The Unbearable Lightness of Victor

Driving west on Highway 67, Victor Morales has the sun at his back and a St. Patrick's Day parade on the horizon. Early this Saturday morning, the grandson of Mexican immigrants stuck a shamrock in his lapel, slipped a toothbrush in his pocket and set out in a 4-year-old Nissan truck. It is arguably the most famous pickup in Texas at the moment, driven by a man who is giving the Texas Democratic Party fits.

Little attention was paid last fall when the unknown schoolteacher entered the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. Morales was another geek, one more of those quaint--if misguided--vanity candidates who pop up on the ballot every election season. Their naive faith in democracy is refreshing, but they do nothing more than clutter up the radar.

The real race to decide who would challenge Republican Phil Gramm for the U.S. Senate was supposed to be between two Texas congressmen--John Bryant and Jim Chapman--heavy lifters with all the political accouterments Morales lacks, like credentials, experience, records, staff, spin doctors, money and, of course, organizations.

But with his truck and about $8,000 of his own money, Morales stunned the political pros. He took a leave of absence from his job as a government teacher at Poteet High School in Mesquite. He drove more than 50,000 miles, usually by himself. He'd stop at gas stations and shake hands. People would ask him why his truck was dented. He'd blame it on his wife. They'd nod, and take some leaflets, maybe a bumper sticker.

Morales worked the highways and cafes. He spoke before any crowd that would have him. He showed up for candidate debates and forums, along the way receiving only perfunctory acknowledgment from the Democratic Party and the press.

And in the March 12 primary, the unknown, 46-year-old schoolteacher blew away the field. He led the four-man race, garnering more than 322,000 votes across the state. Drawing 36 percent of the primary vote, Morales is the front runner going into an April runoff with Bryant, who trailed with 30 percent. Chapman is out of the race entirely, as is Houston attorney John Odam, who finished a dismal fourth.

Naturally, Morales is quite proud of himself. "I'm a tough little bugger, aren't I?" he says with a grin.

Now the Democrats aren't sure what to do. The power brokers and party hierarchy grimace at the thought of Morales as their candidate. Unseating Phil Gramm is a formidable enough challenge without a fluke candidate as the party nominee. The national press is already calling, wanting to make a folk hero out of Morales.

"People are voting for this guy because he's a schoolteacher driving around in a pickup truck," grumbles one Bryant partisan. "What they don't understand is that he's a schoolteacher driving around in a pickup truck."

But 322,000 votes give the politicos pause. Few want to openly criticize a candidate who can draw that much support, and they surely don't want to belittle all the Democrats who cast those ballots.

Pundits and opponents have sought a serendipitous explanation for Morales' confoundingly strong showing. They contend that Morales, the only candidate with an Hispanic surname on the ballot, surely benefited from his heritage among Hispanic voters. They also say he piggybacked on the good name of Texas Attorney General Dan Morales, drawing votes with name recognition borrowed from the only Hispanic who holds statewide office.

Victor Morales prefers to think his success is actually due to his months on the road, buying gas at $12 a tankful and meeting voters a few at a time. He didn't talk to 322,000 people in his travels, Morales acknowledges, but he is loath to let the more famous attorney general get credit for his victory.

"By and large, people know Victor Morales and Dan Morales are different people," he says. "A teacher running around in a truck is not the attorney general. The analysts, the experts, continue to say it, but there is no confusion among the people I have talked to on the street."

Whatever the case, four days after his improbable political quest should have foundered in the shallow waters of conventional wisdom, Morales is back in the truck and headed for the St. Patrick's Day parade in Dublin, having been invited by a local Democratic activist. Dublin is in Erath County, Morales explains, dairy and peanut country where this particular grandson of Mexican immigrants has never before ventured. He'll want to stop in Stephenville and wash the truck before the parade, so as to make a good impression.

On the road to Dublin, Morales begins considering what will happen now that he's a bona fide political candidate and not just a novelty act. He's expecting greater scrutiny from the press and his opponents. And if he beats Bryant--which is not impossible--Morales will face Gramm: two-term incumbent, master of a $3 million election juggernaut, and a mean campaigner even by Texas standards.

Morales will have to flesh out his stands on issues, something he hasn't had time to do what with all his driving around. A stack of unopened newspapers lies on his floorboard, underneath an unopened Big Grab bag of Cooler Ranch Doritos. He'll have to start catching up on things.

And then there are the skeletons. Two of them, actually.
Will it hurt his chances, Morales asks somewhere west of Glen Rose, when people find out he has been divorced?

Not likely, Victor. Divorce isn't a knockout blow anymore. Look at Gingrich, Dole, Reagan--hell, even Gramm. As long as you didn't beat her up or anything.

Well, will it be a problem, he asks, when people find out that he and his second wife owe $27,000 in student loans to the federal government?

Uh, yeah, Victor. That could be a problem.

One advantage of a hopeless candidacy is that one escapes a minute examination by press and foes. If a candidate looks credible, reporters look for stories. Foes conduct "opposition research." Reporters often get stories from unnamed partisans bearing "opposition research."

Until now, Morales has ducked such attention while tooling around the state in his Nissan. He is, in fact, pretty hard to reach at all. Since he has no campaign headquarters or staff, reporters leave messages at his home and wait for return calls. Sometimes, Morales will give out the number to his cellular phone.

Since no one expected him to get this far, there was little obvious reason to poke around in his affairs, and most of the stories about Morales have been gentle, pointing out that he is a personable man, obviously witty and intelligent, a popular schoolteacher and a dedicated student of government.

Morales has been thin on the issues, offering little more than generalities and a promise to study up when asked about thorny national problems like immigration and tax reform. When he appeared to be a sure loser, nobody pressed too hard.

But now, things are different. Morales figures the story about his wife's student loans is bound to surface sometime soon, especially since Morales once wrote his congressman--John Bryant--for help with the situation.

So on a Saturday drive to Dublin, Morales--ever full of surprises--inexplicably decides it is time to trot out the tale of his wife's $27,000 debt to the federal government.

His wife, Dani Renee, is part Native American, Morales explains. To pay for college, she took a loan from a federal Indian Health Agency program, and studied medical administration.

As part of the deal, she was supposed to work for two years on a reservation to pay back the loan. And she tried to do just that, Morales says. For three years, Dani repeatedly applied for work, but was told all the appropriate jobs were filled. During much of the time when the couple was dating in the early 1980s, he says, she was trying to land a reservation job to work off her debt.

In 1985, Victor and Dani Morales got married, and it wasn't long before their first child was on the way. Then their second. The couple bought a house. And then the federal government said it had a reservation job for Dani.

"We had two jobs, she was pregnant, we'd just bought our house. She couldn't do it then," Morales says. Morales says his wife applied for a hardship waiver, saying she simply could not take a reservation job. The couple asked that the loan be forgiven.

The health agency waffled. Morales says he was initially told a hardship waiver would be granted, then told it would not be. The issue has never been settled, and as far as the government is concerned, the debt is still owed. (The Bureau of Indian Affairs would not provide any information on Dani Morales' loan.)

For a decade, he says, Morales, his wife, and the federal government have been fighting over the loan. With interest, the couple's debt may now total $75,000, he says, and the bad debt has shown up on his wife's credit rating. Morales says it has been a continuous headache, but that he doesn't think the couple should have to repay the money. "Our fight is against the bureaucrats, and the way they have treated us," Morales says. "This should have been settled 10 years ago."

Morales is a schoolteacher, and his wife works in risk management at a Kaufman County hospital. Between them, he says, they make less than $60,000 a year. They could pay the loan, but Morales isn't sure whether they're obligated to do so.

Win or lose the runoff election, Morales says, he will probably hire a lawyer and try to settle the issue once and for all. He might go to court and seek a judgment that the couple is not obligated to pay back the money.

Morales says he doesn't think the couple should have to pay back the loan. But others--say, an opponent facing him in a close race--might see that as a U.S. Senate candidate welshing on a debt. And to the federal government, no less.

Morales has given up his paycheck and spent his family's life savings on his campaign. He has taught and studied government and politics for years. But he seems hard-pressed to understand why failing to pay off a $27,000 student loan might hurt him in the Senate race.

"You think I should pay it?" he asks. "Maybe I should. One way or another, I guess I need to get it cleared up."

Yup. Especially if you're going to end up in Phil Gramm's cross hairs.

It is unlikely--but not impossible--that Victor Morales will beat John Bryant in the Democratic runoff. Even Bryant's camp, while espousing optimism, acknowledges that the race could be close.

In the March 12 primary, Morales did make a strong showing in areas with the most Hispanic voters, particularly in South Texas. He beat Bryant in Corpus Christi, even though Sen. Carlos Truan, the city's purported Hispanic political powerhouse, had endorsed Bryant. Morales also carried El Paso and San Antonio.

But Morales also carried areas outside the heavy Hispanic strongholds, including Houston, Austin, and even Lubbock, which has no natural fondness for Hispanic candidates.

Voter turnout in runoffs tends to be lower than in primaries, but El Paso and the Valley have hot runoffs for local races that could draw more people back to the polls on April 9. Good turnouts in those areas would bode well for Morales' runoff chances.

Bryant, on the other hand, easily carried his home turf, Dallas County, with 71 percent of the vote. He has represented the Fifth Congressional District since 1982, and should fare well in Dallas and East Texas.

Privately, leading Democrats think a Morales victory would be a sure ticket to disaster in November--that Phil Gramm would roll over the political neophyte. Even Bryant would face an uphill battle against Gramm.

But Democratic honchos are afraid to attack Morales publicly. If the 322,000 people who voted for Morales did so because they are pissed off at politicians, none of the politicians wants to further tempt the electorate's wrath by attacking Morales. Chapman and Odam, vanquished in the primary, have not thrown their support behind Bryant.

Even state Attorney General Dan Morales, whose own political profile supposedly built the name recognition that benefited Victor Morales, is not stepping up to the plate to help Bryant. "The attorney general does not want to comment or speculate on any of this," says Ron Dusek, spokesman for Dan Morales. "Whatever he does, if he does anything at all, he'll do it privately and quietly. But publicly, he is not going to play a role in this."

Bryant himself is taking a cautious approach to the Morales phenomenon. Last week, Morales even managed to bag the editorial endorsement of the Houston Chronicle.

Bryant has praised his opponent as a sincere, intelligent man, but tries to point out that Morales lacks experience and has outlined no substantive stands on any issues.

"We're trying to stay focused on what our message is, and that is, who is the most viable candidate to beat Phil Gramm--who has the tested leadership, who has the qualities that it takes to win an election?" says Bryant campaign spokeswoman Margaret Justus. "John Bryant's won 13 straight elections in a district that is like a microcosm of the state of Texas. He represents urban and rural folks, and has positions that he doesn't waver from."

Bryant is pushing immigration reform. He wants to slash defense spending overseas, and use the money instead for education, environmental protection, and crime prevention. The longtime congressman is offering a three-part plan to help working Americans: raising the minimum wage; enacting the Kennedy-Kassebaum health-care bill which prevents insurance companies from refusing coverage to people with pre-existing conditions; and offering tax incentives to companies that help out their employees with programs such as profit sharing.

"Wages have not moved in this country for 10 years," Justus says. "John Bryant has a plan, and he can articulate that. What's Victor going to do about stagnating wages?"

Morales is going to study the situation, he says, offering his standard answer when pressed for his stand on virtually any issue. Morales readily concedes that he has not developed strong positions on any of the concerns he might face as a senator.

In general, Morales says, his biases tend toward helping out working folks, protecting the environment, and, naturally, funding education. But his political philosophy has not developed much beyond such theoretical precepts.

What would be the first piece of legislation Morales would like to introduce?

"I haven't started to set that down," he says.
How does he feel about Republican efforts to roll back environmental regulation?

"Regulation is necessary, but you have to work out what's useful and what's not."

What would he do to boost wages for low-income families?
"I don't know," he says. "If you want somebody who knows all that, vote for somebody else."

Well, what about deregulation in general, the argument that businesses need to be unshackled from federal rules?

"I would listen very closely to business. I want to work with them, but don't tell me they're always right."

OK, what about assassination as a U.S. foreign-policy tool?
"What's good for the goose is good for the gander," he says. "If we do it, we can't cry foul if they assassinate ours."

On abortion, Morales personally opposes it but respects a woman's right to choose otherwise. He's for a balanced budget, however that might be accomplished.

Vagueness is part and parcel of Morales' appeal to voters. He is not a man with all the answers, he admits. After all, he's an outsider with no staff or briefing books to help point the way. But he has a good heart, common sense, and a desire to serve.

His political experience consists of one term on the City Council in Crandall, the small town southeast of Dallas where he and his family live. He boasts of getting a few streets paved, putting up new street signs, and helping the city hire a part-time manager. "I loved it. I said, 'This is fun,'" Morales says. "People were complimenting me."

But it's a big jump from Crandall City Council to U.S. Senate. What prompted Morales to go for it? Mainly his detestation of Phil Gramm. "When I see him on TV, the attitude that comes across is that it's his way or the highway," Morales says. "I don't think he's ethical or moral in the way he presents himself as a U.S. Senator."

In particular, Morales hates it when Gramm rants about the federal government, characterizing it as some sort of evil in the land. When he was growing up in Pleasanton, after his father left his mom, Morales and his family needed welfare to stay afloat. When he got out of the Navy, Morales attended college on the GI bill.

By and large, he says, the federal government has been good to people like him. "I'm so tired of Gramm and all those other people ragging on the U.S. government," Morales says. "The U.S. government helped my mom and brothers and sisters eat. I thank God for the U.S. government."

Morales casts Gramm as a rabid grandstander and consummate political insider who has enriched himself from elected office. All of that may be true, but not everyone who shares that view feels compelled to run for the Senate. So why is Morales running? "Because I want to do it. Because it needed to be done," he says. "This is not about my ego."

Well, Victor, whatever you say.
At Stephenville, Morales pulls into an Exxon station to get quarters and directions to the nearest car wash. Once there, he takes off his suit jacket and hoses down the truck.

A few miles farther down the road is Dublin. Morales pulls into the parking lot of Willie's Diner, gets out, and plasters red-white-and-blue banners on each side of his truck.

The St. Patrick's Day parade is staging near downtown. It's a big event in Dublin, and thousands of people from surrounding counties line the main street. Morales parks between a nursing-home float and a blue Chevy pickup bearing Keri Simmons, the Dr Pepper bottling company's Miss Dublin.

When the parade finally starts, Morales is assigned to follow an old man on a go-cart who plays a guitar made from a toilet seat. Miss Hico follows behind on her float.

Throngs line the street. More than a few call out Morales' name, and ask how many miles he's put on the truck. The truck is famous. People have seen it on the TVnews or read about it in the papers. His upset primary win has enthralled those who follow politics.

This is a truly bizarre situation. An Hispanic man virtually unknown just months ago is driving in a small-town Texas parade before throngs of white dairy farmers in a Japanese pickup truck, and people are cheering.

Morales is churning out adrenaline. He's being treated like a varsity third-stringer who managed to score a touchdown. Only a few people know his name, but everyone wants to congratulate him. "I've made the splash," Morales says, waving out the window.

The parade ends up at Dublin City Park, where a day of softball games, carnival rides, horseshoes, and blind tractor-driving contests will ensue.

Morales approaches the table set up by the Erath County Democrats. Can he put out his literature? No problem, says county chairman Allan Butcher. Morales is, for real now, a Democratic contender. Erath County went heavily for Bryant in the primary, but Butcher is not going to turn his back on the candidate who led the race.

"If he can garner legitimate support beyond name recognition, he might do all right here," Butcher says. "Someone like Victor Morales might just be the guy who can beat Phil Gramm."

Morales spends several hours working the crowd. He's all by himself--no handlers or aides, no one else to answer his cellular phone. Just him, and all these people he can walk up to and shake hands with. Hell, some of them even walk up to him.

Sheriff David Coffee, himself a Democrat who is running for a fourth term, is amazed that Morales has made it this far by spending just $8,000. The sheriff figures it will cost him more than $10,000 just to win Erath County again, "and it's kinda easy for me to get out and drive around this county and see everybody."

Morales is working near the chili-dog stand as Coffee watches, unsure what to make of this political rookie who has come barreling into town. "I don't know, he may wake some people up," the sheriff says.

A handful of voters actually approach Morales as the afternoon wears on. Two inquire about his stance on gays in the military; Morales evades the question. They press him on home schooling. He's for it. A dairy farmer tells Morales what good workers the Mexicans are. Morales restrains himself.

A reporter from the Stephenville paper asks for an interview. Morales gets a few seconds on a country-and-western radio station broadcasting live from the park. "Even if I lose," he says afterward, "I've made a lot of people happy."

By late afternoon, Morales is back in his truck heading for home. He's shaken a few dozen more hands today, made a few dozen more friends. And he still hasn't articulated a single firm stand on an issue or advanced a single specific insight into what voters might expect if he is elected to the Senate.

For the most part, he's talked about what an open, honest, caring guy he is. And the people have listened. Morales is glowing during the ride home. "People constantly were reaffirming that they are proud of this--of what I've done," he says. "They've heard of me. They'll tell people they've met Victor Morales.

"It's sad right now," Morales adds. "You know, people are going around saying I don't have any issues. It's kind of an insult, to bring me down as a nice, hardworking guy who's out of his league. I'm proud of myself. But I'm a realist. I know the odds. Don't you ever go against the odds?"

Sure, Victor. But if every nice guy with a pickup ran for Senate, that St. Patrick's Day parade would still be going on today.


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