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Can This Straight-Talking Democrat Win in Texas?
Roland Gutierrez hopes to unseat Ted Cruz in 2024 and become the first Democrat elected to statewide office in the Lone Star State in three decades.
ROLAND GUTIERREZ, WHO RECENTLY ANNOUNCED he is running for the U.S. Senate in Texas, has images in his mind he can never forget.
A state senator since 2021, Gutierrez represents the district in Texas that contains Uvalde, the Hill Country community where on May 24, 2002, nineteen children and two teachers were killed at Robb Elementary School by an 18-year-old former student using an AR-15-style rifle while 396 federal, state, and local law enforcement officers waited 77 minutes to end the assault. (The average mass shooting is resolved in about 12 minutes.) During the ensuing saturation news coverage, Gutierrez emerged as a leading critic of both the ineptitude of law enforcement, particularly Texas Department of Public Safety troopers who made up one-fourth of the officers that day, and Governor Greg Abbott, whose news conference the day after the shootings has become notorious for its misinformation.
“The Uvalde shootings is the worst thing I’ve seen in my entire life,” Gutierrez says.
I’ve watched hundreds of hours of footage [taken by body and security cameras] of the event. I’ve seen things that I can never get out of my mind. I see the images every night when I go to bed, and I see them in the morning when I wake up. There’s one image in particular that haunts me. My staff warned me when we were reviewing footage that it was coming up. It was a little girl with no face. I can’t get that image out of my head. I see it every day. I see the damage that that weapon did to the little girl.
In the wake of the shootings, Gutierrez assumed the role of advocate for the victims and their families as he also spoke out for law enforcement accountability and gun reform, highlighting the need for an assault weapons ban. “I own a whole bunch of guns,” he says, “but I don’t own an AR-15, and I don’t need one.” His advocacy led him to meetings with the highest-ranking officials in the state. As he lobbied for an open debate in the Senate on gun reform in a meeting with Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor who presides over the Texas legislature, he mentioned how he was deeply disturbed by the videotape footage.
“Here’s what Dan Patrick told me in his office when I broke down about what I had seen,” Gutierrez says.
I don’t break down much, but I broke down in this hour-long conversation with him. I said we need to do something, and we ended up doing nothing. Patrick said to me, “Roland, there’s a reason we don’t look at the video.” Can you imagine that? One of the leaders of the state suggesting to me that he’s not going to look at the video footage because he doesn’t want to see what happened. I looked at the footage to understand what we need to do going forward. But one of the top three leaders in the state says, “We don’t look at the video.” This could have been his grandchild.
In the year since the shooting, little has changed. Of the almost 400 responding officers, one was allowed to retire with his benefits, one resigned, and one was fired but rehired by another school only then to be fired because of public outrage. The district attorney of Uvalde is conducting an investigation into the police response to the shootings, but Gutierrez is not hopeful: “You have a Republican DA in cahoots with a Republican governor who can never acknowledge it’s his failure.”
The frustration Gutierrez feels a year after the incident, as he’s been stonewalled in his efforts to advance tougher gun laws and police reform, is one reason why he has declared his candidacy for the Senate. In the Democratic primary he will face formidable competition in Colin Allred, the former Baylor University football star who is now a congressman representing part of Dallas and some of its northeastern suburbs. The winner will face Ted Cruz in the general election in November 2024. Some observers believe Cruz—a senator so disliked in Washington that former senator Al Franken once joked, “I like Ted Cruz more than most of my colleagues like Ted Cruz, and I hate Ted Cruz”—is vulnerable since in 2018 he defeated former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who has his own likability issues, by a mere 2.6 points.
GUTIERREZ IS RUNNING ON A SET of issues he believes will resonate with Texas voters. They include not only gun reform (“You should live in a place where you don’t have to be concerned about sending your kids to school”) but also reform of the state’s electric power grid, the collapse of which led to 800 people dying when Winter Storm Uri hit in February 2021 (“Our power grid is a failed system that is built entirely to help natural gas companies over people”); education reform, specifically increasing education spending (“Texas is 45th in performance and 45th in spending nationwide; there is absolutely a corollary to one another”); and even abortion rights, an issue on which Texas is less conservative than several other Republican-led states (“Every woman should be able to make reproductive decisions along with her doctor”).
Beyond the individual issues, however, Gutierrez intends to broaden his focus and spotlight what he contends is the cause of many of the problems plaguing Texas: the political power structure running the state. “I’ve been here [in Austin] almost twenty years,” he says,
and I’m sick and tired of their lies. I’m sick and tired of them telling people this is some kind of Texas miracle we’re living in. Eight hundred people don’t freeze to death in a Texas that works well. Kids don’t wait 77 minutes to be rescued. Our state has gone down a horrible rabbit hole with these people who are not good for Texas. These people are not even good for business anymore.
And who are “these people”? “The Republicans in power”—Abbott, Patrick, and Attorney General Ken Paxton, the latter of whom has faced so many criminal allegations, from securities fraud to misappropriation of public funds, that the Texas House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed twenty articles of impeachment against him in May. For the upcoming impeachment trial in the Texas Senate, Patrick is attempting to tilt things in his favor by demanding the recusal of three senators, among them Gutierrez because, Gutierrez says, “I might have said something on MSNBC months ago that hurt Ken Paxton’s feelings.”
Of course, criminal indictments leveled against a Republican will also be an issue in the presidential election should Donald Trump land his party’s nomination. If Gutierrez wins his primary, his name will be on the ballot in Texas when Trump is the Republican standard-bearer, a factor bound to affect the Texas Senate race. “Donald Trump is not just this evil man,” Gutierrez says.
He is a criminal. Let’s be clear. I’ll indict him and I’ll convict him right now. Based on everything we’ve seen we need to have a real discussion about this. Here is my point. The Republican voters have been bamboozled. I don’t know what better word there is. They have bought into this crap hook, line, and sinker. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, none of them, have the voters’ best interest at heart. The only thing they want to do is stay in power and keep making money—no matter how, no matter at what cost.
If convicted of a crime, should Trump still be able to run? “That’s a much better question for Ted Cruz who endorsed him, sticks with him, still likes to talk about the Big Lie and so on as if those things happened,” Gutierrez replies. “This is a man—Trump—who called Ted Cruz’s wife dog-faced and his father a Communist. And somehow Ted Cruz doesn’t kick his ass but endorses the guy. I don’t know how he’s still married.”
As for Cruz, can Gutierrez defeat him? “Yes,” Gutierrez says, “because Texas is going to see a different kind of messenger than it has ever seen.” He is talking about his own life story, one he feels voters will appreciate. He is the youngest of four sons born to Fidencio and Diamantina Gutierrez, Mexican immigrants who met in San Antonio in 1956. (“I still have my father’s visa.”) Gutierrez recalls: “My father was just a worker. He’d work three jobs at a time: in a grocery warehouse, a Chinese restaurant, on a milk delivery truck. Then he got into the insurance business with American National; he’d go door to door selling nickel policies.” When Roland was nine months old, his mother died, and his father married his stepmother, Bertha. “She saved my life; anything could have happened to me.” Bertha had a son and a daughter whom Fidencio adopted. Gutierrez jokes, “We call ourselves the Mexican Brady Bunch.”
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Gutierrez’s father rose through the ranks of American National. “He made a little bit of money. I’d argue we were middle class. He started buying little rental homes. He had five or six by the time he passed away seven years ago. He was a JFK Democrat until Ronald Reagan came along and turned him. My father expected people to work. To him, this country was the land of opportunity. And Reagan did amnesty. My father already had his citizenship, but his friends benefited.” Fidencio Gutierrez instilled in his children the necessity to get an education and work, advice his youngest son followed, taking a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Texas at San Antonio and a Juris Doctor from St. Mary’s University School of Law, also in San Antonio, where today he resides with his wife and two daughters and practices immigration law. His father lived long enough to see Gutierrez elected to the Texas House where he served for thirteen years. How did he feel about that? “My father hated politicians. He thought they were all full of crap. He did say to me, ‘You’re one of the good ones.’ He’d say, ‘You don’t belong there because you are too nice.’”
Gutierrez isn’t the first Texas Democrat to campaign hard on gun issues, nor the first to think his whole life has prepared him to defeat Cruz and perhaps start to turn Texas blue. It’s true that Cruz does have unique weaknesses. But it’s also true that in several recent races, Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate have managed to raise gobsmacking sums of money—certainly needed to campaign in a state with as many TV markets as Texas—and still lost.
GUTIERREZ’S MOST VALUABLE, if least tangible, asset as a candidate is, of course, his heritage. In a state where slightly more than 40 percent of the population is now Hispanic, he can address that voting constituency in a way few other candidates can. That may help counteract a trend identified in the 2020 election that saw Hispanic voters in counties in the Rio Grande Valley voting Republican in elevated numbers; Zapata County actually went Republican and Starr County saw a 55 percent increase in the Republican vote compared to 2016.
“They say Democrats are losing along the border,” Gutierrez says.
I don’t think that is true at all. I think the people on the border are not voting and that’s been true for a long time. But in me they’re going to have someone who’s going to speak to them in English and Spanish and Spanglish and everything in between. They’re going to have someone who was raised the same as they were—a kid of hard-working parents, not some Ivy League kid, but a kid who worked hard all his life. Someone who speaks to them and relates to them.
Gutierrez has a difficult path ahead of him. And if he does win the primary and then the general election, the work that will follow will not be easy either. Being the “kid of hard-working parents” who “worked hard all his life” may be good preparation not just for a candidate but also for a reform-minded senator in a time of intense polarization.