Morales in Wonderland

Anyone who has followed modern American politics for more than five minutes knows what it takes to enter a Senate race: buckets of cash, the backing of party heavies, and heaps of smooth sound bites to spoon-feed a varied menu of constituencies.

Victor Morales scored zip on all of the above. But that didn’t stop the high school civics teacher from taking on Texas Republican Phil Gramm, the jowly power broker who has used his Senate seat as a conservative bully pulpit for the past decade. “I knew what I was getting into,” recalls the 46-year-old Morales, chuckling. He’d scraped together $8,000 (Gramm’s campaign kitty was $3.9 million), and both the state Democratic establishment and organized labor firmly backed veteran congressman John Bryant.

But beginning with his victory over the heavily favored Bryant in the April Democratic primary, Morales began shattering some truisms about politics as usual as he toured the state in a dusty white Nissan pickup truck, jawing with Texans nonstop along the way. Morales admits that, like many others, he’d become cynical about politics: “I know that feeling, that ‘what can one person do’ thinking. Look, I didn’t run for office until I was 43.” After winning a city council seat in Crandall, a small town outside Dallas, Morales saw he could make a difference. His local successes–as well as a “profound disgust” with Gramm’s broadsides against social program spending, reproductive rights, and affirmative action–inspired him to run for the Senate.

He no longer doubts that regular folks can make a difference, both alone and collectively. But first, people must get beyond their anger. “People tell me they can’t stand Gramm,” he says. “I tell them, ‘That’s fine that you’re mad, now do something about it.'” The next step, Morales suggests, is taking a look at the world outside your own window. “When my son [Jesse, 9] wanted me to quit the race, I said, ‘Baby, we’re fortunate–we’ve got a job, a house, a family, two parents who love you. This is about more than us–it’s about the people out there who don’t have anything to turn to.” Finally “the number one important thing,” he says, is to listen more, especially to people you wouldnt think you’d agree with.

Change-making “doesn’t mean you have to run for Congress,” Morales says. “But you’ve got to be willing to do something–city council, PTA, whatever. The important thing is, just do something.”

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