Philip Cortez is one of the Texas Democratic Party’s most important candidates this election, but for most of the year he’s been living on a different continent. Cortez is running for House District 117, an L-shaped district encompassing much of southwest San Antonio and western Bexar County. By all rights, Democrats should be more dominant here. The overwhelming majority of the population is nonwhite.
Cortez won the seat in the presidential election year of 2012, then lost it in the following midterm election to Rick Galindo, a fresh-faced Republican. Cortez set himself up for a rematch, but then, earlier this year, was summoned by the Air Force Reserve for a six-month deployment, forcing him to watch his campaign unfold from bases in southwest Asia.
On October 8, just two weeks before the start of early voting, Cortez talked to his would-be constituents for the first time since the spring. On a cool, clear fall morning, Cortez walked the mostly empty streets of Alamo Ranch, a cluster of tightly packed homes in the far west of San Antonio. State House races often hinge on anodyne issues: One woman asks him to look into speeding cars on her block; another asks him to protect Medicare, a federal program.
But the item top of mind for Cortez is Access Hollywood. “It’s just unbelievable,” he says of the Billy Bush Trump tape, with the same mixture of disbelief, disgust and glee that Democrats everywhere have been exhibiting. “When I first saw the tape, I thought, ‘Oh my god, are you kidding me?’” The orange demon’s fiery collapse, he hopes, will help push him and other Texas Democrats into office.
The south side of San Antonio should be more comfortable Democratic territory. Almost 70 percent of HD 117 is black and Hispanic. In the adjacent House District 118, that number is closer to 75 percent. San Antonio should be one of the pillars of Blue Texas. But the two districts are currently represented by Hispanic Republicans, Galindo and John Lujan, respectively.
That is a mild-to-moderate embarrassment for Democrats, who have vowed to bounce Galindo and Lujan from office. Their election was partially a fluke, an artifact of an unusually crazy couple of years in San Antonio politics. But it was also a result of a years-long, expensive push by Republicans to expand their influence in Bexar County, which they see as a gateway to South Texas.
The races in HD 117 and 118 are important skirmishes in the parties’ long-running struggle to capitalize on the state’s demographic change. Some in the Texas GOP, including Governor Greg Abbott, recognize the need to increase the party’s vote share among Hispanic voters in order to retain political dominance. It’s just as crucial for Democrats to quash that effort if they ever want to be a viable party. The battles in Bexar were shaping up to be a classic contest of turnout, messaging, retail politics and money. But then Trump happened.
Trump’s peculiar campaign has Democrats around the country smelling blood, hoping to win back the Senate and many state legislative seats. But there’s less at stake in Texas: Only one of the state’s 36 congressional districts is competitive this year. There are no competitive state Senate races, and only about a dozen or so state House seats are in play.
But there’s another factor: In 2014, Texas Democrats found some pretty good candidates and made a push to organize and rally the troops, then saw it flop. Wendy Davis’ devastatingly large loss made it harder to build momentum going into 2016. There are fewer organizing resources to go around, and many of the party’s candidates are, to put it gently, not as strong as they could be.
The Democratic candidate for a seat on the Railroad Commission — the only nonjudicial statewide race — is a noncandidate who won his three-way primary solely because his last name is similar to the late Ralph Yarborough’s. In 2012, Democrats came within three points of retaking state Representative J.M. Lozano’s South Texas seat, but this year their candidate is Marisa Yvette Garcia-Utley, who has made headlines mostly for the revelation that she was charged with filing a false claim of sexual assault while working at a San Antonio strip club in 1997.
Tomas Uresti, the Democrats’ man in HD 118, is the brother of Carlos and Albert Uresti. Albert is the Bexar County Tax Assessor-Collector, and Carlos is a state senator entangled in an FBI investigation. Tomas Uresti faces Lujan, who won his seat earlier this year in a special election, thanks in large part to the tangled form of familial nepotism that seems to often ensnare Texas Dems.
Carlos Uresti was the state rep for HD 118 until 2006, when he moved up to the Senate and state Representative Joe Farias took over. When Farias decided to retire, he figured the Uresti clan would try to take the seat back. So instead, he resigned suddenly in August 2015, triggering a special election in the hopes that it would give the edge to his son, Gabe. Instead, Lujan won — the first Republican in decades to win the district.
After Tomas Uresti lost the special election, Ed Espinoza, the head of the left-wing messaging outfit Progress Texas, blasted Uresti as a “terrible Democrat” whose defeat was well-deserved. Uresti, he noted, was against abortion and gay marriage. “The difference between [Lujan] and [Uresti],” Espinoza wrote, “is the difference between cat shit and dog shit.”
Then there’s Cortez, an ambitious former City Council member who talks about the importance of service to the people. On paper, he’s a strong candidate. In Alamo Ranch, Cortez describes how his Air Force Reserve time gave him a window into veterans issues, and he says he’ll work to expand Medicaid and boost funding to public schools. He’s a little fuzzy on the details, though, asserting that the Lege had a “court mandate” to fix school finance. “Either the leadership puts [school finance] on the table, or we have the courts doing it for us,” he said, but that hasn’t been true since May, when the Texas Supreme Court ruled the state’s crummy system met “minimum constitutional requirements.”
Cortez has also left a litany of minor scandals in his wake. While on the City Council, he falsely claimed to have a master’s degree, and he was involved in an awkward attempt to get his fiancée to replace him on the council by misrepresenting the nature of his military service. While overseas this year he continued to politick, in direct contravention of Department of Defense directives for deployed personnel.
But worse news hit the campaign just a few days before his return home in early October. In February 2014, when Cortez was a state rep, he pitched his “consulting” services to a local housing developer, L.H. Devco. For $7,500 a month, Cortez told the company, he’d leverage his relationship with city officials and state lawmakers to help the company “achieve its objectives” — something that sounds a lot like an offer to lobby. When the developer declared bankruptcy last year, the contract surfaced in court.
Perhaps the strangest part of the story: The reason the contract resurfaced is because Cortez put it in the record himself by asking the court for money he was owed.
“I was talking about my network,” Cortez told the Observer. “What a strong network I’ve had for many years in the community. And that’s all I was talking about.” In vaguely Trumpian parlance, he suggests that the negative story is proof his opponent is running scared: “They’re very concerned that they’re going to lose this seat, so they’re throwing out any accusation they can.”
The Republicans in the two races are by and large unremarkable. Lujan, in HD 118, is a former firefighter who runs an IT business. He’s backed by Republican stalwarts such as San Antonio businessman Red McCombs and Texans for Lawsuit Reform, but he also has the support of the San Antonio police and firefighters’ associations, no small thing in a local election. Privately, some San Antonio Democrats worry that if Lujan wins, their chances will dry up for the foreseeable future, knocking another viable district from the party’s list.
Galindo is a friendly fellow who the Express-News once described as “moon-faced,” before adding that, in his interview by the paper’s editorial board, “he displayed a startling inability to answer questions on the most fundamental issues affecting the state.” In an official video on the Bexar County GOP’s YouTube channel from his first race, he gets about a minute into his stump spiel before he loses his train of thought, grimaces, and abruptly ends it. When asked by the paper if he could ever vote for education budget cuts, he gave a sitcom answer: “I’m married to a public school teacher. I’d be sleeping outside with my German shepherd.”
Of the 181 members of the Legislature, just six of them are Hispanic Republicans. It’s important for the party leadership to defend them — the GOP badly needs the nonwhite faces in their House caucus to accumulate seniority and speak for the party.
When Lujan was elected, the county Republican party was jubilant. “Bexar was — and is — the swing county in Texas. Now the Democrats can’t even hold on to their home turf on the south side,” wrote party chairman Robert Stovall at the time. The GOP succeeded, he said, because it “showed Hispanic voters” that “we share their values.”
But what values? As the party’s white folk get ever-angrier, Lujan and Galindo are bloodless and un-ideological, focusing on local issues. It’s difficult to tell from their websites that they belong to the Republican Party. It’s even more difficult to imagine how, in the long run, this kind of Republican coexists with, say, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s kind of Republican.
Or, for that matter, Donald Trump’s kind of Republican. The Trump Effect has the potential to wipe out a lot of well-laid plans. All the money spent, and whatever meager work Abbott and his people have done to lay a foundation for a browner GOP, could go down the tubes, at least for a year or two.
But Texas Democrats shouldn’t get too pleased with themselves. The most important upcoming elections take place in 2018 and 2020, when voters choose the Legislature that will write a redistricting plan for the next decade. The Trump Bump might give meaningful comfort this year, but it won’t mean much if Democrats can’t build an organization and recruit candidates who can win in districts like HD 117 and HD 118 in a midterm year. After all, it’s unlikely a serial groper will be at the top of the ticket next time.