Inside Rick Treviño’s Scrappy Bid to Win Texas’s Most Coveted Congressional Seat

Inside Rick Treviño’s Scrappy Bid to Win Texas’s Most Coveted Congressional Seat

This former high school teacher and political renegade thinks he can beat the party favorite in the Democratic runoff for the state’s swingiest congressional district.

Inside Rick Treviño’s Scrappy Bid to Win Texas’s Most Coveted Congressional Seat

The former high school teacher and political renegade thinks he can beat the party favorite in the Democratic runoff for the state’s swingiest congressional district.

by Justin Miller
@by_jmiller
April 5, 2018

On the last Wednesday in April, things are not going as planned for Rick Treviño. He has just driven two-and-a-half hours from San Antonio, where he lives, for a local Democratic event, only to find that it’s been rescheduled for later in the week. So, he decamps to a McDonald’s inside a Walmart here in Eagle Pass, a border town that’s in the far southeastern corner of Congressional District 23, the sprawling West Texas district that Treviño is gunning for as a Democrat. Frustrated and with five hours to kill until a meet-and-greet event in the evening, Treviño called an audible. He was going to knock on some doors.

Using the McDonald’s Wi-Fi, he logged onto his account with the Texas Democratic Party’s voter database to, as he puts it, “cut turf” on the fly. With the help of a campaign volunteer over the phone, he quickly pulled together a list of a few dozen homes in Eagle Pass.

“This is a grassroots campaign, man,” he tells me. And this, Treviño says, is how — with next to no money — he squeaked into the Democratic runoff, beating three other candidates, including Jay Hulings, the Castro brothers’ favorite who raised more than $600,000. “I win when I’m at the doors. I win when I’m talking to people.”

Treviño talks to an Eagle Pass resident in Spanish about his campaign policies.  Justin Miller

It’s also how he plans to win his runoff against Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer who won the crowded five-person primary with a commanding 40 percent of the vote. Treviño trailed Ortiz Jones by more than 10,000 votes.

But Treviño doesn’t see Ortiz Jones as his only opponent in the May 22 runoff. He says he’s running against the entire Democratic Party establishment and its hackneyed approach to politics. After the March 6 primary, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) placed Ortiz Jones on its Red to Blue list of top-priority candidates, citing her long list of both local and national endorsements.

The DCCC’s move was just the latest attempt to influence primaries in districts around the country in a way that critics say tries to undermine more progressive candidates. Most infamously, party operatives released opposition research against Laura Moser, a progressive candidate running in a crowded primary in Texas’s 7th Congressional District that the party has deemed unelectable in a general election. (The DCCC gambit backfired and Moser is now in the runoff).

But of all the potential congressional seats to flip in Texas, the 23rd, which includes parts of San Antonio and swoops west to El Paso, is the DCCC’s top priority. Of the 36 congressional districts in Texas, it’s consistently the only truly competitive one, and in a wave election year, this would likely be the first place to flip.

Treviño wasn’t too torn up about seeing the DCCC support his opponent — he’s been the party’s bête noire ever since he jumped in. “They’re made of elites and they don’t care about the people of 23,” he told the Observer. “They are people who are just terrible at politics. It’s really that simple.”

Campaign yard signs set out at a meet-and-greet event at a Mexican restaurant in Eagle Pass.  Justin Miller

Former Congressman Pete Gallego, a Democrat, barely lost his bid to retake his old seat from Hurd in 2016 after first losing to him in 2014. Before that, the seat has flicked back and forth from blue to red. But Treviño, who was a high school history teacher before he quit to campaign full time, thinks the district is more liberal than past elections may indicate; it’s just that previous Democratic candidates lack the boldness and authenticity that will attract a silent majority of poor and working-class people in the district who have become disenchanted with politics.

“Really what we’re doing is selling a new type of politics to people,” he says.

Treviño is emblematic of the type of candidate that emerged from Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign — he’s a member of the burgeoning Democratic Socialists of America and an unabashed lefty ideologue with a confrontational vision for political change. His platform includes Bernie’s greatest hits: Medicare for All, free public college tuition, a $15 minimum wage and getting big money out of politics. His bid has support from the phalanx of new groups like Our Revolution, the Sanders’ campaign offshoot, Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress that are promoting anti-establishment candidates in congressional races around the country.

“He’s the new populist candidate in the old populist state of Texas,” says Jim Hightower, who heads Our Revolution Texas. “Candidates like Rick have a genuine message not developed in a think tank or by political consultants but out of his heart and his gut. And he conveys that with great conviction to voters and potential new voters.”

These groups have helped bring in small donors and door-knocking volunteers. But for the most part, Treviño’s campaign is a one-man show. Mostly, he’s on the road, driving himself around one of the largest congressional districts in the country — from Marathon and Marfa to Eagle Pass and Cotulla — trying to increase name recognition and build up his political network in the weeks before the runoff.

At the doors in Eagle Pass, Treviño introduces himself to Democratic voters, comfortably bouncing between Spanish and English as he walks them through his platform. “The big difference between me and my opponent is how we fundraise — I only take money from working people,” he says. At one home, he chats with a man named Johnny, who knows Treviño’s primos in Eagle Pass. At another he takes a picture with a teacher who’s home on her lunch break and is excited to show her class a teacher who is running for Congress.

They seem to like what they hear. “We need young people like you because there’s too many of the old farts that are fixed on the old ways and they’re not doing anything to change,” one woman who voted for Trump said.  

After grabbing lunch to go, Treviño rushes to an impromptu meetup with activists from the Maverick County Environmental & Public Health Association, who show him Elm Creek, a tributary of the Rio Grande that is being polluted by an open pit coal mine a couple miles upstream.

Treviño listens to activists with the Maverick County Environmental and Public Health Association next to Elm Creek in Eagle Pass.  Justin Miller

Person by person, Treviño hopes the goodwill from his encounters will ripple out and help him stage a runoff insurrection against the party favorite.

Treviño recognizes his performance in the primary wasn’t solely based on his brand of politics. He was the only man with a Hispanic surname in the primary and he shares the name of a country music artist. Treviño is keen to point out that in a district that’s more than 70 percent Hispanic, he’s the only Latino on the ballot (Ortiz Jones is Filipina). He emphasizes to voters that he grew up along the border in Laredo and has family and roots on both sides of la frontera.

Ortiz Jones, who quit her job in the Trump administration to move back and run for the seat, has a compelling backstory, too. Raised by a single mother in San Antonio, she received a ROTC scholarship to attend Boston University and went on to serve in Iraq. As a Filipina and a lesbian, she’d be the first openly gay woman of color ever elected to Congress. She’d also be the first woman to represent the district.

Ortiz Jones is a formidable fundraiser, so far bringing in more than $1 million since launching her campaign last August, even outraising Republican incumbent Will Hurd in the last quarter. Ortiz Jones has outside support from a long list of influential mainstream Democratic groups like Emily’s List and VoteVets. But she’s also earned endorsements from progressive political groups like Democracy for America and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Treviño, who has sworn off money from PACs and lobbyists, says their donor bases are a key distinction. “I think Gina is a compromised candidate because of the money she’s taken,” he says. Emily’s List, which supports pro-choice women running for office, has spent more than $200,000 in support of Ortiz Jones. She has also received tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from a smattering of PACs aligned with the Democratic Party.

Clearly, Treviño isn’t here to make friends with his opponent or anyone else in the party.

While Ortiz Jones has positioned herself as a progressive who can win in the general, Treviño questions her ideological bona fides on matters of policy. He says that candidates like her, Joseph Kopser, and even Beto O’Rourke are “cynically appropriating the rhetoric, the fundraising, and the talking points of the left because that’s where the energy is. And it works.”

Treviño at the door of an Eagle Pass home.  Justin Miller

In a debate on Texas Public Radio, Treviño accused Ortiz Jones of “pander[ing] to the Mexican Americans by adding ‘Ortiz’ to her name right before [the election].” Ortiz Jones explained that her middle name has always been “Ortiz,” taken from her mother’s maiden name. “I would not be here without my mother’s example or her sacrifices so it was important for her to be on the ballot with me.

In a statement to the Observer, Ortiz Jones made some not-so-subtle digs at Treviño: “Voters want more than rhetoric. They want someone that understands the challenges they face and will fight for the issues that affect their everyday issues like quality, affordable healthcare. I’ll continue talking about the issues that matter to voters, and why I’m the best person to serve this district.”

The odds are against Treviño overcoming Ortiz Jones’s lead, but with the inherent unpredictability of turnout in runoffs, it can largely come down to who can more effectively turn out its base to vote one more time. On that front, Treviño thinks he has the upper hand on May 22. He says his supporters are more motivated and that he can flip a good chunk of Ortiz Jones’ primary voters.

“They’re not part of some movement or anything. They just a got a bunch of literature in the mail,” he says. “You can throw money at a problem but it’s not going to do anything. You’ve got to have a message.”

Top photo by Justin Miller.