A few weeks ago, Texas actor Eva Longoria and her pal, Republican-turned-Biden-supporter Ana Navarro-Cárdenas, unintentionally caused a ruckus while campaigning on behalf of former Vice President Joe Biden at a strip mall in Miami.
Situated at a socially distanced campaign event at a Colombian restaurant between a barber shop and day care, Longoria was a focal point of adoration and political aversion. Some young girls came out of the day care and immediately recognized the actor from the 2019 live-action Dora the Explorer movie.
“They wanted to take a picture with Dora’s mom,” Navarro-Cárdenas recently recalled to The Texas Tribune. “Then some ... Latino Trump supporters came out of a barber shop and starting screaming ‘Communist’ at her.
“That’s what an afternoon with Eva is like,” Navarro-Cárdenas laughed. “It was a typical day in Miami with Eva Longoria.”
It is not unusual, even in a pandemic, for a Hollywood actor to hit the campaign trail for a Democratic presidential nominee. Dating back at least as far as President John F. Kennedy and Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, Hollywood has been attracted to national campaigns — the Beverly Hills fundraisers, the campaigning and, more recently, social media performative politics. And lately, Texas has become a trendy cause for the Hollywood left, with the stars of “Seinfeld” hosting a fundraiser for the state party and a legion of celebrities urging their social media followers to donate to the cause of turning the state blue.
But Longoria’s activism for the party stands out for both its persistence and its intensity.
The star best known for her time on the “Desperate Housewives” television show has traveled to Florida to rally voters for Biden, she frequently participates in conference calls and Zoom meetings with party activists and strategists, and over the years she co-founded two political groups devoted to rallying the Latino vote. This summer, she served as host of the Democratic National Convention, marking the third time she’s spoken at the party’s premier national event.
“I don’t know about you, but after all the attacks and the insults, I don’t just want Donald Trump out of office, but I want the Latino community to be the decisive group that votes him out of office,” she told voters in Kissimmee, Florida, this fall. “I want to show our pride and our strength and our power as a community.”
What sets Longoria apart from other celebrity activists is a group she founded with fellow Texan Henry R. Muñoz III, the Latino Victory Fund. Formed in 2014, it recruits Hispanic Democratic candidates for local and national offices across the country, helps them build fundraising networks and spends on their behalf. In Texas, the group’s endorsements have included U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso, U.S. Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia of Houston and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
This cycle, the Latino Victory Fund has raised more than $9 million so far and spent most of that money — nearly $8 million — in support of Biden. But the group is also spending a consequential $450,000 on the campaign of Democratic congressional candidate Candace Valenzuela in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“I will tell you it’s not just that she lends her name or her fame to an issue,” Escobar said. “It’s that she rolls up her sleeves and digs in.”
When Beto O’Rourke launched his 2018 Senate campaign, Escobar, then the El Paso County judge, mulled whether to run for his old seat representing El Paso in the U.S. House. Longoria and the Latino Victory Fund led an effort to draft her into what would be a competitive primary. The fund eventually spent about $40,000 in support of Escobar. She won and — along with Garcia, who also won election to Congress that year with the Latino Victory Fund’s support — became the first Latina to represent Texas in the U.S. House.
The money helped, but Escobar said the Latino Victory Fund offered her “the support, the contacts, the guidance, the pathway to be a successful candidate” and raise the more than $1 million she needed to mount a serious campaign. As a sitting member now, Escobar is on the mentoring side of the process, and she said one of the easiest asks in politics is for Longoria to jump on a fundraising video call for Latina candidates.
In interviews with over a dozen Democratic players, practically all could recall a story of being on a conference or Zoom call with Longoria.
“She’s demanding, even with me,” said Muñoz, her Latino Victory Fund co-founder. “We’ve been partners in this for what now? Oh my God, 11 years.
“I was on a call with her recently where she was with professional women, right? Professional-experience women and career women where she said, ‘You can do better than this. You need to bring this. You are just as smart as the guy that was on the phone, and it seemed like you were scared.’”
Deep Texas roots
Longoria’s friends cite her family — and especially her mother — as the driving force behind her activism. She was born in 1975 in Corpus Christi, and some of her earliest memories are from volunteering at the Special Olympics in support of her sister who is disabled. The Longorias are one of the oldest Texas families, and she often cites that family story in her political appearances.
Longoria estimates her North American lineage goes back 13 generations, and nine generations in Texas. Predating the Mayflower, her family arrived from Spain in 1603 to what would become Mexico, according to research by historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his team on the PBS show “Faces of America.” The Longorias eventually made their way to Encino, Texas, and they still own the ranch that was a land grant from the Spanish king. Five of the six flags of Texas flew over the Longorias’ land.
“We never crossed the border — the border crossed us,” she said in an interview.
In more recent centuries, the Longorias found their land under near constant — and sometimes lethal — threat from Anglo settlers and the Texas Rangers, according to the Gates research team.
Longoria graduated from Miller High School in 1993 and went on to earn a degree in kinesiology from Texas A&M University-Kingsville, with an aim to become a physical therapist. But after a trip to Los Angeles as the Miss Corpus Christi contestant, she opted to pursue an acting career.
“When I moved to Hollywood, I had a degree, and I was like, ‘I’m not going to wait tables. I’m going to get a job. Like a job, job,’” she said. "And so I went to a temp agency to get a job.”
But the agency, TeamOne staffing services, hired her as an in-house headhunter, and she played matchmaker between companies and employees in telecommunications at the advent of the cellular phone boom. It was there she met the company’s CEO, Frank Moran, the person she credits with much of her political fluency. He helped her understand, for instance, how different issues fall between the local, state and federal jurisdictions.
“He really opened my eyes,” she said.
Moran allowed her to go on several auditions a week, as long as she completed her work on time. Over the course of several years, he promoted her to a senior executive level and credited her with generating $6 million in revenue.
“I would bring her along,” he said of meetings with legislators and the Los Angeles mayor. “She was smart, she was intelligent, she was educated, she presents super well, obviously.
“I gave her an indoctrination on how to talk to people, to make sure you’re very focused on whatever conversation you want, and the most important thing that she [picked up] really quick is do not be intimidated — they work for us.”
He noticed at fundraisers that while other attendees prioritized taking photos with politicians, Longoria “got beyond that very quickly” and used the opportunities to discuss policy. Her first political federal donation of $1,000 went to presidential candidate Al Gore in 1999, and at least on that occasion she did get a photo with the candidate.
“[Moran] was supporting Al Gore, and so we got to go and meet him at that time,” she said. “I have that picture. I’m in a horrible polyester suit that I think I bought for $12 somewhere because we had to wear suits to work.”
In the early 2000s, Longoria landed her big break on the soap opera “The Young and The Restless,” and she moved into acting full time. In 2004, she burst into stardom on “Desperate Housewives.”
At that point, her charity and political appearances escalated. Over the years, she attended benefits — some of which she hosted herself — for an array of causes: AIDS; disadvantaged women and children; breast, prostate and childhood cancer; farmworkers; and earthquake relief. And while she was acting, she earned her master’s degree in Chicano studies from California State University. Her 99-page page thesis, titled “Success Stems from Diversity: The Value of Latinas in STEM,” examined why Latina women were not better represented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
Jeff Greenstein, a prominent television writer who worked with Longoria on “Desperate Housewives,” noticed her focus when he directed her on the show. He once observed she was frequently reading from a thick, three-ring binder on the set. Wondering if she was reviewing a new movie script, he approached her during a lunch break with curiosity.
“She said, ‘All right, I’m not really talking about this, but I’m getting my master’s.’”
He recalled her telling him, “It seems like I’m called upon to speak as someone who’s a Latina and from Texas and so forth, and I don’t want to be talking out of my ass.”
“They wish they had Eva”
Around the time of Obama’s second presidential campaign, Longoria’s stature within the party grew beyond the average politically inclined Hollywood star.
Longoria has proved to be a dogged campaigner for all of the recent presidential campaigns. She was such a prolific fundraising bundler that the Obama campaign released Longoria’s name on a list of supporters who raised more than $500,000 for his reelection.
She’s also a big donor in her own right, giving to federal candidates at all levels and to nearly 40 state Democratic parties.
“She’s a constant presence all the time, not somebody that dips her toes in for the final stretch of the presidential cycle,” said Adrienne Elrod, a veteran of several presidential campaigns who is currently the Biden staffer in charge of surrogate campaigning.
In her post-“Housewives” career, Longoria spends her time directing, acting and producing. Muñoz characterized much of her Hollywood work as a means to support her political and philanthropic work. The Democratic Party deployed her presentation skills this August, when party leaders selected her as the emcee of the night’s programming. A Twitter backlash against her was swift, and it came from opposite ends of the political spectrum.
“Brilliant move! No one is more in touch with the challenges & obstacles faced by everyday Americans than actors & celebrities,” tweeted U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican.
Others raised questions about her relevance. In the event anyone missed the tweets, Fox News aggregated them. But for Democrats who work on the nuts and bolts of their party — the fundraising, the outreach, the organizing and the effort to promote Latinos onto the national stage — there was nothing amusing about the commentary.
“It spoke to their ignorance and how, what a privileged existence they have,” said Escobar, the El Paso representative. “For candidates like me, for people like me who haven’t been Washington, D.C., insiders, her activism makes a tremendous difference.”
Navarro-Cárdenas had more choice words.
“They wish they had an Eva,” she said. “You think if they had a gorgeous, brilliant woman of color, a world-known celebrity on their team, they wouldn’t be using her? I think it’s the height of hypocrisy for Republicans to be attacking Democrats for featuring ... Eva, when they elected a fake billionaire celebrity TV host as president? Do they not see the irony?”
Disclosure: Texas A&M University-Kingsville has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism.