By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Charles "Chuck" Muñoz says he's led a structured life: organized, conservative, somewhat guarded. At 43, he doesn't seem like someone who would act impulsively. Yet Muñoz is running for sheriff of Dallas County, as a Democrat no less, in the year of George W. Bush. Rather than run for an open seat, he's facing four-term Republican incumbent Jim Bowles, who even his harshest critics say is a fairly decent guy--for a politician, anyway.
You search Muñoz's office at the First American Mortgage Group off Stemmons Freeway, looking for some clue as to why he might submit to this kind of punishment come election day. There, on the wall beside his desk, is a framed poster of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle inscribed with the words: No Worries. On top of a bookshelf are dozens of miniature Harleys, a collection assembled by friends who know of his penchant for the American classic. Next to the poster are photos of his flying helicopters and airplanes for the U.S. Army and the Texas Army National Guard. And then it hits you. Beneath his conservative veneer and starched shirt is a certifiable hellion. A genuine risk-taker: on a bike, in the air, at the polls.
Your suspicions are confirmed when Muñoz relates his political history: Not only is he the first Hispanic to run for Dallas County sheriff, he is the first Hispanic to run for sheriff from both parties. This year he filed as a Democrat, but, in 1996, he ran as a Republican, challenging Sheriff Bowles in the primary after having spent 16 years as one of his volunteer reserve deputies. (Bowles fired him after Muñoz announced his candidacy, Muñoz claims.)
Running as a Republican should have been a decision made as much for expediency as philosophy: Republicans have dominated courthouse races since the mid-'80s, and Muñoz stood little chance of winning as a Democrat. But like a growing number of Hispanics, Muñoz felt comfortable with Republican ideology, a comfort born of his 25 years in corporate America.
"My friends [both Hispanic and otherwise] are mostly Republicans," he admits. "It seemed to be more of the socially acceptable party to be in."
But he says the campaign trail proved inhospitable for a Hispanic, as he went from one Republican Women's Club candidates forum to another. According to Muñoz, a "white-haired lady" (and precinct chairwoman) confronted him as he entered her far North Dallas home:
"Is your name Chuck Muñoz?"a lady asked.
"Yes ma'am," he replied.
"Are you running for sheriff?" she asked.
"I think you are wasting both your time and mine, and I think you are being stupid and silly," she said. "The only reason you are in my home is because of this candidates forum."
"Otherwise, I wouldn't have a Mexican in my house. I wouldn't have a black in my house, and I damn sure wouldn't vote for one."
Muñoz claims that identical exchanges occurred with two other "white-haired ladies" in two other "far North Dallas homes." He refuses to name names, so the Dallas Observer couldn't confirm his story. But it was this kind of reception, he says--and the fact that he got beaten 6-1 by Sheriff Bowles--that made him rethink his loyalty to the Republican Party.
"I knew I would receive support from Hispanics no matter which party I was in," Muñoz says. "Hispanics just want to be represented."
He only decided to change parties, however, in 1998 after meeting with a local group of influential Hispanic Republicans--among them, Eli Rodriguez and Jaime Ramon. Muñoz believed that if the Republican Party were truly the party of inclusion it claimed to be, it should be willing to accommodate an up-and-coming Hispanic with good leadership skills.
"I proposed to them that Sheriff Bowles retire and endorse my candidacy," Muñoz explains. "And if Bush won the presidency, he would appoint the sheriff to the U.S. marshal's job for the Northern District of Texas. It would be a nice way for him to cap off his career."
Not surprisingly, months passed without the Hispanic leadership's getting back to Muñoz. When he finally phoned Rodriguez, Muñoz informed him that his silence spoke volumes. "I told him I was no longer thinking about running as a Democrat. I was a Democrat."
Even though Muñoz appeared to be politically naïve ("My only other exposure to politics was two poly sci classes I took in college, which were a waste," he says), that didn't stop him. Without consulting a single Democratic leader--Hispanic or otherwise--he filed for sheriff in January. "I just looked myself in the mirror and decided it was the right thing to do," he says. He had no idea that this election cycle was the first time the Tejano Democrats, the official Hispanic caucus of the Democratic Party, would endorse a full slate of candidates. He was not on their list.
But Muñoz bulldozed ahead and proved a formidable campaigner who had a firm grasp of the issues confronting the sheriff's department. His Hispanic opponent--21 years old with no law-enforcement experience--made Muñoz's quest much easier. He took the primary by landslide numbers and gained the respect of the Democratic Party machinery, squeaky as it was.