WESLACO, July 25 - Former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh has explained why he pays so much attention to the RGV Equal Voice Network.
“Equal Voice is unique. I love what they are doing. They are making change happen that otherwise would not. We need what Equal Voice is doing in every region of Texas,” Shapleigh told the Guardian.
Shapleigh’s most recent visit came last Friday when he gave a pep rally at an Equal Voice summer retreat in Weslaco. He told the audience that the future leadership of Texas will come from Equal Voice’s ranks. He said this is why he visits the group regularly, to give them his perspective on civic engagement, public policy and leadership.
“I go down there because I am profoundly interested in how that experiment works. How the experiment moves now to key strategic initiatives like Medicaid Expansion and building statewide coalitions will be a large part of the next chapter on how Texas makes progress,” Shapleigh said.
The RGV Equal Voice Network started in 2008. It comprises ten non-profit and non-partisan groups that work for and with colonia residents and immigrant communities in the Rio Grande Valley. The groups directly represent 30,000 residents. However, when linked with the 40 or so other organizations that work on initiatives with Equal Voice, such as many public health clinics, it is no exaggeration to say that over 100,000 Valley residents come under their orbit.
Equal Voice has standing committees that work on education, healthcare, immigration, jobs, housing and civic engagement. It receives funding from national philanthropic organizations such as the Marguerite Casey Foundation and the Ford Foundation. The buzzwords these foundations use include “collective impact” and “momentum building.” Equal Voice network weaver Mike Seifert believes they are achieving their goals.
“We feel we are on the cusp of something great. When you consider the fact that we have grown during a period of time when we have had a severe recession, the violence in Mexico, the rise of the Tea Party, and all the cuts in education and social programs, we think we have done well,” Seifert said. A recent example of how they have set the agenda is the growing opposition to the “border surge” policy in South Texas.
In his remarks to Equal Voice leaders at the Weslaco Business Center last Friday, Shapleigh spoke about the demographic changes sweeping the state, civic engagement and building statewide coalitions on issues that working people care deeply about.
“Texas will be majority Mexicano-Americano in 2026. Mark the date. Everyone who looks at the date marks it back a year. Now it is 2025, next it will be 2021. The U.S. will majority Mexicano-Americano in 2046. The kinds of things you (Equal Voice) are working on here are going to be what everyone has to work on in the future to survive and thrive. You are on the most exciting path that is going on in America anywhere and you are six years ahead of everybody else,” Shapleigh said.
Shapleigh told Equal Voice that there is no substitute for knocking on doors to find out what people are thinking. “You have got to see what is in the voter’s heart. You have got to get them to vote because voting matters for change,” he said. He then spoke about the candidate school he has set up in El Paso and how 200 people regularly attend. Equal Voice members expressed interest in setting one up in the Valley.
Shapleigh said that if the six largest urban counties in Texas, including Hidalgo, had a turnout of 65 percent, just like the more affluent large suburban counties have, there would be a much different conversation in Austin about the issues that matter to Hispanic communities. “You would be in the middle of the greatest change in two-way dual language and school funding in the history of the state. You would have a Medicare Expansion done. You would have U.S. senators proposing, amending and fighting for an immigration bill, not completely opposed to it and trying to kill it. Six counties control the state of Texas. Guess what? You are in the middle of one,” he said, referring to Hidalgo County.
Shapleigh then explained the about a unique opinion poll he and 100 college students carried out in El Paso. He said they canvassed the opinions of residents in 30 precincts in a working class area of El Paso right next to the freeway. The biggest local concern was the 18 wheelers parked on the streets that blocked parents from going to work and taking their kids to school. He said without knocking on doors he would never have known that was the top issue.
Shapleigh said that after the 2000 Census El Paso’s population was about 710,000 and number eligible to vote was about 472,000. Those registered to vote numbered about 411,000 and those who voted four times in the most recent two presidential and gubernatorial elections numbered 26,000. He said those 26,000 are the “goldmine” for electoral campaigns. He said the rest the electorate is largely ignored come election time. However, those voters are the key to Texas’ future, he said. He said those were the voters that needed to be engaged in the democratic process.
Shapleigh also spoke about the new university and medical school being developed in the Valley by the University of Texas. He pointed out that before San Antonio got its medical school its location consisted of 1,200 acres of nothing. Now, healthcare is the top employer in the city. He predicted that in ten years the Valley’s medical school complex will be employing 30,000 people. “What is your picture in that? What are the programs that matter to you?” he asked, encouraging Equal Voice to get involved in the shaping of the new education and healthcare institutions.
One of Shapleigh’s top issues is pay day lending. He asked Equal Voice leaders if they could guess the interest rate of a pay day loan in Texas over the course of a year. He said it is 1,158 percent. The pay day lending industry lobbyists in Austin that seek to keep the status quo are very powerful, Shapleigh said. He said when he tried to pass reform legislation his colleagues would not even have the conversation with him. “That is what happens when you get to Austin. The only way to make that not happen is someone has to get up, take the values you have in this room and take them to the Capitol. That way, we can make the difference. The change you want to see is in you. You have got to go there,” he said. He added that if Equal Voice knows which legislators are getting $40,000 in campaign contributions from Cash for America they will at least know not to waste time going to the offices of those legislators.
In the question and answer part, Shapleigh was asked when he is going to run for governor of Texas. He quipped that he has a better chance running for governor of Chihuahua. He said his good friend, former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos often prods him to run for governor. He said he replies that he will only run if he feels he has a chance of winning. “I am not going to run and be cannon fodder. I want to change fundamentally the entire dynamic and get to 55 percent, 60 percent voting. Is there enough energy to do that? My take now is there is enough energy in this room but these rooms do not exist in the rest of Texas. How do you take the energy that exists in this room and harness it?” Shapleigh asked. He pointed out that there was a sea change in California in 1982 and 1983 and that it could happen in Texas. “I will be ready when that time comes but will you be ready?” he asked.
The big issues for Equal Voice to rally around are funding for education and Medicaid Expansion, Shapleigh said. “I wish the issue was not SB 5 or SB 2 or whatever it was this (special) session. I wish it was the education cuts. I wish it was Medicaid Expansion. We are fighting on venues where we do not have 80 percent of the people with us. Payday lending in Texas was 62 percent the other way. We are not going to get the vote out on that term.” He added that education funding is a civil rights issue. “The Texas education system should be the driving issue we should be trying to change.”