Political newcomer, Mary Abeyta, builds on her history of helping others to pursue a run for public office.
LatinaLista — At the age of 9, when most girls are enjoying weekend sleepovers and outings to the mall with their friends, Mary Abeyta was spending weekends traveling by Salvation Army bus serving as a translator for over a dozen Spanish-speaking families on their way to visit loved ones behind bars.
Not knowing how to fill out the necessary paperwork that would let them see their loved ones at the Huntsville, Texas state prison, the families depended on “Little Mary” to make everything okay for them.
It’s a mission that Mary continues to this day with aspirations for political office.
But it wasn’t always this way.
At first, Mary wanted to be a lawyer.
Accompanying her mother, who was a maid to wealthy families, Mary would help her mother serve at large receptions where the town’s most notable lawyers mingled and chatted about their cases. While passing the hors d’oeuvre tray, Mary got to overhear all the different kinds of help people needed.
Already familiar with courtrooms because of having to translate before judges for family and friends whose kids had gotten into trouble with the law, Mary realized that she could help a lot more people who had trouble understanding the legal system.
So after high school, Mary began her journey of public service.
She enrolled in a paralegal certification program, worked at a lawyer referral program, volunteered at a legal aid clinic, worked as a people’s advocate, and volunteered at a woman’s shelter.
Along the way, Mary started a family.
Then in 1998, a good friend who was a judge suggested to Mary that she might be more effective in helping more people if she ran for the political office of Justice of the Peace (JP).
“A justice of the peace can hear truancy cases, small claims up to $5,000, hot check cases, issue arrest warrants, search warrants, and can hear criminal cases,” Mary said. “But only those cases not punishable by confinement. Also, a JP can marry you.”
The idea appealed to Mary. So, she did her homework — thoroughly. She spent seven years reading and meeting.
“I read elections code (not exactly fun), but nevertheless, I read it. I read everything there was to know about a Justice of the Peace. I talked to other JPs and interviewed them and kept in contact with them,” Mary said. “Since I didn’t have much name recognition I knew I had to work extra hard.”
In a district comprised of seven Dallas, Texas suburbs where the ethnic breakdown boiled down to whites and African Americans outnumbering Latinos, and which never had had a Latino, let alone a Latina, represent them, Mary knew she would have her work cut out for her.
Finally, in her heart, she knew that it was time. She decided she would run on the Democratic ticket for the 2006 midterm election in Texas’ Dallas County.
Yet, the decision to run would prove to be the easiest part of the experience.
“In December 2005, I began to obtain signatures. I needed 250 to get on the ballot and $1,000 — I got 400 signatures,” Mary said proudly.
It was hard work. With her clipboard in hand, Mary stood outside neighborhood grocery stores, at busy street corners and hiked up and down neighborhood streets.
Every signature Mary got she not only had to verify they lived in her district but that they were registered to vote.
Soon, Mary was ready for her first election — the Primary Election held in March 2006.
“Since I didn’t have an opponent for the Primary Election, I was good to go on to the General Election in November.”
It wasn’t long before Mary started leading a double life: By day, Mary worked as a legal floater at a Dallas law firm and by night, weekends and every other free time she could squeeze out of the day, she worked “pressing flesh” as an official political candidate.
Now the real business of running for political office was underway.
Investing $4,000 of her own money, Mary bought hand-held fans, t-shirts, campaign signs and bags to put campaign literature into — all emblazoned with the simple slogan: “Mary Abeyta, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 4, Place 1.”
Crisscrossing the city, Mary showed up at barbecues, county fairs, forums, and even at a senior citizen beauty pageant. She wore her widest smile and asked for people’s votes.
“The Democratic Party kept the candidates informed with information such as Forums, Meet N’ Greets, BBQs, Tea Gatherings, Parades, and specific democratic clubs in different demographic areas with meetings that candidates were invited to attend,” Mary revealed.
“We also e-mailed the Democratic Party to let them know what our own agendas were and they were shared through the Democratic website. I always chose the events/functions that were specific to my demographic area. From time to time, we attended strategy sessions as we neared the General Election.”
Yet, it was a lot harder than she realized.
“It was difficult being female and being Latina,” Mary said. “Being Latina in a room filled with other races other than Latino was sometimes difficult. I endured more questions generally speaking about the JP race, about my background, my upbringing, my views on other political events, both past and present.
Unfortunately, it felt as if we were still in the good ol’boy system. When that would happen to me, I would think about what Martin Luther King did back in the 1960’s, when he broke the barrier of color and brought the philosophy of equality and justice for all.
I always stayed positive and focused.”
Also, Mary now found herself facing an opponent for the November election, the incumbent. ”
A former security guard, who worked for a few years as a constable, he married a local heiress in 2003 (I believe), and proclaims to live in the district but actually lives in a more affluent area outside the district.”
But Mary wasn’t about to be intimidated by her opponent’s experience, political ties or cash reserve. She would just pound the pavement a lot harder.
Finally, the hour approached when Mary’s days and nights dedicated to one goal were coming to an end.
Had she been able to convince voters that she was one ready Latina for the position of Justice of the Peace?
Working the polls until they closed at 7 p.m., Mary arrived with her family, extended family and friends in tow to the Democratic Party’s election headquarters at a downtown Dallas hotel.
The chandelier-decorated ballroom complete with food buffet, cash bars and cinema-size screens to post election results had a festive atmosphere when Mary arrived.
After all, early returns were showing Democrats ahead.
Would Mary also benefit from this strong showing?
The hours ticked by and soon Mary’s race results were projected on the screens.
With only 1,681 votes less than her opponent, (Mary garnered 49% of the votes while her opponent got 51%) Mary lost her first race for political office.
Yet, Mary isn’t giving up. She plans on running again in 2010.
Far from having any regrets, Mary said that because of her run for office, unsuccessful as it was, she is finally on the political radar screen.
“In the days after the election, several jobs were offered to me by some of the newly elected judges,” Mary revealed.
As she evaluates her many newfound opportunities, Mary realizes none of it would have been possible had she not followed her heart and found the courage to just hazlo.
Mary’s three tips if thinking for running for political office:
1. Network for name recognition, and to raise money for the campaign because it can be expensive. Also, walk your district to meet as many people as possible.
2. Don’t get discouraged along the campaign trail, especially when dirty politics come into play and your opponent steals your signs or covers them up with their own. Keep your skin tough and stay focused … know you will make it through.
3. Always look your best because you are in the limelight and someone is always watching.