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Victor Morales on the campaign trail

By Kurt Hubler, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX – Kurt Hubler, KERA, 90.1 Reporter: For Victor Morales, a night off from campaigning for the U.S. Senate means a rare opportunity to enjoy a catfish meal at a restaurant near his home in Crandall.

Victor Morales, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate: I don't get a chance to eat out often. When I do, and I do in town, this where I do stop, the Cotton Gin. But I don't get to do that very often.

Hubler: That's because, unlike his run for the U.S. Senate six years ago, Morales is keeping his day job as a history teacher at Kemp High School, and campaigning just at night and on weekends. But he still considers himself to be "everyman's candidate" who shuns most things commonly associated with campaigns, like paid consultants and speechwriters. While the strategy has yet to provide Morales with an election victory, it allowed him to defeat established Democrats in the 1996 Senate primary and the 1998 primary race for the 5th Congressional District. Former executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, Harold Cook, gives Morales his due, but says he'd be a long shot in the general election.

Harold Cook, Political Consultant: Let's face it. Everybody kind of likes somebody bucking the system. But, in November when it counts, you cannot win if you don't call in the professionals and do what it takes to contact voters. All of which takes efforts on many fronts - fundraising, direct mail, phones, free media, and he's proven himself completely ill-equipped to handle that in that past, and I don't see any changes in the future.

Hubler: But it's this kind of high-dollar, consultant-driven campaign that Morales accuses Ron Kirk of running. Morales also criticizes Kirk for being paid by his law firm, Gardere and Wynn, while serving as Dallas Mayor.

Morales: Look at Kirk making $200,000 a year for a few hours a week and trying to talk about running, being a mayor?my goodness. I mean, he has aides. He has people bringing him information. I mean, the man doesn't know what real work is. Do work out in the fields, all right? Do work in construction, do?MR. Mayor.

Hubler: Since his 1996 campaign, Morales says he's become more confident in presenting himself to voters and doesn't need to apologize about his command of the issues.

Morales: I read a lot. I try as much as possible to watch C-SPAN. I listen to NPR when I can. I do read the newspaper. So to me, the comment of study, it's like some politician who sits in front of a focus group or sits in front of his consultants and says this what you're going to say, this is the right answer.

Hubler: Operating a low-key, mostly volunteer campaign has populist appeal. But last Sunday in Beaumont, it also led to some confusion. Morales attended Easter service at the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, which Ron Kirk visited two weeks ago. Morales believed he would address the African American congregation. But because of communication problems between his campaign and church officials, Morales was not allowed to speak. He did, however, receive recognition from the church's pastor, John Adolph.

John Adolph, Pastor at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Beaumont, Texas: I am so honored and happy to have him here with us. He could have chosen any church in the area to visit this morning. In fact, he may have to leave us and go elsewhere, but I want to say publicly that I have never endorsed a candidate, but I have a special place in my heart for those who have a place in their heart for God first.

Hubler: Morales didn't leave, and stayed for the entire 2-and-a-half hour service. His presence impressed church member Anthony Carter.

Anthony Carter, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church member: He seems to be most sincere about his standing in the community. He seems to be a spiritually-based man. He just, as far as I'm concerned, has the credibility.

Hubler: Later in the day, Morales attended a small neighborhood party honoring Hispanic civil rights leader Cesar Chavez. He solicited donations, something he says he's learned to do since the 1996 campaign, and also asked for them to spread the word that he's running for the Senate. Beaumont police officer Robert Flores Jr. agreed with the approach.

Robert Flores Jr., Beaumont Police Officer: It typifies grass roots and it's going to be word of mouth, talking, and beating the streets type of deal. We're getting out there to spread the word and it's a grassroots campaign that kind of is similar to Mr. Morales' campaign.

Hubler: One issue important to this group is immigration. Morales blended English and Spanish while explaining his position.

Morales: [speaking in English and Spanish] I said in 1996 that we need to reform the immigration services. I said we needed to split the office of enforcement from the office of making U.S. citizens. I said we needed more U.S. Customs agents so you could cross the border easier, and also more people in the INS.

Hubler: Morales says he's spent a lot of time talking about the issues during the campaign. On education, he wants to provide more textbooks and certified counselors in public schools. He admits the Social Security tax may have to be raised if there's insufficient funding for baby boomers near retirement. Morales also takes issue with oil exploration in Alaska's Arctic Wildlife Refuge and says he'd vote against the Bush administration's energy policy, which is up for debate in the Senate next week.

Morales: I don't understand why we don't have cars, or have not had cars a long time ago that could go 60 to 70 miles a gallon. I think we need to do a better job with our solar power research as well as wind power research. I'd vote against it at this time. Yes, I would. Wait a minute. I took a stand. I took a stand, a very specific stand on a very specific issue, make a note of that public.

Hubler: Morales accuses the media of deflecting attention away from his positions to his maverick persona, or white pick-up truck, the trademark of his 1996 campaign. He's also accused the Democratic Party of trying to keep him from winning. He cites the changing results of last month's primary, where his lead over Ron Kirk first dissolved then emerged again after 13-hundred votes for him in Denton County went to candidate Gene Kelly, who finished fourth statewide. Election officials blame the snafu on a computer error, but that doesn't keep Morales' from thinking conspiracy.

Morales: 13-hundred votes of mine were given to Gene Kelly, and I was given his 61. So, I hope that we can win by a good margin: 20, 30, 40-thousand votes where they won't dare try to manipulate those figures.

Hubler: Political consultant Harold Cook says the voting error in Denton County was serious, but he denies the party is trying to under mind Morales' campaign. Cook admits Victor Morales has upset Democratic insiders, but that's because they see Ron Kirk as their best hope to beat John Cornyn in November.

Cook: We have a real opportunity to take back a Senate seat, and if Victor Morales is the nominee, clearly that opportunity will have been squandered, because he won't win. And the reason he won't win is because he's not very good at explaining at what kind of senator he would be, and he's atrocious at running campaigns.

Hubler: Morales says the sacrifices he and his family have made in his campaigns for office have led him to decide he won't run again if he loses Tuesday's runoff. But he has no regrets about throwing his hat into the ring.

Morales: No one can take away from me that these professional politicians had to spend tremendous amounts of money to take out, if they do, a school teacher who is nothing but honest with the public.

Hubler: Victor Morales and Ron Kirk will square off tonight in their final debate of the campaign on the TXCN Cable Network. For KERA 90.1, I'm Kurt Hubler.