Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican front-runner for Texas governor, says he is fighting for votes along the border and in El Paso, one of the few Democratic strongholds in Texas.
Abbott, 55, has been considered the presumptive front-runner since current Republican Gov. Rick Perry announced he would not seek re-election in July.
That’s because Texas voters haven’t elected a Democrat to a statewide office in nearly two decades. And Abbott has raised a lot of money so far – more than $20 million.
But the outlook is different along the U.S.-Mexico border, where the few blue counties in Texas are mostly clustered and where there are large Hispanic populations.
Yet Abbott made El Paso one of his first campaign stops back in July. And two weeks ago he visited again, speaking to about 50 supporters against a backdrop of miniature piñatas during an informal reception at the Rim Road home of businesswoman Mamie Salazar-Harper.
“For far too long you have felt underappreciated in Austin,” Abbott said. “I can assure you, with me, you will have a voice of passion for what El Paso stands for and what it can be in Austin, Texas.”
However, as the population of Texas begins to look more like the population of El Paso, more Democrats are expressing hope that Texas could eventually turn blue – if they can boost Hispanic voter turnout, which has historically been tepid.
Abbott’s most formidable challenger so far is Democrat Wendy Davis. The state senator from Fort Worth gained national exposure in June during her historic 11-hour filibuster of an anti-abortion bill. It passed anyway, but gave her a big jump in name recognition.
And some election observers are saying that energizing Hispanic voters here on the border, in places like El Paso, is going to be key to Davis winning the contest for Texas governor.
Abbott’s political career dates back to 1992, when he was first elected as district judge in Harris County. Since then he has served as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court and as attorney general for three terms.
Abbott describes himself as a conservative to the core and is fond of mentioning how he has sued the federal government 29 times since President Barack Obama took office. He was one of several state attorneys general who challenged, unsuccessfully, the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld.
“I’m going to make sure we have low taxes, less regulation and a small government,” Abbott said.
He also mentioned that if elected governor, his wife Cecilia would become the first Latina first lady in the history of the state of Texas.
“Women are going to be a powerful voice in this election,” he said, adding that he has collected more than $27 billion in child support for Texas children as attorney general.
He also established a cyber crimes unit to arrest criminals who prey upon children on the Internet and a fugitive unit to arrest convicted sex offenders who violate their parole.
Abbott earned a law degree from Vanderbilt University Law School, then moved to Houston where he worked at the Butler and Binion law firm.
While jogging one day, he was struck by a falling tree that broke his back and left him partially paralyzed. He has been in a wheelchair since.
“Some of you are shaking your heads, wondering, ‘How slow was that guy jogging to get hit by a falling tree?’” he quipped at the El Paso fundraiser.
Abbott is an avid hunter. He and his wife, a former schoolteacher and principal, live in Austin with their daughter Audrey.
The campaign granted El Paso Inc. 10 minutes to talk with Abbott while he was in El Paso. In the living room in the big red brick house on Rim Road, Abbott talked about fighting for votes on the border, connecting with Hispanic voters and his ideas for improving education and health care.
Q: Experts are saying that Hispanic voters here on the border are going to be important for Davis’ chances of winning the Texas governor contest. As governor, what would your priorities be in the border region?
Well, first, I’ve made it clear that I am fighting for votes on the border. On my announcement tour, I came to El Paso. I’ve been in the border region ranging from the Brownsville/Edinburg area all the way back to El Paso again.
I’m going to keep coming here to connect to the voters in El Paso. I didn’t start coming here after I announced I was running for office; I’ve been coming here for years. I know the El Paso community well, and I think I’ll be able to earn their vote.
Specifically, I am going to focus on job creation. I want to make sure that we have the kind of policies in place that will create more jobs for people right here in El Paso; everyone who wants to work will have a job.
I also want to ensure that we have a stronger education system. I want to make sure that all kids in El Paso are going to be able to graduate from high school prepared to go into college or go into the workforce. Also, I am committed to University of Texas at El Paso.
We need to make sure that we get more kids into college, that college is more affordable and that we get more kids graduated from college. All of these will be ways in which we have a more powerful workforce right here in the El Paso area.
Q: In the past, you have also mentioned border security would be a priority.
Border security is a priority. I’ve worked collaboratively with Texas Department of Public Safety, with local officials and with federal officials. And, listen, we have to face a reality: In places across the state of Texas we have increased gang activity, increased cartel activity, and cracking down on these crimes, making Texas safe, is an absolute imperative.
Q: Some, though, say the focus on border security has become obsessive. Right now, you are on the border and in the safest city of its size in the country. Northbound apprehensions are down significantly. On the other hand, a large percentage of all U.S.-Mexico trade crosses through the ports of entry here, but lines stretch for hours. That trade represents billions of dollars and jobs.
You can and should focus on both. El Paso is one of the great international trade cities in our country, and we can improve that even more by making cross border trade even quicker. But, at the same time, that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice security. Security is one of the chief objectives of government – to make our people safe. So we can both make the state of Texas safe by focusing on border security and improve international trade.
Q: You mentioned education. That has been on many people’s minds here in El Paso after the cheating scandal at El Paso Independent School District. You have said Texas would see a new era of education reform under your leadership. What would you do to improve education?
Well, several things. One is we want to focus on getting back to educating our kids as opposed to teaching them to death. There has been too much focus on all these different tests. We want to get teachers away from that and let them be allowed to focus on educating students to be prepared to do their very best.
Second, we kind of have this cookie cutter approach to teaching kids – a one-size fits all approach. We have to get away from that, realizing different students have different talents in different ways, and we must be more flexible in the way we teach our students.
The third is we need to recognize that we live in a different era today than we did 10 or 20 years ago because of technology. We need to use our new technology tools in ways that make education more interesting and more effective.
Q: What is the role of the Texas Education Agency in this? It failed to detect the widespread cheating by the district here. Does it need to be doing more to police Texas schools?
I don’t know what they did or didn’t do; what I can say is what must be done and that is that all agencies must ensure that scandals like this don’t happen, and we implement the kinds of measures to prevent it from happening again.
Q: You support repealing the health care law and as attorney general filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Obamacare. Texas may have a high number of uninsured, but El Paso has one of the highest rates of uninsured in Texas. How do we begin to turn that equation around and improve access to health care?
We must improve our health care system; we must improve access to health care. What we have already seen is the worst way to solve that problem, and that has been Obamacare.
No one has been able to say that this program has any possibility of being a success. In fact, even President Obama himself has been unable to implement it. It is driving up the cost of health care, it is reducing the number of doctors who provide health care and it is going to reduce access to health care.
And, even worse, many of the people who were intended to benefit from it at the low end of the wage scale – the hourly earner – they are finding their hours are being cut from 40 hours a week to 29 hours a week by these businesses that are trying to avoid the high cost imposed by Obamacare.
Q: What would you propose instead to improve health care? As many as one in three El Pasoans don’t have health insurance.
First thing is to stop doubling down on flawed programs. Second is we can come up with a new program – one where we will allow insurance to be sold across state lines, therefore opening up the market to those that will be providing health care insurance.
Third, we can have affordability. There is no reason why if you lose your job, you get to keep your auto insurance, you get to keep your home insurance – you get to keep every insurance you have except for your health insurance. You shouldn’t face that consequence. You should be able to make your health insurance as portable as your other forms of insurance.
We also, by doing that, can increase the pools of people who can be plugged in and get access to health care insurance. Why can’t we have a pool of all Texas residents? If we are able to do that, that will drive down the cost of health care insurance.
The other things we can do are to do even more with health savings accounts so that people are going to have more flexibility in meeting their own health care need.
Q: The handful of blue counties in Texas are mostly located along the border with Mexico where there are large Hispanic populations; you’re in one of them. Some say the demographics of El Paso are the future demographics of Texas and, eventually, the nation. How can the Republican Party, how would you, appeal to Hispanic voters?
The demographics of El Paso are the demographics of my family. My wife is a Latina. If I am elected governor, my wife will be the first Latina first lady in the history of the state of Texas. And I have found that I have been married for 32 years because my Hispanic wife and I share a common foundation of values and principles, and I share those values with the people of El Paso.
I know that by working to ensure more jobs and better education opportunity and with the Hispanic culture that I have basically grown up in, I’m going to be able to connect very well and earn the vote of the people in El Paso and across the border.
Email Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-04422 ext. 105.