Tzintzún Ramirez, 38, is trying to change that, against what remain substantial odds. After a career of organizing construction workers and young voters of color in Texas, she was recruited to run for Senate last summer by fellow Democratic activists who worked on the 2018 Senate campaign of former state Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who lost but came close enough to show that the state’s politics are quickly changing. At first she laughed off the idea — she had never run before and had no desire to do so — but they reminded her of the need for more Latina voices in politics.
Just three years ago, Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) became the first Latina elected to the U.S. Senate, and just over a year ago, Texas elected its first two Latinas to the U.S. House: Democrats Veronica Escobar of El Paso and Sylvia Garcia of Houston.
“There are many moments when I still doubt myself, that I think maybe I’m not smart enough, maybe I’m not the right person to be doing this,” Tzintzún Ramirez said at the brunch.
“I am the right person to be doing this. If we don’t step up, then maybe no one else will. We as Latinas are the right people at the right moment in the right state to actually step up.”
This year’s Texas Senate race — which has attracted a dozen Democratic candidates looking to unseat incumbent John Cornyn (R) and who will face off in the state’s March 3 primary — displays the tension playing out in the Democratic Party as its leaders and activists try to figure out what the party stands for, who leads it and, most importantly, which voters it prioritizes.
Calls for more candidates who look and think like the party’s emerging base of young, nonwhite and more liberal voters are inevitably colliding with a desire to win seats and states that have long been held by Republicans but are seen as gettable if candidates appeal to more moderate — and often more white — voters.
Those collisions are particularly difficult in places like Texas, where voters of color are crucial to any Democratic victory but diverse candidates have struggled to raise the money and attention needed to become the nominee.
The party’s presidential race has also shown the limits of identity politics. The field was once the most diverse in history — yet all but one of the remaining candidates, and all of the top tier, are white and many have had difficulty connecting with diverse Democratic constituencies. Adding more complexity, many nonwhite voters have backed white candidates over candidates of color, either due to policy positions or perceptions of which candidate could compete more strongly with President Trump.
“Let’s go make history for Latinas,” Tzintzún Ramirez said in an Instragram video on the first day of early voting.
The front-runner in the race is MJ Hegar, a tattooed 43-year-old combat veteran who lost a congressional race in 2018 in the heavily Republican Austin suburbs but garnered national attention for a campaign ad about her boundary-breaking military career. Hegar, a former Republican who is white, has been more cautious in her positions and supports a public health insurance option, banning assault weapons and not allowing “aggressive action on climate change to get overly politicized.” She has focused on winning over independent voters and former Republicans — and late last year received the endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is led by Masto.
That endorsement angered Tzintzún Ramirez and other candidates of color. Royce West, a longtime state senator from Dallas, called it “slap in the face” to black Texans and his spokesman accused the national Democratic leaders of “trying to lock African Americans out of the process.” Amanda Edwards, a former Houston city council member, accused the committee of attempting to “put a thumb on the scale.”
“Democrats talk about diversity in their party, yet this latest move proves they are all talk and no action,” Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey said in a statement, seizing on the division. “Last we checked, there was an African American State Senator, African American City Councilwoman, and a Latina liberal activist running.”
Soon after Tzintzún Ramirez entered the race last summer, she traveled to Washington to meet with the committee’s executive director and Texas organizer and urged them not to endorse before the primary.
“I let them know that in Texas, we are hungry and desperate for representation,” Tzintzún Ramirez said. “I let them know that if they did endorse [Hegar], I would hate for it to backfire on her in the general election to voters of color who had already felt underrepresented and ignored and were actually the majority of the Democratic Party in Texas.”
DSCC officials said that the decision was based on which candidate had the best shot at beating Cornyn, who has held the seat since 2002 yet is not well known in the state, especially compared to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). Hegar got into the race months before the other major candidates and has raised $3.8 million — more than all of the other candidates combined. Tzintzún Ramirez has raised more than $988,000, while West has raised $1.1 million and Edwards more than $935,000.
Tzintzún Ramirez has been tapping donors who gave to O’Rourke and those who helped support her organizing work over the years. She has been aided by actor Alec Baldwin, an enthusiastic supporter whom she first met in 2013 when she was the executive director of the Workers Defense Project in Austin. She has been surprised that some donors who long supported her organizing work were hesitant to support her running for office.
“So many donors ask: ‘How do we get out more Latino voters?’ Then some of those same donors say: ‘Oh, I don’t think a Latina can win [in Texas],’ ” she said. “You can’t want our votes and not our voices.”
Tzintzún Ramirez’s identity is at the center of her campaign. She opens her stump speech with her story: Her mother, Ana Tzintzún, is the oldest of nine children from a poor farm-working family in southern Mexico. Her father, Tom Costello, is “a white American hippie” who met her mother while traveling through Mexico in the 1970s.
She grew up in Ohio, where she says she usually didn’t know any Latinos who weren’t her relatives and saw how her brown mother was treated with far less respect than her white father. Her parents ran a fair-trade Mexican jewelry business, and the family frequently traveled to Mexico. Tzintzún Ramirez said she often felt pulled between two vastly different worlds and wasn’t sure where she fit.
She moved to Texas after high school and suddenly “felt at home” amid its wide diversity of Latinos. After her parents divorced, she legally took her mother’s last name, Tzintzún. “Ramirez” comes from her former husband, Manuel, whom she divorced in December.
Her name prompted a dust-up in January that proved the fraught nature of identity politics. The name Tzintzún is not well-known outside of her mother’s home state, so she explained to voters that “Tzintzún is more Mexican than any Garcia or Lopez” and that “we are the only indigenous group not defeated by the Aztecs in Mexico.” She was joking but was accused of ranking cultural identities.
“I have always said that there’s no wrong way to be Latina/Latino/Latinx,” she wrote in a tweeted apology, “and I truly believe that.”
“I slowly got over that and said, you know, I may be a Latina that prefers junk rock to bachata, but I love my people,” she said. “That makes me Latina.”
In trying to win over voters, Tzintzún Ramirez urges Texans to think ahead to the general election and the stark contrast that she could provide if put up against Cornyn. Tzintzún Ramirez often campaigns with her 3-year-old, Santiago, whom she calls “Santi” and talks openly about struggling to pay bills and piecing together child care when she became a single mother. She recently showed her staff members one of Cornyn’s 2008 campaign videos, titled “Big John,” that featured him in a cowboy hat and a leather coat with fringe.
“I do not think John Cornyn reflects the Texas of today. And I think that there is no better way to show that than me being the candidate,” she said. “Trump is going to run his campaign villainizing, targeting people that look like and have last names just like me. This race is going to get heated real fast, and I think it’s going to become the race that really is reflective of who we are becoming as a country and who we’re making space for.”
O’Rourke opted not to join the Senate race despite widespread calls for him to do so. His advisers believed that running against Cornyn in a presidential year would be more difficult than running against Cruz in 2018 — plus, O’Rourke had a strong working relationship with Cornyn and would struggle to cast him as a villain as he did with Cruz. O’Rourke has made clear that he will not endorse ahead of the primary, and he regularly talks with several of the candidates, including Hegar and Tzintzún Ramirez.
Tzintzún Ramirez wrote O’Rourke’s Latino outreach strategy in 2018 — and then watched in frustration as he waited for voters to come to him instead of sending paid canvassers into Latino neighborhoods, diversifying his staff and campaigning more heavily in urban areas. She credits him with listening to her and making last-minute changes. Many of those who worked on the campaign said that O’Rourke would have had a better shot at winning had he courted diverse communities sooner in his race.
In her own campaign, Tzintzún Ramirez’s staffers are nearly all women and people of color, and she has focused on campaigning in Texas’s major cities, especially those with large Latino populations. If she were to become the Democratic nominee, Tzintzún Ramirez said, she would invest much more heavily in voter registration and mobilizing communities of color than O’Rourke did. Hegar’s campaign says that it plans to amplify and build on voter registration efforts of nonprofit groups.
Tzintzún Ramirez said she has long been frustrated that the Democratic Party has failed to fully engage Latino voters. Following Trump’s election, she founded Jolt, a nonprofit focused on helping young Latinos and other voters of color become activists on issues that matter to them. Jolt couples politics with culture, setting up photo booths at quinceañera celebrations and pushing young women to see voting as another way to honor their commitments to their family and their communities. Jolt became a gathering place for young Latinas, especially those who are of mixed ancestry, like Tzintzún Ramirez.
It does not base its decisions solely on race, however. During the 2018 Democratic primary for governor, Jolt endorsed Andrew White, who owned a company that developed border security technology, over Lupe Valdez, the former sheriff of Dallas County who had cooperated with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and allowed undocumented immigrants to be detained in her jail.
“Representation matters and lived experience will often lead you to a different result . . . but above all, it matters where you stand on the issues that matter to people’s everyday life,” Tzintzún Ramirez said.
For months, Tzintzún Ramirez has bounced around the state with a small group of young female staffers. A recent weekend took her from a county party meeting in the Fort Worth area where she waited more than an hour to speak to the group for just a few minutes, to the Latina networking brunch where all of the women wore nametags labeled with their super power (Tzintzún Ramirez’s superpower was helping others to see their power) to a meet-and-greet in a Fort Worth bar that attracted dozens of former O’Rourke volunteers, and eventually to an intimate gathering with black and Afro-Latino voters at a coffee shop in Houston, where tears flowed amid a discussion of systemic racism and poverty.
“For so long we have had politicians that don’t represent us at all, especially in Texas. I know people like to say that Latinos are a minority but in Texas they’re not, they’re the majority,” said Krissia Palomo, 19, a college student who brought two friends to the Fort Worth meet-and-greet. “This might be a little bit of identity politics, but I do like seeing myself in somebody that’s running for such an important office.”