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The election of Federico Peña sample essay

Both the election of Federico Peña as Denver City Mayor in 1983 and the campaign of Victor Morales for US Senate in 1996 were considered as historic firsts: Peña was among the first Hispanics to be elected as mayor of a major US city; while it was also the first time that the senatorial candidate of a major political party in Texas was of Hispanic origin, in the case of Morales. Apparently, these two cases have given renewed interest on the study of participation of minorities in a pluralist democracy, such as in this case, the Hispanics in the US electoral exercises. Not only that Hispanics seldom ran for elected office, it was also the general observation that they were less politically active and were also reluctant to exercise their rights to vote as seen in the pattern of low voter turnouts across the US.

However, the case of Peña was historic not only because it was the first time that Denver had a Mexican American mayor, but also because of the record turnout in 1983. Peña, as well as Morales, actively attempted to increase minority, particularly Hispanic voter turnout. To his credit, the high turnout which favored Peña’s campaign did not consist solely of Mexican Americans, because he was able to build a liberal coalition of minorities which did not only include the ethnic and racial minorities but also cut across different socio-economic classes and interest groups.

Morales, on the other hand relied heavily on the large Hispanic population in Texas. Even if the Morales campaign was able to encourage Hispanics to register – also at a record-high – only 45.4% of the registered Hispanic voters actually voted. Morales’ failure to lure more Hispanics to vote, compounded by his lack of appeal to the Anglo voters due to his disparaging racial remarks, resulted in his loss, albeit with a slim margin, to the incumbent re-electionist senator. On his part, Peña was able to avoid a campaign divided on racial lines because his being active in Mexican American civic organizations and his stint as a legislator helped him project support to minority concerns without necessarily delving on racial issues.

As such, experience had increased the quality of Peña as a candidate, in contrast to Morales. Peña is a lawyer and was a member of the state House of Representatives before he ran for the mayoralty race; while Morales, who is a public school teacher, only had his formal political experience when he became city councilman and a Democratic Party precinct chairman. Political experience had also tremendous impact on their organizational and coalition-building skills.

Although they both operated their campaigns on relatively limited funds, Peña in 1983, was able to use his strong ties with the labor sector, neighborhood organizations, environmentalists, young professionals and other sectors, and was able to come-up with a dynamic, well-organized campaign supported by endorsements of important societal groups, his clear positions on issues, and a large number of able volunteers. Wide knowledge on different issues also worked to Peña’s advantage; while the lack of it had been a discredit to Morales, especially as it was also one of the reasons why he was not able to establish sustainable rapport with the free media.

Moreover, Morales had not been a member of any local Mexican American organization which could have provided him with the necessary grassroots or volunteer support and fund-raising skills. Morales even shunned the Hispanic political elites when he missed a meeting of state Hispanic elected officials — a very influential group who could have given him all-out support only because he is Hispanic. Morales also had poor organizational skills as his campaign was described to be supported by inexperienced and underfinanced staff that could not even return calls or answer simple questions about their candidate’s campaign, mainly due to insistence of Morales to decide on almost every matter.

The lack of funds had also wasted a lot of campaign time for Morales who insisted on traveling in his truck instead of by plane to his campaign appearances in different locations in Texas. This and his reliance on volunteers, made him resort to the inexpensive but time- and energy-consuming “block walking” in his campaigns. The ordeal of walking or traveling on truck around a large US State, however, was not present in Peña’s bid for city mayor; although like Morales, Peña also preferred open and face-to-face interaction, as in the latter’s “town meetings”, which he often held when he was elected as mayor of Denver City.

Morales’ difficulty in funding could also be attributed to his fund-raising principles. For one, he did not accept contributions from business political action committees or entities associated with the tobacco companies. He also believed that his amazing win in the Democratic primaries, wherein he spent only $15,000, would carry him through the state elections.

He also probably expected the Democratic Party to fund his campaign, which in turn, did not support him because it did not believe that he stood a chance against the incumbent Senator who had been in the position for 12 years and was supported by a campaign machinery that was at least six times bigger than his. Morales should have accepted the importance of money in a state-wide campaign and realized that he could not run a city campaign headquarters with just $200 (his monthly budget allocation for his Houston office).

Lastly, even if the Democratic Party did not support Morales’ campaign financially, his nomination helped him obtain the Democratic votes, which contributed to his close bid in the senatorial race, despite the apparent Republican character of the Texas state at that time.

Denver’s mayoralty race in 1983, was however, nonpartisan because Peña’s strong contenders were also democrats, His party membership only mattered in 1987 when he ran for re-election against a Republican candidate, to which he almost lost because many of his constituents were already disappointed for his failure to make Denver a “great city” after his first term, and because Peña could not focus on specific minority concerns since he was constrained to form effective governing coalitions. Ironically, Morales’ campaign became a legacy not only because of his unquestioned status as an outsider in the political game, but also because he was overcame only by a slight majority even if he had to battle all the odds during his unusual campaign.

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