Morales leads in Democratic primary

by Jim Parsons

Daily Cougar Staff

Victor Morales is proof that, in politics, truth is stranger than fiction.

Morales, a 46-year-old high school teacher in the Dallas suburb of Crandall, is running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Phil Gramm.

During the recent primary elections, Morales spent one-tenth of the money on his campaign that his competitors spent. His initial campaign efforts were carried out from the back of his 1992 Nissan pickup truck, which he drove 57,000 miles around Texas.

Yet this "regular guy," as he calls himself, captured first place in the recent Democratic Senate primary, winning more votes than his high-profile opponent, U.S. Rep. John Bryant of Dallas, who has served five terms in the Texas Legislature and seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Morales garnered 36.1 percent of the vote in March, while Bryant received 30 percent, and the third-place finisher, Rep. Jim Chapman of Sulphur Springs, won 26.9 percent.

"No matter how many TV cameras, radio people, (and) newsmen are with me, no matter how large the group, that does not change who I am," said Morales during a Friday press conference held at the University of Houston.

The conference was organized by UH's Mexican American Studies Program and was attended by members of the national media and a number of Morales supporters.

Morales' unusual campaign strategy goes beyond his pickup truck. He said he refuses to accept money from political action committees, despite encouragement from his wife, and instead only takes individual gifts. He also said he has no intention of hiring a campaign consultant or manager.

Morales said his campaign techniques have touched a common chord in voters, and that this is the reason for his success in the primaries.

Bryant claims Morales' success has to do with voters confusing him with popular Texas Attorney General Dan Morales.

"We had a field of four candidates, and one had the same last name as our two-time attorney general," Bryant told The New York Times in March. "This isn't the first time that's happened."

Friday, Morales gave some background on himself and vaguely addressed his position on some major issues.

He did not run for Senate to be the first Mexican-American senator from Texas, he said, "but it (would) give me a tremendous amount of pride."

"I am for real," he said. "I really do care. I am not going to Washington, D.C., for a future consulting job. I am going up there to help. I am going up there to give you someone that you may disagree with time and again, but who really is sincere."

Morales said he will study the issues facing him in a more intensive fashion after establishing a campaign office if he wins the Tuesday runoff against Bryant.

Morales said he is a supporter of affirmative action, even though he recognizes abuse of it.

"I'm a supporter even though I don't like it. I wish we didn't have it, actually," he said. However, "it's not time yet" to dispose of programs such as affirmative action, he said.

"I'm not looking for a time when there's no prejudice. I'm looking for a little better situation for minorities and for women," he said. "There is still a lot of room for improvement."

On education, Morales said he would be leery of cuts to federal aid programs.

"It would be very difficult for me to cut (education)," he said, noting that he attended college on the federal GI Bill and citing his 17-year experience as a teacher in public schools.

Morales said that because he is the grandson of immigrants, immigration laws are of special importance for him and he does not advocate large decreases in legal immigration. "To use (a Senate seat) to attack immigrants as `the problem' to score points is wrong."

Morales described his position as "night and day" to that of Gramm. Morales differs from his Democratic competitors as well, referring to himself as "moderate," whereas Bryant calls himself a "populist Democrat" dedicated to social programs that will help working families and children.

Bryant has launched an attack on Morales regarding an unpaid $27,000 student loan issued to Morales' wife 15 years ago.

The funds were given to her by the Indian Health Service Agency in exchange for public service work on an Indian reservation, which she has not yet completed.

Bryant's office publicly called on Morales to pay the loan back, saying, "As long as Morales has an unpaid student loan, he is not qualified to serve in the U.S. Senate. What kind of example does this set for our students?"

Morales blamed the unpaid loan on the government's inability to help his wife fulfill her obligation.

"This is an ongoing fight with the bureaucracy," he said. "It has never been stated by us that we would not pay the scholarship grant."

Instead, he said his wife tried for three years to be hired by the Indian Health Service so she could complete her work, and the organization failed to find her a job.

After three years of unemployment, Morales said, his wife had to give up waiting for placement and look for a job for herself.

Because of this, Morales contends he and his wife should not be required to pay the full amount of the loan. He said his aim is not to ignore the loan, but rather to have personal and effective communication with the government agencies that handle it.

Bryant also called on Morales to file a report with the Federal Elections Commission, which details where a candidate's money comes from and how much money he spends.

According to Bryant's office, Morales' FEC reports have been late and incomplete on three occasions, which could make Morales subject to a $5,000 fine.

If a candidate intentionally fails to file his report, he could be referred for criminal action to the U.S. Department of Justice.

"You have the same obligation I do to file reports," Bryant said to Morales.

Morales also denied Bryant's allegations that his success was largely dependent on the similarity between his and the attorney general's names. He said in all his travels around the state, he has only talked to one person who mistook him for Dan Morales.

However, name recognition has carried several candidates to success. For example, Don Yarbrough won a Texas Supreme Court seat in 1976 largely because his name was similar to those of former gubernatorial candidate Don Yarborough and well-known U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough.

Meanwhile, powerhouse groups such as the AFL-CIO, the state's largest labor organization, continue to endorse Bryant.

Despite Bryant's popularity, in the primary election, Morales carried Houston, San Antonio, Beaumont-Port Arthur, El Paso and Austin, which constitute a major part of the electorate. He also picked up substantial support in most of South Texas.

As the runoff and the November general election approach, Morales said he will keep doing what has gotten him this far: "I'll just keep on trucking."

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