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Texas political community mourns the death of Grace Garcia


Grace Garcia, executive director of Annie’s List, greets Leticia Van de Putte, left, a state senator and candidate for lieutenant governor, as she arrives at the Belo Mansion in Dallas for a campaign event on April 3. Garcia died June 2 in a car accident. (San Antonio Express-News)

She had a warp-speed work ethic, and her “Amazing Grace” nickname, given to her by former president Bill Clinton, let you know that Grace García was a deep insider in Democratic Party circles.

But it was her reputation as a tough and fearless advocate, who never gave up fighting for Democrats and Democratic principles in a solid Republican state, that made her such a trusted friend and ally in the rocky world of Texas politics.

On Monday, while on her way to a political fundraising event in Dallas, the 59-year-old head of Annie’s List lost her life in a car accident in Waxahachie.

On Tuesday, colleagues and friends talked about their shock and sadness and wondered how the Texas Democratic Party will get along without such a fearless warrior – especially at a time when Democrats haven’t won statewide office in 20 years.

“I thought she was going to single-handedly turn Texas blue,” said longtime Democratic strategist and CNN commentator Maria Cardona. “There’s a huge hole to fill now with her absence.”

García was instrumental in convincing state Sen. Wendy Davis to run for Texas governor and Leticia Van de Putte to run for lieutenant governor, Cardona said.

“The time was right to motivate people about what was going on in Texas, and no one else could’ve been as good for that job as Grace,” she said.

Capricia Marshall, for whom García worked as senior adviser to the chief of protocol at the State Department under Hillary Clinton, was overwhelmed when she found out about Garcia.

“She was one of the most talented people I knew,” she said. “She taught people all the ways in which to engage other countries and how to interact with people of other cultures so that we could strengthen our bilateral relationships.”

Former Texas land commissioner Garry Mauro remembered her passion and that “she took public service to a whole new level.”

After working in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, where she dealt with foreign dignitaries, traveled all over the world and made extensive contacts that could have turned into a lucrative opportunity for her, she came back home to Texas.

“Instead of cashing in,” Mauro said, “she took a job making sure other Texas women had the same opportunities she had.”

As executive director of Annie’s List since January 2013, García raised money to support pro-choice candidates. In a state with a GOP-controlled legislature that has slashed funding for women’s health programs, the organization’s work is needed now more than ever, women’s advocacy organizations say.

“Grace García was the passionate, tough, visionary leader we needed at Annie’s List. The best possible tribute to her life is to continue the work Grace started on behalf of Annie’s List and women across Texas,” Amber Mostyn, chairwoman of the board of Annie’s List, said in a statement.

Cardona said Garcia’s torch now falls to other Democrats in Texas. “She wouldn’t expect anything less from us. We’ll have to do it in her honor.”

Cardona remembered García as a force of nature, who knocked on doors, made people believe in her cause or candidate and never looked back. She not only fought for Democratic party policies, she also fought for Democratic women and Democratic Latina women, especially.

García was a founding member of the Poder PAC, which supports Latinas who want to run for office. In a state where Hispanics are projected to become a dominant force at the ballot box by the end of the decade, opening minds and wallets to Latina candidates can still be an uphill battle. Much of the old prejudices against Mexican-Americans that have prevailed in Texas since before it joined the Union can still be found among Democratic Party bosses. But it’s slowly changing.

García was accustomed to fighting for unpopular causes or candidates.

She got her political spurs working in Mauro’s campaign – a race nobody believed he could win in a red state.

But García believed. And every weekend, she and Mauro would jump in a car and visit every county courthouse south of San Antonio. He ended up winning and carried every county in the southern part of Texas with 70 percent of the vote.

“She never quit or gave up,” Mauro recalled.

Veronica De La Garza first met García in the 1980s when she was helping Mauro run for land commissioner. De La Garza at the time was working for Ann Richards, who would later become governor of Texas.

“She was the bravest person I’ve ever known – tough as nails,” De La Garza said, describing her friend as committed and persistent. “She did things to change things, and sometimes it wasn’t welcomed in all circles.”

At this stage of her life, García was “in full bloom,” De La Garza said.  “She was using everything she had learned her whole life.”

As the head of Annie’s List, De La Garza said García was finally able to put money behind candidates who supported the democratic principles she had fought for.

And it wasn’t just for politics. She would be there to comfort her friends in need, too.

“When my mother died, Grace was there for me,” De La Garza said. “I ended up getting sick, and she always checked on me. She would tell me, ‘You call me next time, and I’ll be there.’ ”

The Clintons always relied on her to be there for them, too. During Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency, García was Chelsea Clinton’s handler, organizing and doing advance work for her.

And García also expected to be there for another Clinton run for the White House, Marshall said.

“She was waiting for one more campaign,” she said. “She was so hopeful that she was going to have one last rodeo.”

Mercedes Olivera is a columnist at the Dallas Morning News.

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