmworker impact litigation all over the country. After Ronald Reagan was elected, he came back to Texas to work in Brownsville. He was elected to the school board, and later appointed to the county court-at-law. Later, then-governor Mark White appointed him to a District Court bench. Hinojosa was next elected to the Court of Appeals at the young age of 38, and then decided to run for Cameron County Judge. He held that position for 12 years, and then went on to serve as Chair of the Cameron County Democratic Party. In 2008, he was elected to the DNC, and then-DNC Chair Tim Kaine appointed Hinojosa to the executive committee, making him the only Texan appointed by Kaine.
His broad background and involvement in politics helps Hinojosa understand how it works from local races on up to the national level, and his time as both a candidate and a county chair gives him a wide range of exposure to the many duties of a state chair.
What made you even think about running for state chair?
"I had been thinking about it for a long time, but I hadn't analyzed what the Democratic Party's function would be in a statewide election, or its ability to influence district elections like state reps and senatorial and congressional districts. In 2010, when we had a devastating defeat, I realized that there seemed not to be a comprehensive approach to dealing with our base in the state of Texas. Clearly, demographically Texas should be if not blue, right on the cusp of being blue. And we were looking at a Texas Legislature with 101 Republicans and 49 Democrats. The mathematics of that didn't add up. Put together the demographics of the state of Texas: we're a majority-minority state, we have a strong tradition of populist politics, we have a large LGBT community, a young vote, a solidly democratic labor movement, and we were getting our butts kicked! And it didn't make any sense to me.
So I said, 'Well, I can't believe we can't turn this thing around.' I started opening my eyes to how our approach had been wrong. We'd spent a whole bunch of time and money and years focusing on the 'Independent' vote. And I don't want anyone to believe that I don't think that at some point we've got an obligation to try and pull the Independent vote over to the Democratic party, but I believe that the role of the Democratic Party has to be to focus on its base.
We have not been focusing on that base, so I believe we need to put together a strategy for dealing with our base. And our base is huge. You take a look at the Hispanic vote, for example. It's 40% of the population in the state of Texas, probably 60% of our base, yet voting at real low numbers. But when they do vote, they vote Democratic. Asian-Americans are a huge Democratic party base, and they're sitting there saying "What about us?" We talk about Hispanics, African-Americans, the LGBT community. Studies have shown that voting trends of Asian-Americans -- they have been ignored as a constituency of the Democratic party. We have not realized how critical that vote is.
We forgot that before anything else, we needed to figure out strategies on how to deal with our base. That was not happening. And so after looking at all of that, what I saw was the incredible potential for our party, and I made a decision to run."
Should you be elected chair, you'll have a lot of big responsibilities. One of the more important ones is candidate recruitment. What are some of your philosophies for candidate recruitment?
"Candidate recruitment shouldn't start 2 weeks before the filing deadline. One of the things our party has not done institutionally is promote and showcase our young leadership in the state within the party. We've kind of left everybody on their own. I think that what happens as a result of that is that strong leaders -- leaders like Julian Castro, Mark Strama, Wendy Davis -- are left on their own. We need to, as a party, promote all these leaders early on, and make them believe that they have the support of the party if they make a decision to make a run [for higher office], and help them develop constituencies outside of their individual districts. People get to know who they are, they get showcased by the party to different parts of the state. So when they're asked or encouraged to run, they know they have the support of the party and a group of people who will go work for them in their communities, and that they have a chance of winning. That requires the party to be constantly promoting these people. You can't tell me that if you get someone like Mark Strama or Wendy Davis giving speeches they're not going to impress people. They will!
We scramble at the last minute and get someone to put their name on the ballot and make all sorts of promises, and then they end up falling flat on their face. And then everybody else looks at them and thinks, "Well heck, I'm not going to do this! I have a safe House seat or Senate seat. Why am I going to sacrifice my seat when the party's not willing to help?"
We have never developed the farm team for the Democratic Party. In the 1990's, we had the major leagues -- the Ann Richards's and John Sharp's -- and there was no farm team to move to the next level. That was a big problem that ended up creating a lot of the problems we have today. You can't win an election unless you have dynamic candidates. No matter what I do in reorganizing the party along with the people who want to work with me, we're not going to win unless we have candidates who excite our base.
When I ran in 1990 for the Court of Appeals, I campaigned with Ann Richards. And our base loved her! They went to work, they knocked on doors. They were passionate about her! How do you take a candidate that's behind four to six points two days the election and win? It's because you've excited the base so they go out there and work their butts off, and do everything humanly possible to get people elected, the base comes out and supports them. You can get those extra two or three points to win. And that's something we really need to work at, constantly."
To read Part II of our interview, click here.
To read Part III of our interview, click here.