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When Antonio Villaraigosa won the largest number of votes this week in a crowded field of candidates in the Los Angeles mayoral primary and secured a spot in a June runoff election, he came one step closer to making history. Villaraigosa could become the city’s first Latino mayor in modern times.

Anticipating the 2002 governor’s race in the Lone Star State, Mexican-Americans in Texas are thinking that perhaps they could make a little history themselves, especially if a south-Texas businessman, Tony Sanchez, Jr., runs as expected.

Texas Democrats know they now have to do a better job with Hispanic voters by dishing out some respect and not taking their support for granted. The fact that George W. Bush could, in his 1998 re-election campaign for governor, sprinkle some Spanish and walk off with half the Hispanic vote proved that the Democratic grip on those voters had softened since the days of los Kennedys.

Anglo-Democratic candidates — who acted offended at having to compete for a bloc of votes that their party usually pocketed with little effort — didn’t inspire Hispanics to turn out and vote.

Next time around, Hispanic Democrats say, the obvious solution to winning the governor’s mansion is to offer up a prominent, credible and electable Hispanic candidate.

And they already may have one in Sanchez. The 58-year-old married father of four is a political outsider in a Jesse Ventura-era when many voters have tired of insiders. He’s a Democrat who has contributed to the campaigns of Republicans, including those of George W. Bush. And, as a successful businessman, he could draw support from the Texas business community.

Then there’s the money. The Sanchez Oil and Gas Corp. — an exploration company started by Sanchez and his father, Tony Sr., in 1973 — has, along with Sanchez’s profitable investments in the banking industry, done well enough over the years to allow the tycoon to self-finance a campaign with the $30 million to $40 million necessary to give the sitting governor, Republican Rick Perry, a run for his money.

But green wouldn’t be the most important color in a Perry-Sanchez match-up. Now that Hispanics make up 32 percent of the Texas population — and with more population growth projected in the years to come — the prospect of electing an Hispanic governor is breathing new life into a group of Texans convinced that their time has come.

It is appealing that Sanchez seems to understand that the fuss is less about the man than the moment. He has been giving speeches around the state about what will likely be his signature issue: Texas’ public schools. Afterward, he is routinely approached by Hispanics in the audience — like the elderly woman and lifelong Texan who came up to him recently and said that she wanted more than anything to see a Mexican-American governor of the state “antes de que me muera” (before I die).

Heavy.

That sort of thing might not trouble a Republican with ethnic appeal who could fall back on a strong record of being sensitive to Hispanic concerns. Unfortunately for Texas Republicans, what they have instead is Rick Perry.

With regard to Hispanic issues, Perry’s accomplishments — or even his publicly expressed sentiments — could fit into a very small sombrero. Having apparently not given a great deal of thought to Hispanics during his lengthy public career in a state filled with them, Perry is now in over his head.

For instance, when the governor was recently asked by a member of The Dallas Morning News’ editorial board how his stated intent to continue efforts to improve public education would be impacted by the fact that 51 percent of students in Texas schools are now Hispanic, he looked like a high-school kid staring at a pop quiz for which he hadn’t studied.

How should public schools stem the tide of Hispanic dropouts or measure the test performance of recently arrived immigrants? How could bilingual education be reformed so that students would learn English more quickly, meeting the growing parental demands that their children be pulled from such programs?

This could be a stab in the dark, but these might be good things for the governor of Tejas to know right about now.

Tony Sanchez will have to answer those questions and more. If he wants to unseat the sitting governor, he will have to provide specifics with regard to education and other issues — especially since Perry, already gearing up for the challenge, is feverishly trying to give himself an ethnic makeover.

Why, he’s even taking Spanish lessons.

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