Varnish Remover

Teacher’s Pet

If there is one region where President Clinton’s popularity has probably not been affected by the recent wave of scandals, it is the Hispanic-dominated south Texas 28th Congressional District, which just held a special election for the seat of Rep. Frank Tejeda. A Vietnam hero who died in January of cancer, Tejeda received special mention in the president’s State of the Union address. Clinton himself has carried this district twice–his focus on education jibes perfectly with the work-driven ethic of a place to which so many come precisely because they believe in the “American dream.”

In Texas, special elections pit all comers against one another on one ballot. In the 28th District, 11 Democrats and four Republicans vied for Tejeda’s seat. The top two finishers in this especially acrimonious campaign, the labor-endorsed state Rep. Ciro Rodriguez and the conservative, pro-life ex-San Antonio City Councilman Juan Solis, will face each other in an April runoff.

Ciro Rodriguez for Congress, which ran during the special election, responds to Solis’ challenge, to his niche appeal in a district that is also home to two Air Force bases (with presumably more conservative and fewer Hispanic voters), by playing to Rodriguez’s strength–education. The 10-year Texas House veteran has a strong track record on the issue: Not only did he make it his priority during his tenure in the Legislature and through 12 years as a school-board member before that, but he has also identified it as a key issue in the second round of campaigning ahead of the runoff.

Rodriguez was the only one of the 15 candidates able to afford television advertising (his successful fund raising has been the subject of much invective). This spot opens in the school library, with him making a direct grab for Clinton’s coattails that simultaneously showcases his own focus on education; it then moves to close-ups of three students, two Hispanic and one African-American. Tejeda’s district is only 9 percent African-American, but the spot makes this politically correct nod to diversity and to the blacks enlisted at the Air Force bases that are the lifeblood of the area.

A wider shot of the student audience reinforces the overwhelmingly Hispanic character of this class and the district at large. Rodriguez’s pledge to meet the president’s challenge to “make our schools the envy of the world” is followed by a question that implies far more than it says: “Are you with me?” The call for solidarity reaches beyond the issue at hand to tap a deeper sense of ethnic and cultural identification. Rodriguez (like Solis and Tejeda before him) is considered a Mexican-American success story, a local who overcame cultural, class, and linguistic barriers to rise to positions of leadership in the area. His appeal aims to strike the balance of people politics, community, and patriotism that was Tejeda’s hallmark through his years in office.

The students affirm their support in a scene double-exposed over an off-center shot of Rodriguez walking down a school hallway. Overlapping frames are one of several gimmicks the ad maker uses to get around the fact that the spot was shot not on film but on videotape, which tends to look flat, metallic, too much like the local ads for discount stores and used-car lots. Clever edits, angles, and–as we’ll see–a series of quick cuts give this spot some depth and visual interest.

As Rodriguez walks down the hall, he is identified first by name, then as the person who “led the fight to improve south Texas colleges and universities.” Repeating visuals flow fast and furious–a shot of an empty classroom; of someone donning graduation robes; of the empty classroom; of the faces in the library; of the robes. A bigger budget might have brought us visuals of a college campus, of “our children” actually “compet[ing],” of the “better jobs” they might get. But this political shoot saved money not only by using tape, but by finding all its education visuals in one high school. The visuals aren’t particularly narrative, but they work. So does the plain, almost nonpolitical language. The narrator draws a direct link between education and jobs–no Clintonian rhetoric about the “new economy,” “the 21st century,” or that “bridge” here.

The next scene, of Rodriguez deep in thought by the window, recalls the black-and-white photos of John F. Kennedy in a virtually identical pose in the Oval Office. What could seem at first glance self-important strikes a chord nonetheless–and in this Hispanic district, this kind of visual cue can’t hurt.

Ciro is “taking a stand” now, we are told. He is working to bring “the cost of college into reach for working people,” for the kid in the robes and the young woman whose photograph (in another cut-rate scene that works) is double-exposed over a hallway of empty lockers. As the smiling graduate finally puts on his mortarboard, we know where the students from the empty classroom and hallway have gone–to college. We hear the most political language yet, a near cliché about “the American dream.” The spot’s directness thus far papers over the tired language–and the camera moves swiftly to Rodriguez facing his student audience again, asking once more: “Are you with me?”

It’s a straightforward, empowering conclusion to an argument that is as much about pride and shared experiences as it is about the more tangible issues. Political consultants have given the edge in this race to the candidate who best addresses concerns about education, economic development, and the security of those who depend on San Antonio’s military bases. But an increasingly ugly race to the tape suggests the intangibles might make the difference. Each candidate has sought to outdo his competitors in claiming closeness to Frank Tejeda and his family. This spot doesn’t overtly link Rodriguez with the man whose mantle he is trying to win. But by focusing on the populism that made the 28th District Tejeda’s own, it hopes those watching will make the connection.

–Robert Shrum