EDINBURG — Kamala Harris’ husband brought the presidential campaign to the Rio Grande Valley on Monday to drum up support for the Democratic ticket on the last day to register to vote for the upcoming election.
But in some ways, Douglas Emhoff was preaching to the choir.
The Rio Grande Valley has long been a Democratic stronghold — though there are signs that’s changing — and most of the people gathered outside the Memorial Events Center in Edinburg were either Democratic candidates themselves, local elected officials or those heavily involved with the Hidalgo County Democratic Party, which hosted the event.
Organizers limited seating to 28 chairs that were spread out across the parking lot to follow social distancing guidelines. They were occupied by the who’s who of the local Democratic party, including state lawmakers, district judges, county commissioners and Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa.
Meanwhile, dozens of other supporters waited patiently inside their vehicles for Emhoff, Harris’ husband, to speak. They enthusiastically honked their horns in agreement as other Democrats made their case for better access to health care, immigration reform and a recovery plan for COVID-19.
The event kicked off with speeches from nearly a dozen candidates and elected officials who urged attendees to cast their votes and spread the word. It’s never been more important to vote, they all said.
Meanwhile, Emhoff met privately at a separate undisclosed location with other local officials and figures, including U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, State Rep. Armando Martinez and Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities. That meeting was not open to the media.
Emhoff arrived about 1 p.m. and immediately jumped into what is perhaps the region’s most pressing issue: the high mortality rate caused by the novel coronavirus.
“I just had a conversation when we landed with some community leaders, talking about COVID and how it affected their lives, and it was heartbreaking,” Emhoff said. “But unfortunately, the stories that I heard were so common here — someone who lost their dad, someone whose stepfather is in the ICU right as we speak. As the congressman said, it’s just disproportionately impacted this community, and that is wrong and that has to change.”
Nowhere else in the state are people dying at a faster rate, Gonzalez said before introducing Harris’ husband, who was slated to travel to San Antonio afterward to continue rallying support for his wife and Democratic presidential nominee former Vice President Joe Biden.
“The Rio Grande Valley is 4.7% of the entire state population, but it represents 17% of the deaths of our state. And that’s due to the lack of leadership that we have at the top of the ticket, and only we can change that,” Gonzalez said.
Emhoff said Biden and Harris are focused on providing free and quick testing, “free and readily available” treatment, as well as expanding contact tracing efforts.
“And we’re going to make sure that there’s a vaccine that’s backed by science — not just by what they say,” Emhoff continued. “And we’re not going to roll it out unless it’s safe. And that vaccine is going to be free, but it’s also going to be fairly distributed.”
Throughout his speech, Harris’ husband painted the Democratic running mates in stark contrast to the current administration.
“They care about people and they’re going to bring that compassion back to how we deal with our border communities, which we do not have right now. When they are in the White House, the days of ripping families apart and children in cages and just denying basic fairness and decency to those who seek refuge here, is over. That will change,” he said to loud applause.
Latinos can turn Texas blue and ultimately decide who sits in the White House, Gonzalez said.
“’Cause we know, if we win Texas, it’s game over — we win this election,” Emhoff added.
Still, the Biden campaign has been criticized for its lack of outreach in Hispanic communities, but it appears Harris and her husband are trying to change that.
“Joe is a man of family, a man of faith. Kamala Harris is a daughter of immigrants … both her parents came here seeking a better life,” Emhoff said. “They both never forgot who they are and where they come from, and that is going to guide them as they become our leaders.”
Emhoff’s visit to the Valley during such a critical time also shows the pair is committed to listening to the issues affecting the community, Hidalgo County Democratic Party Chair Norma Ramirez told The Monitor.
“So coming down to a Democratic stronghold, when you are running for office, sometimes is not as important because you (tend to want to) spend time in the red counties, but it shows us that they understand that they need everybody,” Ramirez said. “And (we) need to make sure that we are the first ones out there defending our democratic and core values.”
South Texas has recently seen a wave of Republicans driving around the Valley in what they refer to as the Trump train. It’s boisterous support that doesn’t faze Ramirez, she said.
“It’s always been a fact that we are 72% Democrats, and we do have 28% (Republicans),” she said. “A lot of the time, putting on a show and yelling the loudest might get you heard, but not necessarily at the polls, where it counts. … Those kinds of actions are not going to get your family and friends to vote.”
Last week, the Hidalgo County GOP was forced to cancel its own get out the vote effort after its headliner, Donald Trump Jr., went into quarantine following the news that President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump tested positive for COVID-19.
Ramirez acknowledged the pair’s diagnosis and said that’s the reason the local Democratic party pushed for curbside voting and to send mail-in ballot applications to those 65 and older.
“Those are the things that concern me the most, not somebody running around in circles waving a flag,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure everybody comes out to vote. It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican, you’re independent or you’re a Democrat, but we give everybody the opportunity to feel safe while voting.”
As for Emhoff, he believes his trip to South Texas will better prepare his wife and Biden in their leadership roles.
“They’re going to ensure that the stories that I bring back to them, and I always do, are reflected in the priorities of their administration and how they lead,” he said. “I go back home and Kamala will say, ‘Hey Dougie, how was your day?’ And I just tell her everything that I heard and everything that I saw. When I get to talk to Joe and Jill (Biden), it’s the same thing, and that will make them better leaders.”