In Tuesday's Contests, a Party Divided

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 2008

BROWNSVILLE, Tex. -- State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. pulled into the parking lot at Rudy's "Country Store" and Bar-B-Q one day last week in an old pickup truck worn by 237,000 miles. He winced as he stepped down from the driver's seat, evidence of two heart attacks and a recent hernia surgery.

Doctors had ordered him to stay home, but he refused to watch Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's Texas campaign deteriorate from his couch. Lucio, 62, planned to use his influence across the Rio Grande Valley to save her.

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, 29, arrived in a new Saab compact with a Barack Obama bumper sticker on the rear window. A few months ago, when he applied the decal, friends heckled him. His endorsement of Obama alienated some constituents in a Latino district thick with Clinton loyalists. Career suicide, some colleagues called it. Now, Lucio hoped to prove his instincts right.

Father and son had met here at Rudy's for dozens of meals, but as they ate smoked brisket and casually talked about their respective candidates last week, the Lucios struggled with an uncomfortable new divide.

"I admire Eddie's optimism, but it's a little naive," the father said.

"Ah, come on," Big Ed -- as his father calls him -- joked. "The world is just passing you by."

A generational rift defines the Democratic race among Latinos in the Rio Grande Valley, where Clinton once enjoyed almost complete support. Obama introduced himself here two weeks ago, and he has since generated enough momentum with young voters to threaten Clinton's Latino support base. Polls indicate that Clinton's lead has evaporated in Texas, a state that her husband has said she must win Tuesday.

An argument that began two months ago in the Lucio household now echoes along the Texas border. Whose voice is louder: that of loyal Latinos who credit Clinton for her history of paying attention to an impoverished region that so many other politicians forget? Or that of younger, better-educated Latinos who identify with Obama as a minority who emerged from nothing?

Last week at Rudy's, the Lucios sat on opposite sides of the table in silence, weary from the campaign. Both are running unopposed for reelection, and they have devoted their free time to the presidential primary. Lucio Jr. had spent his afternoon racing between Clinton events, handing out stickers and shaking hands. Meanwhile, the son whom he introduced to politics outlined a speech he would deliver at an upcoming Obama rally.

The grandson of Italians who immigrated first to Mexico and then to Texas, Lucio Jr. taught school for $8,000 a year before running for local office in 1970. He aspired to serve simple people who wanted the tools for survival -- Latino immigrants, legal and illegal, now making an average of $19,000 a year in a town that is 90 percent Latino. As a politician, he considers loyalty and dependability his greatest strengths.

Lucio III left home to dabble in professional golf before graduating from law school in Austin, and he returned to Brownsville with grand visions of change. He told his father that nothing is impossible, even in a town left without an interstate and with a main boulevard that dead-ends abruptly at the Mexican border.

"What people are beginning to realize down here is that there's such a thing as loyalty to a fault," Big Ed told his father at the restaurant. "Obama's got momentum, he's -- "

"Now listen, son. Just listen," Eddie Jr. interjected. "It's not like every young person down here is supporting Obama. I mean, what about my grandson, your nephew? He's a huge Clinton supporter."

"Dad. He's only 8."

"Okay. That's true. But right now, we're taking any support we can get."

The father and son stared hard at each other. Then they both erupted in laughter.

The New Generation

Last Tuesday afternoon, the son paced backstage at a packed auditorium near Brownsville and listened through a door to the escalating cheers of more than 300 Obama supporters. He was scheduled to introduce Caroline Kennedy to this crowd in 10 minutes, and Big Ed considered it one of the most important speeches of his young political career. He cracked his knuckles as he waited to be called to the stage. "Lots of people," he said. "So I'm kind of feeling the pressure."

Many of those waiting to hear Lucio speak were the kind of people he related to best: young Latinos who had left Brownsville for college and returned determined to bring the culture of Texas's big cities back to the Rio Grande Valley, where fading suburban malls function as the primary tourist destinations and two registered psychiatrists serve more than 1 million residents. Lucio had connected with them by promising change -- and fast.

Two months ago, he called Obama's campaign headquarters to offer his help, becoming the first representative in the Valley to officially endorse the senator from Illinois. Fifty-three officials in South Texas had already voiced their support for Clinton, and many of them wondered if Lucio had made a rookie political mistake just two years after winning his first election. His father told him to "follow his heart, but be careful."

"I knew I was sticking my neck out," Lucio said. "But I knew that if I was going down for this, at least I was doing something I believed in and not just following blind loyalty."

The biggest risk of his career paid huge dividends, and now the young legislator has become the unofficial spokesperson of a South Texas upheaval. He considers himself typical of young Latinos near the border: an American first and foremost, with more education than his parents. In a town where most restaurants print their menus in Spanish, Lucio feels more comfortable speaking English. Obama, he decided, could create a United States less divided by economic class and ethnicity.

Since the beginning of February, Lucio has focused on young Latino voters who had barely heard of Obama, knew nothing of his politics and thought he is Muslim. Though Obama still trails in the Rio Grande Valley, his streak of wins and consistent presence here have eliminated the name-recognition problem that helped Clinton carry the Hispanic vote in California last month.

The weathered tiendas on the main street have begun selling Obama "¿S¿ Se Puede!" T-shirts, proclaiming "Yes We Can!" The candidate's youthful message appeals to the 18-to-40-year-olds who make up 40 percent of Texas's 8.5 million Hispanic residents. Those supporters, more attuned to modern America than their Spanish-speaking parents, spread Obama loyalty to older relatives who count on them for cultural advice.

"Parents here usually take the pulse from their children," Lucio said. "Each generation has been here longer, so they become the guide."

A few minutes before Big Ed entered the auditorium and began his introduction, George McShan spotted him backstage. McShan is a school board member in Harlingen and a longtime acquaintance of Lucio's father, and he clapped his hands as he approached.

"Ah, here is the visionary, the man who brought Obama to South Texas," McShan said.

"Yeah, I think we're making some progress," Lucio replied.

"I'd say," McShan said. "How's your dad handling all this? After the election is over, you might need to resuscitate him."

The Old Guard

On the other side of Brownsville, the father carried a Clinton sign into Valley Grande Manor, a single-story nursing home with yellow stucco walls. The veteran senator has made nursing and retirement homes regular stops on his campaign schedule. By motivating the old guard of Brownsville, he hopes to prove that "no estamos muertos" -- "we're not dead."

When he campaigns, Lucio Jr. heralds Clinton as a rare politician who consistently has paid attention to this far corner of the country. He spent time with her during bus tours for her husband's presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996, and now he bases his support for the senator from New York primarily "on history and loyalty." Sometimes, he refers to her endearingly as Hillaria.

He tells voters that Clinton has enough experience and historical knowledge of South Texas to ease the heartache caused here by inadequate health care and strict immigration laws. Obama, on the other hand, reminds him of his son. "Very smart and inspirational," he says, "but just needing a little seasoning."

Until recently, Lucio assumed that the Rio Grande Valley would follow his lead by voting heavily for Clinton based on familiarity. "This is still Clinton country down here, but maybe Clinton country is smaller now," he said. "The Obama train is moving pretty fast down the tracks. A lot of people still have loyalties to Clinton. But whenever there is a clean slate, the clean-slate vote seems to overwhelmingly side with Obama."

In the past few weeks, Lucio has seen many of his political friends start to hedge. After Lucio III's endorsement, a dozen other local officials announced their support for Obama. But instead of fighting to close the widening generational gap, the father has decided he has little choice but to embrace it.

In the nursing home's common room, where a dozen residents were engrossed in a bingo game, Lucio started a speech about Clinton's long relationship with the Valley. A woman in a wheelchair at the far end of the room protested that they were supposed to be playing bingo.

He ignored her and finished his speech. "I guess there was one Obama fan in there who didn't want to hear it," he said afterward. "I'm telling you, it seems like they're everywhere now."

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