Dallas suburb has first Hispanic council member
By DIANNE SOLIS
The Dallas Morning News
FARMERS BRANCH, Texas (AP) _ Ana Reyes and her mother, Maria Reyes, may be the political tag team of the future. Maria Reyes, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico, motivated her shy daughter, a U.S.-born citizen, to fight back when the all-white City Council passed an immigration ordinance in 2006 that many Latinos found offensive.
Today, her daughter is the first Hispanic City Council member in this suburb of 29,000. But more significant is how Ana Reyes and her mother moved the historically hard-to-motivate Latino vote _ a challenge not only in Farmers Branch but across the nation.
“What happened here is what helped us get off the couch,” Ana Reyes said, inside a childhood home filled with landscape paintings by her father, Antonio.
Insult after insult hurled at Hispanics, from the ordinance to public taunts about catching “illegals,” would eventually lead to a campaign directive of “pound, pound, pound.”
That would be the sound the candidate and her campaign team made as they knocked multiple times on nearly every door in a newly carved City Council district, a so-called Hispanic opportunity district because of the concentration of U.S. citizens of voting age.
The district came as a result of litigation using the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and a federal judge’s ruling last year siding with 10 Hispanic plaintiffs. The plaintiffs included Reyes’ 64-year-old mother, an activities director at a nursing home, and her 66-year-old father, a retired technician at a plastics manufacturer.
The court found the plaintiffs proved “racial bloc voting” in four polarized elections from 2007 to 2011 through statistical evidence and testimony, according to the 41-page ruling in August by Chief Judge Sidney Fitzwater. The Reyes campaign estimates less than 7 percent of her voters were not Hispanic, though non-Hispanics made up 51 percent of registered voters at election time.
Ana Reyes, 39, credits her mother for demanding she attend council sessions in 2006.
But she told The Dallas Morning News (http://dallasne.ws/12uWGBG ) that political consultant Jeff Dalton and his firm Democracy Toolbox propelled success forward.
“The Hispanic component of the vote has always been the brick wall,” said Dalton, who works exclusively for Democrats or in nonpartisan municipal elections.
In fact, in the 2012 presidential race, Hispanics punched way below their weight with a turnout of only 48 percent. The top-performing group, black voters, participated at a 66 percent rate, according to newly released U.S. Census Bureau data.
The political strategist said he methodically plotted data on the likelihood of a Reyes vote on a scale of 1 to 5 through canvassing. At one point, Dalton’s data showed Reyes in a dead heat with her opponent, William Capener, a print shop manager with ties to the local tea party.
Canvassing intensified. Ana Reyes walked the entire District 1 three times, including on election day. Others followed in her steps until the nearly 1,800 voters in the district had received about a dozen visits.
“Her brother walked,” Dalton said. “Her sister walked. Her mother walked. There was an excitement level generated by that. It was like pound, pound, pound.”
Nadia Khan-Roberts, a Spanish teacher living in Farmers Branch, volunteered for the Reyes get-out-the-vote effort. One man told Khan-Roberts: “Todos estos politicos no hacen nada y ella va a ser lo mismo. All politicians do nothing, and she’ll be the same.”
Khan-Roberts countered, “With that attitude nothing will change. The baby that cries the loudest gets the milk.”
A prayer group of women dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe even met weekly at the local Mary Immaculate Catholic Church.
On May 11, Ana Reyes won with 62 percent of the vote. Dalton, the consultant, believes that half of the Hispanic vote was “low-propensity,” or hard to-budge, and hadn’t voted in more than one of the last five elections.
“Something special happened,” said Dalton, who wants to replicate the strategy on a larger scale.
The drive to campaign again and again was seeded in insults experienced by the Reyes family and other Latino candidates and residents, they said in more than a dozen interviews. In 2008, Reyes’ mother stepped up her activism. She campaigned for a mayoral candidate. He lost.
Looking back, the elder Reyes said, “I never dreamed in my life that I would stand out in front of City Hall passing out literature.”
The 2008 experience turned ugly. A white man pointed to her and said in English, “Here’s an illegal to catch.” Maria Reyes seethed, believing the man didn’t quite comprehend she understood English. He tossed another taunt, like a rock: “Here’s our illegal waiting for other illegals.”
Five years later, the elder Reyes says, “That really inspired me to keep going.”
During that time, Ana Reyes said, an elderly motorist yelled a slur out to her as she drove near the Brookhaven Country Club, where the neighborhood’s precinct consistently turns out to vote in high numbers.
During her 2013 campaign, on three occasions, motorists parked outside her home in a Valwood Parkway neighborhood where residents know each other’s cars.
Ana Reyes went outside to knock on the driver’s window and ask if she could help. He said he’d run out of gas, she said. She went to get a gas container, but when she returned the man was gone.
In another instance, she took a photo of the license plate, and the driver of that vehicle never returned.
But Ana Reyes said her experience “does not compare to what Elizabeth Villafranca and other Latino candidates experienced.”
Villafranca, a Farmers Branch restaurateur who ran for City Council in 2009, faced slurs and what she called stalking. Ruben Rendon, a school psychologist who ran for office in 2008, was called “an illegal.” Rendon, who was born in Texas, now says, “All of this was so stupid.”
Candidate Reyes visited with a Dallas County election manager to ask about harassment prevention. She found out the department’s responsibility was limited to a constricted perimeter near polling machines.
The campaign took its own action.
“We hired constables to make sure order was maintained,” she said. “We are not going to tolerate it anymore.”
The Justice Department sent federal monitors to Farmers Branch, too. But that was only for election day on May 11. In the District 1 race, more than half of votes were cast in early voting.
Ana Reyes is the middle child of Mexican immigrants who adjusted their unlawful immigration status in the amnesty of the 1986 overhaul of U.S. immigration laws.
She was born in Indiana. But as a 2-year-old, she moved with her family to Farmers Branch, a city filled with trees and green spaces that reminded her immigrant parents of life back in the verdant Lagos de Moreno region of central Mexico. Spanish is her first language, and her older sister Minerva often served as the family translator _ a typical experience for many children of immigrants.
“I was very quiet and shy,” Ana Reyes said. But by second grade at Central Elementary School her English skills improved.
She would often work as a volunteer at the nursing home where her mother was on staff.
“I feel like I grew up in a nursing home,” she said. “They were my best friends.”
She was working in human resources at a nursing home in 2006 and lived with her parents in an addition to the home when her mother began urging her to attend City Council meetings, where discussions were tense over the immigration and English-only proposals.
“It sounded so outlandish to me. If I had not seen it first-hand, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Ana Reyes said.
City Hall regularly became the stage for unpacked emotions. In one meeting, the 5-foot-8, raven-haired Ana Reyes took to the microphone herself. She asked the City Council to examine their “fear of changing demographics with the growing Hispanic residents” and questioned how a Farmers Branch resident who was a Marine veteran and stood outside the City Hall could possibly be asked, “Does he have papers?”
State Rep. Rafael Anchía, a Democrat whose district includes part of Farmers Branch, was in the audience.
“It would be easy to cower in the face of hostility,” Anchía said.
Ana Reyes impressed him. Within a year, she was running his district office.
At her swearing-in and first council session May 21, at least five of the plaintiffs from the voting rights case attended. All four of the Hispanic candidates before Reyes who had tried to win a council seat were there, too: contractor José Galvez, school psychologist Rendon, restaurateur Villafranca and businessman Jack Viveros. The Rev. Michael Forge of the Mary Immaculate Catholic Church stood at her side as she took the oath of office.
It was clear that some in the overflow crowd were unhappy with the Reyes victory.
Ana Reyes lived most of her life in her parents’ home, which has undergone a few expansions and now includes a second floor. But she moved out of that home to purchase a house in another part of the city _ and moved back to her parents’ home just in time to meet residency requirements for the District 1 election. Her rivals tried to use that against her.
Farmers Branch Mayor Bill Glancy said he hoped the new council members, who include Kirk Connally, a 73-year-old retiree who beat an incumbent, would want “good things for the city.”
But regarding Ana Reyes, he said, “You never know what someone is until they are in office. There is campaigning and then there is serving.”
The council member’s mother is more hopeful.
“My heart says everything is going to be better. We will be the family we used to be in Farmers Branch before the division.”
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com