Texas Pharmacist to Head NCSL
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer
SAN ANTONIO – The pharmacy where Leticia Van de Putte works in this Spanish-speaking part of town is surrounded by dilapidated single-story houses and street murals dedicated to victims of violence. It’s a far cry from the palatial beauty of Austin’s Capitol 80 miles away, where she also works.
Contrasts are what propelled Van de Putte, a Texas state senator, pharmacist and mother of six who grew up here on the West Side, into the Legislature 16 years ago.
“I got mad,” she says, sitting just outside an office in Davila Pharmacy where bilingual consultants assist low-income customers. A pharmacist for 26 years, the stout, curly-haired Van de Putte says she grew disillusioned with a state system that required cows — but not children — to be immunized in Texas’ heavily agragrian economy in the 1980s.
“I just didn’t see why we didn’t have a similar policy in place for kids,” she says. She ran for the state House of Representatives on a platform emphasizing Medicaid and early-education reform and claimed a surprise victory in 1990. Texas’ biennial legislative sessions have allowed her to continue to work part-time behind the prescription counter, and she is one of 41 pharmacists among the nation’s 7,382 state legislators.
Van de Putte is best-known in Texas politics as the leader of a 45-day walkout by state Senate Democrats in 2003 to protest a congressional redistricting plan backed by then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). The GOP-controlled Legislature ultimately adopted the new congressional map, which led to a gain of six Republican congressional seats in the state in the 2004 election. The constitutionality of the gerrymandering is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to issue an opinion by this summer.
In August, the 51-year-old state senator will add a new job to her already full plate when she takes over from Illinois state Sen. Steven Rauschenberger (R) as president of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a bipartisan organization that researches policies and lobbies the federal government on behalf of the nation’s state lawmakers.
As president-elect of NCSL, Van de Putte already has helped launch a bipartisan task force of 24 state lawmakers to address immigration reform. The task force scored a victory last week when a proposal it backed was added to the U.S. Senate’s immigration bill. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) pushed through an amendment to provide state and local governments with funds to cover the costs of education and health care for immigrants who apply to be guest workers.
Van de Putte will rise to the presidency of the NCSL as a triple minority — a female, Hispanic Democrat from one of the nation’s Republican strongholds. She will become the first Texan and the first Hispanic woman ever to chair the organization.
She heads the Senate Democratic caucus in a state capital where both chambers of the Legislature along with the governor’s mansion are in Republican hands. The GOP has held all 29 elected statewide offices since 1999 and has controlled the state Senate since 1995.
“It’ll be interesting to have somebody heading the NCSL who is in the minority in their own Legislature,” says Ross Ramsey, editor of the political news magazine Texas Weekly. “Oftentimes, you see those positions land with people who are at the apex of their power, and the Democrats in Texas are certainly not at the apex of their power.”
During her rise from state representative to state senator and an NCSL leadership post, Van de Putte has impressed even her political adversaries.
“She strikes me as an individual who can take on big tasks and challenges,” says Joe Solis, a Republican activist in Van de Putte’s district.
Solis was part of a GOP negotiating team that traveled to Albuquerque, N.M., in 2003 in hopes of luring Van de Putte and 10 other Democratic state senators back to Austin to vote on the redistricting plan. Solis says Van de Putte was gracious and willing to listen to her Republican counterparts — but refused to budge an inch.
“She knows her ground. You can’t push her around,” he says.
The walkout generated “unbelievable” media attention, Van de Putte says, including a parody on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” On the show, correspondent Stephen Colbert — the comedian who this April caused a stir at the White House Correspondents Association dinner — flew to New Mexico to interview Van de Putte, who recalls that the encounter took a long time to tape because both were “cracking up.”
The standoff ended when one of the Democratic renegades, state Sen. John Whitmire of Houston, capitulated and returned to Texas, yielding a quorum in the Senate and allowing the proposal to pass.
In Texas, where state senatorial districts are larger than congressional districts, Van de Putte represents about 780,000 people. About 60 percent of her constituents are minorities, and her neighborhood in San Antonio is “almost 100 percent Hispanic and probably almost 100 percent Catholic,” she says.
She comes from the same background. She has Mexican roots, though her father’s side of the family has been established in San Antonio for many generations — even as the circumstances around them changed.
“We lived in Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States, the Confederacy,” she says. “Our family stayed in the same place for 300 years. The damned government kept changing.”
Van de Putte’s un-Mexican name comes from her husband, Pete, an American of Belgian ancestry who was the band director at her high school while she was a student. They started dating when she was 23 and had six kids, just as Pete wished, she says. Their youngest, 17-year-old Paul, still lives at home.
In the Legislature, Van de Putte has built a reputation as a progressive voice on health care and immigration. On a personal level, she is known for her down-to-earth, sometimes feisty personality.
While pregnant, she once wrestled a woman to the ground at a polling station after the woman insulted Van de Putte’s wheelchair-bound grandmother for wearing a political pin. “I just lost it,” says Van de Putte, who wasn’t yet a legislator at the time.
Of President George W. Bush, who served in the Texas capital from 1995 through 2000, Van de Putte says she “loved working with him when he was governor” though he “wasn’t the brightest light on the porch” and lost his bipartisan ways as soon as he moved to the White House. Still, she displays in her Austin office a photo of herself “exchanging saliva” with Bush.
Van de Putte applauds Bush’s May 15 Oval Office address calling for National Guard troops to help secure the border with Mexico. She says the proposal was a “necessary trade for him to get his guest-worker program,” which she fully supports.
“It’s the first time he was the old George Bush, the governor I knew,” Van de Putte says.