The Austin Chronicle

CD 25: It's a Small District After All

By Mike Clark-Madison, January 16, 2004, News

For the first time in his decadelong congressional career, Lloyd Doggett faces a serious opponent in the Democratic primary -- an unusual consequence of the congressional redistricting. Doggett, who even before last week's court approval of the new GOP map announced his intention to run in the new, heavily Democratic, District 25 -- stretching from North Central Austin 350 miles south to McAllen and the border -- will face Hidalgo Co. District Judge Leticia Hinojosa in the March 9 primary.

Both Hinojosa and Doggett (who for six weeks has been a de facto McAllen resident) brought their campaigns to Austin last week, highlighting the obvious -- indeed, superficial -- differences between them that each hopes will swing the contest their way. Hinojosa is of course Hispanic, as are about 70% of the potential voters in the new District 25, crafted by GOP mapmakers as a Hispanic-opportunity district, specifically to offset the de-Latinization of District 23 in West Texas to protect GOP incumbent Henry Bonilla. While both Hinojosa and her most celebrated local patron -- state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin -- firmly disclaimed that ethnicity should be the issue that decides the race, both made plenty of allusions to the differences in "life experience" that make Hinojosa, in their view, a superior candidate.

"Like myself," said Barrientos at a Thursday morning press conference -- meaning "unlike Lloyd Doggett" --"Leticia Hinojosa has lived and worked in both Travis Co. and the Rio Grande Valley." The 42-year-old former judge, first elected to the Hidalgo Co. bench in 1989, earned both her undergrad and law degrees at UT and later put in a stint working for Legal Aid of Central Texas. She echoed the theme later that day at her Austin debut at Nuevo Leon restaurant. "I'm not comparing myself to Lloyd Doggett" in terms of the issues, Hinojosa said, "but it's important that the representative have shared the experiences of the people they represent." (Reinforcing the "experience" gap, Hinojosa reprised much of this same message in Spanish.)

Is it not also important, she was asked, that those people be represented by an incumbent with seniority and a long record of fighting for minority rights and issues? (Those, of course, having been the major Democratic talking points during the last months of fight and flight.) "We all start out as freshmen," Hinojosa replied. "It's a new district that's intended to be represented by a new member."

For at least some South Texas Democrats, the GOP redistricting victory has left them with an awkward choice -- support incumbent congressional Democrats like Doggett, on whose behalf the state party waged its high-profile battle all year, or seize the opportunity to gain another member for the growing border region. Right now, the only congressman from the Valley is Rubén Hinojosa (no relation) of Mercedes, whose District 15 was likewise recarved into a "snake" that now stretches all the way to Bastrop; other portions of the border are represented by members from San Antonio and Corpus Christi.

All are Hispanic, however, and Hinojosa -- in her only direct reference to the political, rather than personal, distinctions between herself and Doggett -- noted that the Austin incumbent may not make a good fit for the South Texas delegation. "We would be similar on a lot of issues," she said, "though there would be some differences regarding economic development and bringing jobs to South Texas." She made reference to a "30% difference in votes" between Doggett and the South Texas incumbents but declined to elaborate. It's certainly true that Doggett has leaned further left -- on issues such as the Iraq war -- than most Democrats in Congress, of any ethnicity.

However, pols in the southern end of District 25 are by no means united behind Hinojosa, and Doggett -- with a campaign war chest exceeding $2 million and almost unanimous support in Travis Co. -- has in recent weeks won the support of one winner-seeking Valley Democrat after another. (Including, in an implicit response to another difference in "experience" between the two, all the female members of Hidalgo Co.'s 10 city councils.) Hinojosa and her backers say her late entry into the race -- she didn't want to resign her judgeship until it was clear that the map would be upheld in court -- led potential supporters to back Doggett, and that they'll change their minds now that they have a South Texas alternative. In the last week, that hadn't happened. Indeed, perhaps the highest profile of potential Valley endorsers -- state Rep. Kino Flores of Mission, who had intended to run for District 25 himself -- is now reportedly leaning toward Doggett, despite having said earlier that the thought of an Anglo representing the Valley "blows my mind." (Flores' father and in-laws, all elected local officials in Hidalgo Co., are already on Doggett's list of backers.)

Realistically, Doggett's strongest potential challenger was not a Valley Democrat at all, but Barrientos himself. The senator told reporters that his well-known pique at Doggett for knocking him out of the 1994 race to succeed Jake Pickle was "water under the bridge," but that he had intended to run himself in District 25, if a Valley candidate did not emerge. Barrientos is the only Travis Co. elected official to publicly endorse Hinojosa; at his own Eastside campaign event Tuesday at his new campaign headquarters, Doggett was flanked by almost everybody else in local party circles, and mutterings were frequent about Barrientos' numbered days of support from Travis Democrats.

The incumbent -- accompanied by U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., son of Ted -- made no reference to Hinojosa in his remarks; to hear Doggett tell it, he's running against U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLaywhose redistricting crusade specifically ID'd Doggett as a target for elimination. "Tom DeLay can try to pit one region, one race, one gender against another," Doggett said, "but we'll have none of it." Doggett, like Hinojosa, voiced a theme that reverses the Democratic spin of the last eight months -- that District 25 reflects an unnaturally "diverse" gerrymander that nobody can effectively represent. "The people of this district have unique challenges in their communities," Doggett said, "but our real problems" -- the demands for education, health care, community development, and other needs despised by the GOP -- "are the same."

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