WASHINGTON – Lisa Fritsch became a conservative in the second grade and a Republican in college.
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The tea-party mother of two and GOP gubernatorial candidate in Texas vividly remembers the day she asked her divorced mother to stop working a third job. Her mother had taken that job so her daughter could have tap shoes and piano lessons.
But the girl was embarrassed by her mother working at the Piggly Wiggly, and a friend told her they qualified for public assistance, which, she learned, would also mean better snacks and more toys.
When she asked her mother to quit and go on the dole, her mother abruptly stopped the car and defiantly declared,"I'd rather starve than go down the path of victimization where you might never have dignity in your life again."
"That moment really transformed me," Fritsch told WND.
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So did that moment at the University of Texas when she realized she wasn't just a woman of traditional values, she was a Republican.
Fritsch wanted to fit in when she arrived on the liberal campus, but she happened to have a Republican roommate who kept getting the best of her in their late-night political debates, so she decided to go to a Young Republicans meeting.
"I nervously sneaked into the back of the meeting, but it was hard to hide. As a six-foot-tall African-American woman, I kind of stood out," and, she said, it felt like the whole room turned and asked, 'Who's that?'"
But, Fritsch recalled, as they kept talking, "A light bulb went off, and I said, 'Oh my goodness, these people sound like my mother."
And, to her astonishment, she discovered, "I am a Republican!"
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Fritsch said that's when it all clicked and she began reading Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Walter Williams and Larry Elder.
"I wanted to be part of the black conservative movement. I wanted to change, inspire and edify the black community, and show how policies of the left were really breaking down our value systems," she said.
That led her to become a writer, then a talk-radio host and, eventually, a candidate for governor in Texas.
Fritsch is a seventh-generation Texan who lives with her two children and husband, Mike, in Austin.
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She is striking in more ways than her height and looks. Fritsch speaks intelligently, passionately and eloquently about conservatism. She has an earnestness and charisma that some might find reminiscent of Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. It is obvious she cares greatly about conservative principles, American ideals and the fate of the nation. The Texan is strong-willed and a persuasive speaker, but also friendly and gracious.
Fritsch authored the book, "Obama, Tea Parties and God: What it means to be a an American, a Conservative and a Christian," in which she described her experience with the tea party and her mixed feelings over the election of an African-American president whose views are so at odds with her own.
Liberals have often characterized tea-partiers as racist, so WND asked Fritsch about her own experiences with the movement.
"The tea party has been very kind to me," she said. "They've invited me to speak. I've attended rallies, and they were kind, God-fearing, and weren't angry, contrary to how they're portrayed. It's not an angry mob."
She said they're accused of racism just because most of them happen to be white. And, she noted, it's not racism to have more than 100 people in the room talking about the Constitution and gun rights.
Fritsch said the tea-party meetings were much more educational than political, informing members about the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and "our founding principles and who we are and where we've come from."
And, she observed, conservatives and Republicans have always been on the right side of history, from emancipating the slaves to the civil rights movement.
As a virtual unknown, her campaign for governor began as the longest of long shots. Shortly after Fritsch declared her candidacy, she barely registered a blip in the polls. Her own polling now shows her at 22.7 percent and GOP establishment candidate Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott at 56 percent.
If she can get Abbott below 50 percent by the March 4 primary, she can force a runoff and have a real chance at pulling off a major upset. It’s the same strategy that propelled then-underdog Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to victory in 2012 when he was an unknown and under-funded outsider taking on a GOP establishment candidate who had a double-digit lead in the polls. The runoff gave Cruz time to raise his profile, raise funds and attract key endorsements.
It's also the same strategy that has fellow-conservative Texan and long-shot Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, on the verge of forcing a runoff with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the second-most powerful Republican in the Senate.
"We definitely think a runoff is possible," said Fritsch. "Our ground campaign is out in force, building coalitions and running ads. Once people hear about us, they have been overwhelmingly choosing us. We really are depending on a core, grassroots-effort to turn-out voters who want change. Fifty percent of voters are still undecided, so we find that very encouraging."
Fritsch is making her mark. Even while endorsing Abbott as the presumptive nominee, the Dallas Morning News warned him to "listen carefully to one primary opponent, Lisa Fritsch, who speaks with precision and passion about recasting the GOP as a true opportunity party built from conservative values."
The Texas gubernatorial race will be a big national news story in November because the likely Democratic nominee will be State Sen. Wendy Davis, who became famous for her 11-hour pro-abortion filibuster in the state Senate last June. Davis is the leading figure in a huge push by Democrats called "Battleground Texas" to turn the Lone Star state from a "red" state into a "blue" one.
Fritsch told WND it's not an accident that Wendy Davis became a national sensation in the way she did, noting that she had also done a filibuster on an education bill without making news.
"It wasn't until she did a filibuster on that pro-life bill that she rose to national stardom," Fritsch said. "This shows you that this is a spiritual battle."
And the chance to fight the spiritual battle is why Fritsch got into politics.
"I really want to speak to the life issue, because that's why God compelled me to run," she said.
For Fritsch, it is all a matter of faith. She said her political career is really a spiritual calling.
"I believe we are all created equally," she said. "I believe we are created by God. I believe that in that creation He destined and purposed individual persons toward a unique and meaningful role to play on Earth. And every life is valuable and has meaning. And I believe we should never give up hope that a person can be better, can choose better and can live better."
She noted that the founding tenets of the republic acknowledge the belief that all men are created equal, and that is expressed in the Bible's Golden Rule.
"We really need to get back to loving our neighbors as ourselves," she said. "It's very simple. It's not political. Desiring the best for every person. All of these issues are one issue."
That's why she said she believes so wholeheartedly that this is a spiritual fight.
"When I asked God, you know, 'Why me? I'm not a politician. I don't even know where to start,' He said, 'That's exactly why I'm calling you. It's a spiritual battle. It's not about politics.'
"And what I need to get done, a regular politician cannot do that. And so, with every policy I have put in place, every person I've reached out to, or talked to, every organization, it's all been spirit-led, it's all been led by Him."
As an example, she cites the pro-life mission. To win that battle, she said, conservatives must stop speaking in legalese about esoteric Supreme Court cases and start taking their case to the streets.
"Go into these urban communities and tout life as a miracle, invest in these young women, invest in their futures, and let them know that we believe their lives have meaning and purpose, and their bodies are a miracle and teach not just what it means to have an abortion. Teach life. Teach purpose," she urged.
"That is the path to victory for the Republican Party in the 21st century."
But, she warned, the GOP has a branding problem and the party needs an overhaul.
"We do things that play into the left's hands all the time," Fritsch said. "A recent example is the 'war on women,' which we know doesn't exist. This is a fabrication." She said the real problem is one of message, because, "The public needs to be able to trust that this party gets it."
How would she suggest the GOP draw more minorities into the party?
"It's not enough for us in this party anymore to criticize the left for giving all the fish away – we've got to step up and be the party that teaches people how to fish."
And the party can't just wait for minorities to come to them, based on the appeal of the conservative message. Fritsch said conservatives have to go out and make contacts, make the pitch for the conservative philosophy, make connections and establish ties and common interests in urban communities.
The GOP has to show minorities "we do believe in growth and opportunity" and "these values can work." Republicans must show minorities how the conservative philosophy can translate into tangible benefits and that providing economic opportunities is more than just talk. The GOP has to prove conservatism has real benefits.
"I wouldn't do this if I didn't believe conservative values have the power to transform and uplift communities out of poverty and break the cycle of victimization and dependency," she said. "That's the only reason for me to be doing this, and I feel we are losing the ability to articulate that."
Why did Fritsch decide to run for governor?
"First of all, because Wendy Davis is running and because of the candidates we had," she replied. "We didn't have the leadership we needed to recognize that the battle ahead, in Texas and across the nation, frankly, is a spiritual battle and not a political battle."
She said the GOP leadership doesn't understand Republicans have been losing to candidates they should be beating. And, for Fritsch, it always returns to a matter of spirituality.
"We are in a fight for the hearts and minds of people in this nation," she said. "And until we recognize that it's about winning over those hearts and minds, we will not win elections. That's why I am running."
The mother of two said she is very concerned that Texas is in trouble with this particular race and that the Republican Party is also in trouble.
"I think the status quo has really underestimated the force of 'Battleground Texas,' the get-out-the-vote effort, their organization, their finances, and they've taken it for granted that Texas is a conservative, red state," Fritsch said.
She also thought the Republican Party needed a "more exciting candidate, a solution-oriented candidate, not a career politician, who would fight back spiritually and make this office about the people again, in order to counteract 'Battleground Texas' and Wendy Davis."
Fritsch said she believes it's not just about 2014; it's about the Republican Party being relevant into the 21st century.
The party needs leaders who can "reach out beyond the base to demographics who share our values but who have been rejecting us," she explained. "We are not going to be able to do it the way candidates are campaigning right now and the way we are nominating candidates, which is having people take turns and pass the baton down, for offices. It's bad for the party. It's not the right way to lead in Texas. And, frankly, people are getting fed-up with that kind of system."
And what is the difference between her and the frontrunner, Abbott?
She believes Texas needs leadership that is "not beholden to special interests and certain friendships."
"I am accountable only to the people of Texas," Fritsch said. "To people who say I have little experience, I see that as an advantage, in this case. We need an actual conservative."
She pointed out that in Texas, despite having a GOP-controlled House and Senate and a Republican governor, spending rose 26 percent higher than the rate of population increase. And the government even grew, as the number of state agencies increased.
"Career politicians are having trouble staying true to conservatism because they are part of the system. I am not part of the system," she explained.
"I compare it to the way Ted Cruz was able to go to Washington based on advocating just for the people. A lot of people asked why John Cornyn hasn't sided more with Cruz, and that's probably because he's in the system. I am not criticizing Cornyn; I am just saying when you are not a career politician, you are in a better position to answer to the people. When you've been a career politician for 20 years, you don't know anymore, frankly, what it is like to be a citizen. You're just disconnected, I think, from everyday life."
Her priorities in Texas begin with reducing a poverty rate of 18.5 percent, which Fritsch finds too high for a "state that is the eight-largest economy (in the world). That's a very poor number. We need an economic policy that champions both growth and opportunity."
She also wants to reform immigration by securing the border first, then offering illegal-immigrant workers some kind of documented worker status that doesn't lead to citizenship.
"I also want to build a wall around the welfare state, not just the border. What I mean is, in order to receive benefits, you have to be a legal resident. That cuts off the underground economy and allows people to pay taxes and play by the rules. If you don't come up with some workable solution, we have a de facto amnesty."
Who does Fritsch admire, and who influenced her?
Margaret Thatcher is the first name she mentioned. Her admiration for the late British prime minister was abundant and appeared to see a kindred spirit in the strong-willed leader.
"She stepped into a system that was not ready for her, as the shopkeeper's daughter. She fought the good fight. She saw that Great Britain had to stand firm, and she was much more interested in being courageous than in being comfortable. Of course, she paid a price for that."
Fritsch also revered her great-grandparents, who had five girls born between 1928 and 1932, and put all of them through college. Noting that it all happened during the Depression and before the civil-rights era, "I think that's quite impressive, considering all they've been through."
And, of course, the Texan was greatly influenced by her strong mother, "who soldiered on despite being mocked for the hard line she took."
"I was the first person to go to college on her side of the family," Fritsch said. "Once I went to college, she went back and put herself through school, and got her master's degree."
And what is it like to run for the governor of Texas?
"The thing people say the most that, frankly, irritates me a bit is, 'Gosh, this must be so hard.' My answer is that I don't think about the struggle. I think about the fruits we'd be able to bear if we were able to win this hard-fought victory. If more people would stop worrying about things being so hard, our country would be in a much better place."
She mentioned how hard it must have been for our forefathers to come here with nothing, not even knowing whether they would survive.
"Think of how hard it was for Davy Crockett to defend the Alamo or Rosa Parks to make her stand," she said. "If I don't answer the call to do what's right, at the right time, we won't give history a chance to show how much better things could be.
"So many people have paved the way for me, it is a privilege and an honor to be running for this office and championing values I believe in. And, at the end of the day, I want my children and grandchildren knowing I didn't just go on the radio and complain, 'Why didn't somebody do something?' and say, 'We need a candidate.'
"So, I stepped up to be that person."
Follow Garth Kant on Twitter @DCgarth