The Texas Senate’s most conservative Democrat faces two opponents. Is the Valley ready for change?
Democratic state Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. starts choking up over the phone. The 29-year veteran of Texas’ upper chamber is recalling legislation he passed in 2007 requiring health insurers to cover early intervention for kids with autism spectrum disorder. Lucio describes the emotional speech of a Georgetown father who testified that the bill would help his 3-year-old son.
I’m suspicious that the Brownsville senator’s tears are just a show for me. But later I find the archived video, and it’s wrenching. The father, his young daughter on his lap, can barely speak through sobs as he addresses the Senate’s health committee. Lucio sits right next to the dad and pours him a glass of water. At the end, the little girl chimes in, “My brother needs your help.” The bill itself would stall out, but Lucio managed to amend it on to a different measure and get it passed, the first of a series of bills he would pass promoting autism treatment.
I tell you that story to emphasize that Lucio—who now faces his first serious primary challenge since 1992—has at times used his power to help vulnerable Texans. And that’s how he’d like you to see him: a deeply Catholic man who votes his conscience and helps the needy.
But during his 30 years in the senate, Lucio has too often used his role to punch down. His political rise depended on siding with employers and insurance companies during the decades-long right-wing movement known as tort reform. And he’s always been staunchly opposed to LGBTQ rights and women’s reproductive freedom.
In 2013, the year of then-Senator Wendy Davis’ legendary filibuster, he voted for the sweeping and unconstitutional anti-abortion bill that she sought to stymie. In 2017, he was the only Democrat to support Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s transphobic “bathroom bill,” and this past session, he was the sole Dem to vote for Senate Bill 17, which would have shielded state employees at licensing agencies who discriminated against LGBTQ Texans.
During our phone call, which took place 1,518 days after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, Lucio told me that same-sex unions are “the end of the family.” In an email, Rebecca Marques, Texas director of the pro-LGBTQ Human Rights Campaign, told me, “Session after session, Senator Eddie Lucio comes to Austin and votes against the best interests of the LGBTQ community. … We know that Senator Lucio will not look out for all of us.”
This cycle, Lucio’s record will be dissected as two opponents—one a trial lawyer and daughter of a former Cameron County Democratic chair, and another a current State Board of Education member—take aim at this titan of Rio Grande Valley politics. Can they persuade the voters of Lucio’s district, which is 89 percent Hispanic with a 37 percent poverty rate, to reject the Texas Senate’s most conservative Democrat, or will the 73-year-old prevail again?
Lucio started his political career as an incumbent-slayer. Beginning with a successful 1970 race for Cameron County treasurer, he’s knocked off four sitting officials, including state Representative René Oliveira in 1986, and state Senator Hector Uribe in 1990. (Lucio served two terms in the House, then Oliveira recovered the seat when Lucio jumped chambers). Lucio wasn’t the most likely political star. He grew up in public housing with nine siblings and isn’t an attorney like so many state legislators. But he allied himself with a rising power in Texas politics: the movement for tort reform, a euphemism for kneecapping the ability of injured workers and consumers to sue companies or get insurance payouts.
When Lucio entered the Legislature, corporations were in the early stages of whipping up a panic about runaway lawsuits and greedy trial lawyers in Texas. By his own accounts, Lucio used the issue to beat Oliveira and Uribe, as well as a 1992 primary challenge from now-state Senator Chuy Hinojosa. Tort reformers generally fund Republicans, but Lucio has proved more than capable of pushing the agenda. In 1989, as a House rep, he backed a sprawling pro-employer reform to the state’s workers’ compensation system—a vote that earned him a special corrido, unveiled at a United Farm Workers convention, that accused him of voting “contra la gente.” In 1995, he authored a bill cracking down on so-called frivolous lawsuits and in 2003, he joined two other Democrats in backing a constitutional amendment to limit damages awarded in medical malpractice lawsuits.
Since 2000, Lucio has taken around $158,000 from Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR)—a political action committee founded by a trio of construction and liquor tycoons to reduce their own liability—and $164,000 from Bob Perry, the late ultra-wealthy Houston homebuilder who also aggressively pushed tort reform. Asked about Lucio’s record, Lucy Nashed, a spokesperson for TLR, said in an email: “[Lucio] has fought to ensure Texas’ legal system is fair and efficient throughout his legislative career.”
Perhaps Lucio’s zeal for tort reform proves he’s a sort of stealth Republican. In a one-party town like Brownsville, where the GOP is a non-factor, a de facto Republican might reasonably don the Democratic label. But the senator rejects the notion. “The business people here in my district, they were Hispanic and they were Democrats, but of course they agreed with the Republicans on this particular issue,” he told me, adding that his goal was simply to “balance” a system that had tipped too far in plaintiffs’ favor. Today, the fight over civil justice is much quieter at the Capitol, mostly because one side already won: TLR’s PAC now sits on more than 20 times as much cash as the Texas Trial Lawyers Association.
Lucio’s love of business has also led him into some of capitalism’s shadier corners: In the early aughts, he worked as a consultant for the private prison industry. He even helped cinch a deal in Willacy County for an immigrant detention tent facility that would eventually become the site of a notorious riot.
The senator believes himself loyal to his district and his creed. Besides the bills to help kids with autism, he cites as major accomplishments a 2001 constitutional amendment funding roads in colonias, poor subdivisions often lacking basic services, and his 2005 bill creating a life without parole option for juries in capital felony cases, which led to a reduction in death penalty sentences. His opponents, meanwhile, are betting Lucio is overdue for a taste of his own incumbent-toppling medicine.
Lucio’s two primary challengers are Sara Stapleton-Barrera, a 35-year-old trial lawyer whose father chaired the Cameron County Dems in the ’90s, and Ruben Cortez, a sitting member of the State Board of Education who won re-election last year.
Stapleton-Barrera practices injury and constitutional law and criminal defense, but she’s politically inexperienced. Her campaign is founded on the idea the district needs new blood and on a promise to prioritize women and children. She’s been endorsed by the Cameron County Democratic Women, has said Lucio’s not a “real Democrat” and condemned his anti-equality views. “I’m 110 percent supportive of the LGBTQ community,” she told me over the phone. She’s also stressing the need for renewable energy and addressing climate change, an area where Lucio may be vulnerable: The senator voted to kill Denton’s fracking ban in 2015, and wrote a letter of support in March for one of three controversial liquefied natural gas plants proposed east of Brownsville. Stapleton-Barrera opposes the gas plants.
Seven months before writing the letter of support, Lucio accepted $5,000 from the company, Exelon, proposing the natural gas plant. Over the phone, Lucio told me he couldn’t remember who requested the letter and said his support for the gas plants depends on them operating in an environmentally “safe” way.
Stapleton-Barrera also hits Lucio for his tort reform record. “He’s taking money from the insurance companies and leaving people injured in a car wreck or by medical malpractice high and dry,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t take money from any PACs including TLR.
On abortion, Stapleton-Barrera is to Lucio’s left, but may not excite pro-choice advocates. In an email to me, she stole a line from the 1990s, saying abortion should be “legal, safe, and rare.” When pressed, she told me she would not support any further restrictions on abortion and would consider any measures loosening restrictions on a case-by-case basis. Her online platform doesn’t mention reproductive rights at all, and she told me she’s not making it a prominent part of her campaign because many in her district are anti-abortion.
Cortez has served on the state education board since 2013 and used his role to fight for Mexican-American studies; before that, he was on the Brownsville school board. In 2018 in Lucio’s senate district, Cortez got more votes than any other candidate, including Beto O’Rourke. (Lucio was not on the ballot.) Cortez, who currently represents an area larger than the state senate district, is attacking Lucio’s liberal bona fides. In a recently-posted bilingual announcement video, he slams Lucio for “consistently break[ing] his promise to carry forward the Democratic Party values” and accuses the senator of siding with “Trumpist Republicans” against Valley residents. According to the video, Cortez has endorsements from three local teachers’ unions and a letter carriers’ union.
But Cortez’s grasp of Lucio’s record appears a bit shaky. In the video and a separate post, he hits the senator for supporting a bill this year to allow more guns in schools, even linking the vote to the recent mass shooting in El Paso. Lucio, however, voted against that bill both in committee and on the floor. (Hinojosa, the McAllen-based state Senator, is the one who broke party ranks.) Cortez did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Money could be a problem for both challengers. In the first half of this year, Stapleton-Barrera raised around $4,000 and took about $20,000 in loans from her husband; as of July, Cortez had only about $1,000 on hand. Lucio couldn’t fundraise during the legislative session, but in the second half of last year he pulled in almost $350,000.
Sylvia Gonzalez-Gorman, a political science professor at UT-Rio Grande Valley, said both challengers will struggle to overcome Lucio’s connections and name recognition. Although she gave Cortez slightly better odds, due to his campaign experience, she said Stapleton-Barrera’s identity as a young woman should be an asset. “She’s really banking on this generational, gender shift we saw play out in the 2018 midterms,” Gonzalez-Gorman said, adding that many Valley voters want political change, as evidenced by Oliveira’s surprise defeat last year. She also pushed back on the idea that Latinxs in the Valley hold pro-life views. Surveys have shown that U.S.-born Hispanics are majority pro-choice, and that Evangelicals, not Catholics, are the backbone of the pro-life movement.
Lucio, who would be nearly 75 at the start of the next legislative session, gave me three reasons—really one reason by three names—that voters should re-elect him: “experience, seniority, and a track record.” The third-most senior senator, Lucio chairs one Senate committee and vice-chairs another. His top priority going forward, he said, is using his campaign to promote census participation in the Valley and leveraging his experience during the 2021 legislative redistricting process to ensure his home region doesn’t lose influence. “But I don’t want people to think I want to be there forever, or die in office,” he noted, saying he’d “very seriously” consider resigning after one more term.
In Cameron County, the long-held expectation has been that Lucio would hand off his Senate seat to his son, state House Representative Eddie Lucio III, a plan that would be disrupted if the elder Lucio were knocked off this cycle. Representative Lucio did not respond to a request for comment.
For his part, Senator Lucio is counting on his old ways to see him through. “Maybe there’s a new wave I’m not aware of,” he conceded, but “my faith leads me to my decision making. … I won’t change that because of modern trends.” In six months’ time, then, comes a referendum on modernity.
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