It may be true that U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Sugar Land) crafted a congressional map that pits minorities against Anglos, region against region, and targets long-term Democratic incumbents for elimination, but it’s beside the point for Joe Phillips. “It doesn’t resonate down here; it’s irrelevant,” says Phillips, a McAllen-based businessman. “The issue is that the south border area has been grossly underrepresented in Congress forever.”
Phillips is part of small group of influential power brokers in the Rio Grande Valley who are backing former District Judge Leticia Hinojosa against Congressman Lloyd Doggett, a 10-year incumbent from Austin. Doggett and Hinojosa are battling it out in the primary to see which of them will be the Democratic nominee for the freshly minted Congressional District 25. The victor of the March 9 primary will likely have an easy time of winning what is an overwhelmingly Democratic district come November.
Phillips points to a litany of problems unique to the Valley as the reason why the new congressional representative should be from there. His argument is that only someone who has lived the region’s difficulties can understand them. As such, the campaign for CD 25 raises tough questions about the prerequisites that should be required from those who represent us. It also strikes to the core of whether Democrats can forge and strengthen the kind of multi-ethnic coalitions that are essential to any hope of putting a dent in the Republican hegemony in Texas in the coming decade.
Despite the legal endorsement of a three-judge panel, CD 25 brings the rich history of Texas gerrymandering to new lows. It’s a Machiavellian masterstroke even by Tom DeLay’s standards. The district stretches for 330 miles like a strand of spaghetti. It spans a narrow corridor from southeast Travis County in Central Texas down to western Hidalgo County on the Mexican border. The new district’s composition is overwhelmingly Latino. Divided between the two distant population centers of Austin and McAllen, it guarantees that at least one of those cities won’t have a native representative. But more insidiously, the new district is like lime juice on the ever-present wound of racial politics within the Texas Democratic Party. “District 25 is perhaps the best example of wherever possible just cause tension,” says Doggett. “Not just for one election, but there’s the potential for tension every two years in this district.”
Under the new redistricting map, Doggett was faced with either running in his former district, now overwhelmingly Republican, or in CD 25. Even with $2.3 million in his campaign account, Doggett felt he stood a better chance in CD 25. As a congressman, Doggett has consistently been one of the strongest liberal voices in the Texas congressional delegation, if not the entire U.S. House of Representatives. He has made a career of standing up for working people and the disenfranchised. Among his colleagues, Doggett was at the forefront in leading the charge against the Iraq war. He is known as an expert on parliamentary rules and has in the past helped stymie Republican legislative efforts. It is precisely for these reasons that Jim Ellis, DeLay’s point man on redistricting in Texas, wrote a memo in August of last year citing Doggett as one of three Democrats who had to be eliminated under a new map or it would be “unacceptable and not worth all of the time invested into this project.”
Like Doggett, the other two congressmen on the DeLay hit list are Anglos who have won their elections with the help of minority coalitions. In order to stay in power as long as possible, Republicans must rip asunder such coalitions, forever branding Texas Democrats as the party of minorities and of poor people who don’t vote. Or as Republican strategist Grover Norquist put it in the Denver Post, ” so that no Texan need grow up thinking that being a Democrat is acceptable behavior.”
A key part of the Republican strategy is to play on the very real disenfranchisement that minority communities have suffered for generations. As Texas becomes a majority minority state, that reality has yet to be reflected in its leadership. Even though Democrats, as of late, have certainly done a better job than Republicans of embracing minority leaders, ironically, as the party with the most minorities, it is also the place where these tensions are most manifest. It is the kind of resentment that Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) exploited to put a bipartisan veneer on the leadership team he formed after seizing power in 2002. The Craddick Ds, as they are called, were almost all minorities. Many of them felt that they had been ignored by a Democratic power structure that they believed was more interested in protecting a dwindling number of rural Anglo Democrats than in giving them a chance to lead. In the crudest expression of this view, Doggett is just one more Anglo who wants to be a patròn.
In CD 25, Doggett finds himself forced to try to speak two different languages both figuratively and literally. In Austin, he can speak in English and talk about Tom DeLay and what the Republicans are doing to the country. The message that DeLay’s power grab will only allow the majority leader to further his far-right agenda to the detriment of every constituent in CD 25 is an easy sell in a city that was just carved into three pieces for that very reason. In the Valley, the dominant language is Spanish and in communities where adequate sewage systems are still an issue, the most important topic is economic development.
Judge Leticia Hinojosa is running to a large extent on her life experience and on the symbolic power that electing the first Latina congresswoman from Texas would bring. She is fluent in Spanish and grew up in a colonia. Hinojosa talks of knowing what it’s like not to have running water or to be asked by law enforcement to prove her citizenship. “The life experiences that I have had are shared by a lot of my constituents,” she says. “When I have talked about these issues it strikes a chord.”
When it came time for the United Farm Workers to give their endorsement in the race, they struggled with the Valley experience of Hinojosa, whom they had endorsed for judge in the past, versus the superlative legislative record of Doggett on labor issues, according to Texas UFW Director Rebecca Flores. In the end, they decided to go with Doggett, a decision that was announced at their 17th biannual political convention at the Pharr Civic Center. “Looking at his record, there was no other choice,” says Flores.
Hinojosa did not attend the event but both Doggett and his wife Libby were there. Libby Doggett, who speaks Spanish has been front and center in the congressman’s campaign. In Spanish she told the 200 or so farm workers assembled for the convention: “We have been with you. We are with you. And we will continue being with you.”
While it is an open question how many votes a UFW endorsement can bring, in Hidalgo County it carries an important moral weight. The UFW endorsement of Doggett was another sign that Hinojosa has failed to emerge as a clear consensus candidate for the Valley. In part that can be attributed to her late start. Whereas Hinojosa was reluctant to give up her judgeship until the court had approved the new districts in early January, Doggett dove into campaigning in early December, despite a bout of bronchitis. His early efforts allowed him to line up support from a number of mayors and officials. Although the race is expected to be a close one, if Doggett wins, many will point to his early start and his financial advantage. For Hinojosa to win, it will require a large turnout in the Valley, with at least 65 percent of the vote there going her way. Such a scenario is not inconceivable for a politician who has run before in the area and has a well-known political last name that most Latinos in Hidalgo County recognize and trust.
Regardless of who wins, the troubling issues of the Valley finally getting its fair share of representation and development will continue to fester. And the need for Anglos, Latinos, and African-Americans to work together to further all interests will remain a pressing need. The irony of Lloyd Doggett, who has championed the interests of minority communities, falling victim to these tensions must bring a smile to Tom DeLay’s face.
“I hope the very kind of barriers that have been raised to some of the people in the Valley wrongfully in the past—”barriers of race or gender or where-are-you-from—[won’t] be a barrier to me,” says Doggett. “But I won’t know until election day.”