Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Ortiz Legacy . . . the Sumer of 1997

This past November, long-time South Texas congressman Solomon Ortiz was defeated by almost unknown Republican Blake Farenthold. It was shocking. Ortiz had led Congressional District 27 - which includes Nueces County and portions of South Texas all the way to Brownsville in the Rio Grande Valley - with an iron hand and iron will. He had protected the district by assuring military bases remained here and working on sweetheart deals for the Ports of Corpus Christi and Brownsville. It seemed ludicrous to believe he could be defeated. Perhaps holding office for almost 30 years had softened the former Nueces County Sherriff into believing his job was secure. Ortiz didn't really campaign, other than a few unfortunate TV ads showing Farenthold in pajamas with two scantily clad women hugging him. He should have talked about the issues, I think.

Ortiz was a powerful congressman. Make no mistakes about it. From the minute he stepped into the House of Representative chambers when first elected in 1982, he wielded power. He was coming from a highly Democratic district that included two U.S. Navy bases, two ports and a burgeoning economic force in the Rio Grande Valley. Included in the district were three famous ranches - King, Kenedy and Armstrong. Back then, the oil and gas industry was in its heyday and refineries like Coastal States on the Port of Corpus Christi were setting the stage for a worldwide gas exploration revival. There was the National Seashore and tourism, too, to boost the economy.

Ortiz came with power and when he left this year, he took a lot of it with him. It will take years for Congressman Farenthold to regain some of that power. He is Republican in Democrat country, but he is our Congressman and we wish him luck.

Congressman Ortiz, however, was special. Throughout his Congressional career, Ortiz made a reputation as a fair-minded advocate who worked easily with both Republicans and Democrats when making policy. He served as Chairman of the Readiness Subcommittee on the House Armed Services Committee. He also served on the influential House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. Ortiz was a senior member of two important committees, co-chair of the Border Caucus, co-chair of both the House Depot Caucus and Naval Mine Warfare Caucus, and as Dean of both the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Texas House Democratic Delegation.

While I was fortunate to visit with Congressman Ortiz on several work or poltically-related occassions, one visit will always standout in my mind and heart. It was the Summer of 1997 when I was fortunate enough to coach a youth softball team to the 16-and-under national tournament in Arlington, Va., just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C.

Somehow, the girls were more interested in visiting Washington, D.C., and all its museums and monuments than they were about playing softball. It was understandable. Many of them had never been past San Antonio or Houston.

After raising the $12,000 needed for the trip in one week, we rented two big vans and headed northeast toward our nation's capital. How we crammed 15 girls and 18 of their friends and parents into those vans, along with all our equipment, I'll never know. But, no one complained. Prior to our departure I had called the Congressman's office about visiting with his office and maybe have him greet the girls and parents. Congress was in session and I felt this would be a long shot. His staffers seemed reluctant to say it could be done. Then, just before we took off from the Miller High School parking lot in Corpus Christi, the phone rang at home. It was almost 10 p.m. We were leaving at 1 a.m. to make good time and get past Houston before rush hour. It was the Congressman. We could visit with him on Aug. 12. He said he or someone in his staff would greet us at his office and we would take a tour of the White House, see Congress in session and maybe he would talk to us.

I kept it from the girls and family as long as I could. We were in the area a week, played our games and did the best we could, and then the day to visit him arrived.

Ortiz and his staff members gave us the royal treatment. It was constituent service at its best. We got to see all the members of Congress working, posed with him for a picture, visited his office in D.C. and took pictures with him. Each girl sat in his chair in his office and were just thrilled. He then told his aides to help us take a tour of the city's monuments. It was a strange feeling, seeing the wonderful monuments of Lincoln, Roosevelt, the impressive Washington monument and much more. Touring the Kennedy Performing Art Center and seeing the Arlington Memorial and JFK's graveside were memorable events. Touring the Smithsonian and the Captiol Building was an experience I won't soon forget, and neither will those girls. I still remember little Andrea (all 4-foot-10 of her) racing from one end of the building to the other taking as many pictures as she could. "I'm going to take pictures of every monument and poster (they were pieces of art) here. I have to hurry," she said heading off down the corridor to the laughter of the security officers there. Later, I bought her a set of post cards. She just tucked them into her purse without a word.

The girls, the parents and I enjoyed every moment of the day-long tour. The Vietnam Memorial was special to me. The girls were just starry-eyed. I thought, "I wonder if they understand what these monuments mean about our country and our legacy of freedom?"

Then, it happened. They saw the Vietnam Nurses Monument featuring two nurses taking care of a wounded soldier while one of them summons a imaginary helicopter to come down and help. Almost instinctively the girls fell to their knees or sat down. Some reached out as if trying to help the nurses summon the invisible rescue helicopter. Most had tears in their eyes, just as I had when I saw and touched the Vietnam Memorial nearby.

At that moment, I realized it was worth it, our trip to Washington, D.C., had been worth it and Congressman Ortiz had been part of some wonderful memories these girls - now all young women in their late 20s or early 30s - would cherish for a lifetime.

I feel, that for many of them, it was a life-changing experience. There were many other wonderful moments on that trip to Washington, but visiting the Congressman and experiencing the monuments and what they mean were special. We thanked Congressman Ortiz for his gracious hospitality and later sent him a letter with our photograph.

He didn't have to take time off from his very, very busy schedule to even say hello to us, but that day we were part of his agenda. We were part of his life for just a little while and, Congressman Ortiz, it paid off...thanks.

Just this past week, documents belonging to Congressman Ortiz were donated to Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. The photographs, congressional correspondence, research papers, meeting minutes and other governmental documents that span Ortiz's congressional career have found a home here in South Texas. The collection includes correspondence related to South Texas Naval operations and large, multimillion dollar block grants that reveal the complexity of the legislative process. It contains letters from oil industry leaders seeking legislative support, credit unions looking for tax breaks and everyday individuals voicing their opinions.

It also has thousands of constituent letters covering a myriad topics. I hope that among that collection is a letter of thanks from the 1997 International Westside Pony League Girls Fastpitch All-Star team. It was signed by all the girls on the team, the coaches - Mike Galan and myself - and all the parents, even those who could not attend. It was our simple way for saying thanks to OUR Congressman for taking time out from a very busy schedule to make time for us - just a bunch of softball crazy people from Corpus Christi who thought it would be nice to visit with our Congressman while we were in Washington.
We did.

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