The Contender

Juan Garcia has the perfect resume, but can he win his first big race?

Juan Garcia, photo by Alan Pogue

It’s a typical sticky summer afternoon in Taft, a sorghum and cotton town in San Patricio County named for President Taft’s half-brother Charles. With temperatures close to 100 degrees, it’s not a comfortable day to be on the streets, but when you’re running for a lower office like state representative, you run a shoe-leather campaign. This is Juan Garcia’s first shot at elected office, and he knows what he needs to do.

Juan Garcia, photo by Tim EatonJuan Garcia on the campaign trail, photo by Tim Eaton

Sporting a slightly grown-out buzz cut and dressed in an untucked, light green Hawaiian shirt and white pants, Garcia is knocking on doors in a neighborhood of mixed political ideologies. A woman in a blue housecoat on a quiet side street answers his knock. Garcia promises her that he’s not selling anything and introduces himself as a candidate. The silver-haired woman seems eager to chat. As she speaks, Garcia leans forward and looks her square in the eye, like he’s trying to win a staring contest. As a White House Fellow, Garcia had a front-row seat to watch President Clinton, one of the masters at connecting with people. He quickly learns the woman is a widow and works with veterans. At that point, he begins to extol the importance of proper funding for veterans’ programs. He’s a veteran himself, a pilot. And Garcia knows how to talk tough on national security. The widow is clearly receptive. As he leaves, Garcia spots one of the telltale signs he has trained his field-workers to look for: the white-and-blue windshield stickers on cars that allow entrance into military bases. Down the street, Garcia tells the son of a base employee, working on a scraped-up motorcycle, to thank his father for helping keep America safe.

When Garcia appeared on the South Texas political scene in 2004, no one had heard of him. But it didn’t take long for Corpus Christi’s Democratic political groupies to begin whispering about the man who seems to carry all the credentials for an epic political career. They thought he would appeal to just about everyone–not just the Democrats who dominate Corpus Christi politics, but also to the Republicans in the coastal towns outside Corpus. With Election Day only weeks away, Democrats are still energized, and, anecdotally at least, many Republicans are considering abandoning their party’s incumbent for the energetic challenger with such great potential.

Garcia is challenging 10-year state Rep. Gene Seaman (R-Corpus Christi) in District 32. In a state where every statewide elected position belongs to the GOP, Garcia seems to embody everything the Democrats need to take some of that power back. He’s a veteran Navy pilot. He has worked at the White House. He surfs. He created programs for at-risk children. He leads a photogenic family of six (eight-year old twins, a five- year-old, and a three-year-old). [Disclosure: One of Garcia’s cousins serves on the nonprofit board that publishes The Texas Observer.] And he has two diplomas from Harvard, a law degree and a master’s from the John F. Kennedy School of Government. On top of that, his last name ends in a vowel–a Hispanic name. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas estimates that Texas will have a Hispanic majority by 2020, so having a vowel at the end of your name could prove to be a huge advantage. Riding that trend, Garcia might be ready to start asking for votes across the state—if he can just get elected in this coastal, predominantly Republican district that runs from Corpus Christi to Aransas Pass and on to Port Aransas and Rockport.

The man with the dream résumé has stirred up an unusual amount of excitement for a lowly South Texas state representative race. It’s not as much about the boilerplate promises to work toward improving education and broadening health benefits that rally Garcia’s followers. Rather, it’s the desire to get on board the political express elevator at the ground floor. His supporters–who include former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, former presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark, and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama–see a budding political star. And they’re counting on Garcia’s universal appeal to move him quickly through the ranks of politics and government. The leadership of the Democratic Party of Texas also must have seen something; he was tapped to introduce Chris Bell, the party’s choice in the race for governor, at the state convention this past June.

Juan Garcia and Henry Cisneros, photo by Tim EatonDenise Garcia, Juan Garcia and Henry Cisneros, photo by Tim Eaton

Garcia points to his campaign kickoff as evidence of the enthusiasm surrounding his candidacy. “In Corpus, typically, a state House race kicks off with 10 of your relatives and a 12-pack out at the county courthouse,” Garcia says. “(But) we filled up the Selena Auditorium. We haven’t seen that before. It just doesn’t happen like that.”

Garcia’s friend and campaign treasurer Joe Hall says people see themselves in Garcia. Hispanics and whites, Democrats and Republicans all identify with him. The candidate carries a driver’s license with one of the most common names in Texas. But his father’s Mexican-American features give way to his mother’s Irish traits, so he doesn’t look like a stereotypical Juan Garcia. His eyes are grayish-blue, his skin sunburns easily, and his hair is blondish, just like a lot of suburban voters. Garcia says he’s opposed to the war in Iraq, which pleases anti-Bush lefties. But he also speaks aggressively about the war on terrorism and proudly of his service flying military aircraft over Kosovo and the Persian Gulf region, which makes him attractive to older, whiter, more conservative people–especially those who have worked at Naval Air Station-Corpus Christi or the now-folded Naval Station-Ingleside. Further propelling the campaign is Garcia’s age. He’s 40–neither young nor old. He’s lived enough years and experienced enough life to satisfy older voters, but his unyielding energy has attracted volunteers who are too young to remember when “The Cosby Show” was on prime time.

“When I was a little boy, I thought this was my calling,” he says. It is the same motivation that led him to the Navy after graduating from Harvard. He traces his desire for public service to 1973, when as a boy on a military base, he watched his friends’ fathers return from being POWs in Vietnam. Some didn’t return at all. “I thought it was important to take a turn yourself,” he says.

Garcia’s wife wholeheartedly shares her husband’s mission. “We’re idealistic,” explains his wife Denise, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-born brunette of Puerto Rican descent who is also a Harvard-educated lawyer. “We feel in our gut that we’ll be able to make some significant changes.”

While his classmates are working on Wall Street, zipping around New York in black Lincoln Town Cars, the Garcias say they are happy with their suburban house in Corpus Christi and the blue, mildew-scented Chrysler PT Cruiser parked in the driveway.

A lot of people–not just excitable campaign workers–talk about the idealistic Garcia as the savior of the Democratic Party. For one, former Democratic state Sen. Carlos Truan of Corpus Christi, who served more than 30 years in the Legislature, says Garcia is primed to be the next political big thing. “He’s got the makings of a United States congressman,” Truan says, “if not a United States senator.”

Cisneros, President Clinton’s former HUD secretary and a former San Antonio mayor, echoes Truan. He says Garcia’s “potential is unlimited,” and he is an “impressive guy” with an “engaging personality.” Cisneros’ fall from grace amid allegations of lying to the FBI about money paid to his mistress offers a cautionary tale of how quickly young political stars can fade. But in Garcia he sees only a bright future. “He has a real crossover appeal. I think if he wins, I think he will be almost instantly a promising statewide talent,” Cisneros says. “We have such an absence of that kind of background.”

Garcia cannot claim to be South Texas born and raised. But he is the son of a Navy pilot from Robstown, near Corpus Christi. The military took him all over the country as a child. When it was time for college, he chose the University of California-Los Angeles, where he created a literacy program for young immigrants in the inner city. Then it was on to Harvard for a dual degree in law and government. He later enlisted in the Navy, and eventually it was on to flight school at Naval Air Station-Corpus Christi. Then he went to war. He served in the first Persian Gulf War and in Kosovo (where he met Gen. Clark). When he left the Navy, he returned to Corpus Christi as a flight instructor. He stayed, became a reservist, and accepted his first job at local law firm Hartline, Dacus, Barger, Dreyer & Kern.

Local Democratic politics forced Garcia to choose one of the few Republican-leaning South Texas House districts for his first race. Even his extraordinary appeal won’t make up for being a Democrat in District 32. His military and academic background–while impressive–will help, but Garcia won’t be able to saunter into office, effortlessly winning the November 7 election. He’s taking on an entrenched opponent in Gene Seaman, who has served a decade in the state House and enjoys a certain amount of popularity in the district, one which Seaman says he speaks to and understands. “My district is very conservative and doesn’t go along with the Wesley Clark, Henry Cisneros, far-left liberal stance,” Seaman says. “My district is very different than that.”

Bob Bezdek, a political science professor from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, says Garcia will have difficulty winning enough votes to take the District 32 seat. The only Democrat to carry the district in recent memory was former state Comptroller John Sharp, who is from nearby Victoria County, when he ran for lieutenant governor in 1998 and 2002. “If it takes somebody as strong as Sharp to barely eke out a victory, what does it mean for Garcia?” Bezdek asks. “In my opinion, Juan Garcia has an uphill battle.”

Bezdek calls himself a numbers guy, and he is. He’s the only one anywhere who can recite precinct-by-precinct voting trends in the Coastal Bend back to the mid-1970s. Bezdek notes that the district is predominately white, and about 60 percent of the district usually leans Republican, which makes it a reach for Garcia. Another factor to consider in the race is Republican statewide candidates–such as Gov. Perry, Susan Combs, Todd Staples and Jerry Patterson–who might drive voters to the polls. Bezdek says statewide and national Republicans have tended to win by at least 60 percent in the district, which is also likely to help Seaman.

Garcia doesn’t worry about people voting straight Republican. He’s counting on people splitting the ticket, as they say in political circles. When he talks to voters, Garcia offers up some familiar words about not wasting tax dollars and reforming how business is done in Austin. But it wasn’t so much the promises as the sincerity that converted Republican Rockport resident Lynn Lee, a 70-year-old retired member of the U.S. Foreign Service. “He’s honest,” Lee says of Garcia. “We believe he’ll do as he says.”

Juan Garcia gives the thumbs up, photo by Tim Eaton

On the stump, Garcia has been calling for more lawmaker accountability, a promise that might lead to some conflict in Austin. The Texas Legislature is one of the holdouts in this Electronic Age to rely mostly on voice votes, and not record votes. Year after year, lawmakers decide to hide in the anonymity of voice votes, which help protect incumbents from political opponents looking for campaign fodder.

One legislator is all it takes to require a record vote, and Garcia says he’ll be that legislator–every time, for every vote, for every amendment. “Any member–even a freshman member of the out-of-power party–can call for the full recording and documentation of votes. On my watch, every vote in the Texas Legislature, every measure will be documented and put online in real time,” Garcia says.

Garcia says he’s not willing to wait several sessions before having an effect in the House, and he doesn’t care whom he makes angry in the meantime. He says he is not willing to go through proper channels, follow accepted rules of freshman etiquette, and wait 15 years to do something positive (perhaps a loosely worded jab at Seaman) while more kids drop out of school and lose health insurance.

So far in the campaign, Garcia tries to sound like he’s speaking from the heart. Part of that means sticking with the nice-guy image, even when he talks about his opponent. One of his often-repeated tag lines goes like this: “I’m not running against anybody. I’m running for something.”

Garcia even declines to talk about a recent, potentially damaging revelation about Seaman. Earlier this month, news broke in Seaman’s district that could threaten his re-election. The Corpus Christi Caller Times reported Seaman paid his wife rent from his campaign funds for an Austin condominium that she owns. The couple also took tax exemptions from properties in Austin and Corpus Christi, the newspaper reported. Seaman spokesman Mac McCall told the paper that Seaman’s wife was figuring out the “mistake.”

Gene Seaman, photo by Rachel Denny Clow

The race has been relatively polite until now, but it won’t stay that way. As Election Day approaches, Corpus Christi voters can expect some aggressiveness soon from the Garcia camp, especially considering the reputation for negative campaigning of Garcia’s main consultant, San Antonio-based Christian Archer, who ran successful races for Houston Mayor Bill White and San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger. Archer may soon target Seaman’s record in Austin, if a recent conversation with him is any indication. The ads could be ugly, considering he describes Seaman in terms that include “whore of the insurance companies” and “punk” and “rubber stamp for [House Speaker] Tom Craddick.”

Seaman, 76, an insurance man who has a head of slicked-back hair and impressive skills on the racquetball court, most recently served as the vice chair of the Insurance Committee and vice chair of the powerful Calendars Committee. His second-seat role isn’t just reserved for committees. Seaman rarely can be found leading debate on the House floor. Instead, his preferred perch is against the brass rail at the back of the chamber, where he chats with other members and reporters. He is a strong advocate for the petrochemical plants in and around Corpus Christi. In recent years he has lobbied his colleagues for better and earlier training in public schools to fill jobs at the refineries in the region.

Yet without doubt Seaman’s most infamous moment in the House came in March 2005, during a floor speech that more than one blogger has called “creepy.” (See www.geneseamaniscreepy.blogspot.com and “Gene Seaman’s Erection” on www.youtube.com). The Internet has allowed Garcia backers to look back and laugh at Seaman’s infamous speech in which he talked about giving older people a discount on Viagra. In his embarrassing presentation, Seaman threw his shoulders back and stood “erect,” as he put it, before the House and promised to go “limp” if he didn’t get the votes. The Garcia campaign might take the high road on the Viagra is
ue, but the footage has taken on a life of its own on the Internet and in e-mails.

If District 32 voters can manage to shake
ny memory of the Viagra speech, they might also hear the Garcia camp talk about Seaman’s less-than-astonishing tenure in the House, including his inability to earn a committee chairmanship. As Truan puts it, “I would have thought that Gene would have been a more prominent member of the House, or at least would have achieved more significant legislation.”

Seaman rejects the ineffectual-legislator argument. He says he hopes to earn a chairmanship in the coming Legislature, but adds, “That’s up to the leader.” Seaman notes that fewer experienced Republican chairs are returning, most notably Rep. Kent Grusendorf of Arlington of the House Public Education Committee. Seaman says that if he is re-elected, he will be the only senior South Texas member of the House.

If money is any indicator of the success of a campaign, then Garcia might soon be sworn in to take his seat next to Rep. Patrick Rose (D-Dripping Springs), Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas), Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin), and other eager, young Democrats in the House—a farm team poised to enter the major leagues. The résumé of the Navy pilot-turned-would-be-politician could earn Garcia an instant voice in the group. His ability to raise money might propel him further.

In the first half of 2006, Garcia collected more than twice as much as Seaman, bringing in $205,140.95, compared with Seaman’s $89,956. Seaman somewhat sadly notes that $59,435 of his opponent’s money came in the form of an in-kind contribution for television ads. Overall, Garcia’s contributions came from about 400 individuals, including former classmates, former White House Fellows and Navy buddies stationed around the world.

Garcia’s campaign touts the candidate’s proclivity to raise out-of-district money, which Seaman has criticized. The challenger’s total war chest rivals Seaman’s $261,671.74, which Seaman took 10 years to accumulate. Asked about his opponent’s impressively large bank account, Seaman complained Garcia was able to raise cash while lawmakers labored through special sessions, during which fundraising by legislators is prohibited. Of his own campaign cash, Seaman says, “I’m very happy with my financial situation. Don’t tell the lobby that.”

In a recent interview, Seaman attempted to use Garcia’s star power against him. He argued that if Garcia gets elected, he won’t be in the Legislature very long. He’s hoping District 32 voters are not interested in continuing to elect new members to represent them. Clearly, Garcia has thought about higher office, as evidenced by his considering and bailing on a possible run for the U.S. Senate when Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison flirted with a bid for governor. He also considered running for mayor of Corpus Christi, a seat most politicos in the area agreed was reserved for then-Councilman Henry Garrett.

Juan Garcia canvassing a neighborhood, photo by Tim Eaton

“I’ve flown airplanes long enough to know whenever you don’t focus on what’s ahead of you, that’s when you put one in the water,” Garcia says of the charge that the House would just be a stepping stone for him. “I’m going to keep my eyes on the prize.”

Whether Garcia heads to Austin when the Legislature convenes in January, or he makes some money with those Harvard degrees, many people expect to see a lot more of him in the future. After all, even if he loses this race, there will likely be others. As we’ve seen with President Bush–a man with a far less impressive résumé–an early loss doesn’t represent the end of a political career.

Tim Eaton is an Austin-based freelance writer. He used to live, work, write and report on politics and other matters in Corpus Christi.

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