SAN ANTONIO — Long rumored to be a contender, state Sen. Leticia Van De Putte has now made it official: She is running for lieutenant governor.
"I want to be your lieutenant governor because Mama ain't happy — because Texas, we can do better," Van de Putte said Saturday in a fiery announcement speech in front of about 200 supporters at the San Antonio college gymnasium.
She said the state’s Republican leadership had forgotten about mainstream Texas families, mentioning social issues like equal pay and access to health care for women, and the right to work without facing discrimination just because of "who you love."
"For years the governor's been too busy trying to president, and for years the lieutenant governor's been trying to be in the U.S. Senate — nobody's been minding the store," Van de Putte said. "We cannot afford to keep kicking the can down the road because some Republicans are afraid of their primary voters."
The six-term Democratic senator joins her Senate colleague, Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, at the top of the Democratic ticket. Davis, who gained national attention this summer with an 11-hour filibuster of legislation restricting access to abortion, is running for governor. The Republican field in the lieutenant governor's race includes incumbent David Dewhurst, who is being challenged by state Sen. Dan Patrick, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples.
A Democrat has not won a statewide election in Texas since 1994, and the last serious attempt the party made to field a competitive statewide ticket was in 2002. In 2010, the party nominated union leader Linda Chavez-Thompson, for lieutenant governor. She received 35 percent of the vote, while Bill White, the party's gubernatorial candidate, earned 42 percent.
And while Van de Putte has yet to start fundraising in earnest — and will have some time before the general election season begins to make up lost ground — she has not built up the same formidable campaign war chest as some of her colleagues during her time in the Senate. The July campaign finance reports, the latest available, showed she had about $300,000 in cash on hand.
On Saturday, Van De Putte criticized the state's leadership, saying it has underfunded public schools and transportation and has played politics while Texas veterans went without health care. She said she would push for a "balanced approach" to immigration reform that would require immigrants to pay taxes and hold employers accountable for hiring undocumented workers.
She made note of the Republican Party's attempts to reach Hispanic voters in a message she delivered in Spanish.
"Take my word for it, since I'm an actual Hispanic — you can't successfully fight for the Hispanic vote, unless you successfully fight for Hispanic families," she said.
She also told the crowd that she would be a lieutenant governor who knew the difference between frivolous spending and wise investments.
"I'll keep taxes low, and I'll make sure we don't waste a dime, because our families don't have a dime to waste," she said.
Dewhurst has said he does not consider Van de Putte a threat.
"I’m not sure I’ll have to worry about her," he told reporters in Austin this week. "But it’ll be a very interesting campaign, to compare her pretty liberal views on growing the state of Texas and my views."
In an interview ahead of Saturday's announcement, Van de Putte said her decision to run followed a summer in which she was consumed by tragedy — first her infant grandson’s sudden death, then her father’s fatal car accident, then her mother-in-law’s passing. She left her father’s burial on the day of the now-famous filibuster to get back to Austin to help Davis.
“I had nothing,” Van de Putte said of that day. “I was at the bottom of an emotional well.”
As Davis was deciding whether to enter the governor’s race, her own father’s health declined, and Van de Putte said the two women, both suffering, consoled each other.
“The last thing in our minds was what we were both going to do politically,” she said. “It was, how do you fill the hole in your heart?”
As the weeks passed, Van de Putte’s friends and colleagues kept suggesting that she run for lieutenant governor. She considered the other options, she said, wondering, “Who else is there?”
But inspired by her family’s resilience — and bolstered by polling that she said showed her name recognition was far better statewide than she’d known — she decided to make a run.
“My question to a lot of people was … is it doable, is it winnable? I’m just a really competitive person,” she said. “Yes, I want to help out the Democratic Party, but I’m not that good of a soldier. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it to win.”
Van de Putte’s career may also provide its own advantage in the general election. A pharmacist by trade, she served five terms in the Texas House before her election to the Senate in 1999. In that time, she has become known for her focus on public schools and veterans issues — two areas with bipartisan appeal.
“Leticia is an extremely well-respected member of the Legislature. She is very capable, very able,” said Bryan Eppstein, a Republican political consultant. “I think she is a great advocate for the Democratic Party and for her district.”
And unlike Davis, who, despite her moderate roots on the Fort Worth City Council, tends to rank among the most liberal lawmakers in the state Senate, Van de Putte has a reputation as a moderate Democrat.
“She's never been one of the most conservative Democrats, but she certainly has the record of a centrist Democrat, so it's much more difficult to paint her as an out-of-touch liberal,” said Mark Jones, the chairman of Rice University’s political science department.
With her potential Republican opponents competing for their party’s right-wing base in the GOP primary, Van de Putte could be poised to benefit in a general election if they end up alienating mainstream voters, Jones said. That could particularly be a factor if Patrick, the Houston Republican who has led the rightward charge, becomes the nominee. When contacted by the Tribune, the Patrick campaign had no comment on Van de Putte's candidacy.
Van de Putte had strong words Saturday for the way the GOP race has gone so far.
"It gets wackier every day," she said. "They are just trying to out-extremist each other."
Staples used Van de Putte's announcement as an opportunity to attack the incumbent.
"Energized Texas Democrats are the result of the failed leadership of David Dewhurst," he said in a statement. "By allowing Democrats to take over the Senate, Dewhurst made a national hero out of Wendy Davis and inspired [President] Obama's Battleground Texas."
Van de Putte said she checks a lot of key boxes: female, Latina, pro-business, a veterans advocate. While she expects her fundraising to overlap with Davis’ some, she hopes to also draw support from national groups committed to electing Latinos to statewide office.
The two candidates are expected to appear at an event together in Austin on Saturday afternoon. But don’t expect them to spend all of their time campaigning together, Van de Putte told the Tribune.
“I think at times we will probably be at some events together,” she said. “I don’t think Leticia and Wendy are going to be holding hands at every event we’re at. That’s not a useful allocation of time management.”