Facing the South

Two candidates, four campaigns in the two-headed 25th district

Facing the South
Photo By Jana Birchum

If you want to get from one end of the 25th Congressional District to the other without actually leaving the district, you have to walk. Not the entire 330 miles – but right in the middle, across the Live Oak/Duval county line. No road (at least none I could find, on the ground or on a map) crosses this line through the gas fields and ranches and prickly pear, where the urban needs of most of the district's voters, crowded at its very ends, seem very far away. (This point is much closer to both Corpus Christi and Laredo – and to six other congressional districts – than it is to either Austin or McAllen.)

Across the Live Oak/Duval line, CD 25 lacks more than just asphalt to connect it. The new Texas congressional map is filled with bizarre and frightening shapes, but only CD 25 has two heads. The northern half – from Travis south to Live Oak – is about 45% Hispanic and is dominated by the Austin metro area. The southern half – from Duval south to Hidalgo – is more than 90% Hispanic and is dominated by the Rio Grande Valley, from McAllen west to Falcon Reservoir. And so, there are not really two campaigns to be the Democratic nominee – and heavily favored in November – for the new CD 25.

There are four.

When in their respective back yards, appealing to their bases of support, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin and former District Judge Leticia Hinojosa of McAllen make scant mention of each other. In the north, Doggett is running against Tom DeLay and the GOP, who have tried to redistrict his 30-year career to an abrupt end and wipe Austin off the congressional map. In the south, Hinojosa is running to be the first Latina to represent Texas in Congress, coming up from Valley poverty to offer another needed voice for her needy neighbors – among the neediest neighbors in the entire nation.

But when the two venture onto each other's turf, the CD 25 race has the edge one expects of a high-stakes battle to save careers and shape the future of the Democrats in Texas. In Austin, Hinojosa is being backed by Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, who insists his snub of Doggett is nothing personal, even as both he and Doggett offer evidence to the contrary. In the Valley, Doggett has lined up support from dozens of elected officials and union leaders, including his erstwhile rival for the seat, state Rep. Kino Flores of Palmview.

One may think, as Flores thought when he decided not to run himself, that Doggett's $2.3 million war chest, years of high political profile, and solid support in Travis Co. are too much for any challenger to overcome. But Flores also famously blurted out, when Doggett first announced, that the thought of a monolingual Anglo representing the Valley blew his mind; for many South Texans, "Doggett" will be the only Anglo name on their local ballot. Despite his resources and résumé, Lloyd Doggett is in for the closest race of his career. And he knows it.


Something Old, Something New

In Austin, Lloyd Doggett is as much of an icon as remains in local politics; he's been on the ballot – as state senator, Texas Supreme Court justice, and congressman – since 1973, and he hasn't lost an election since 1984, when his Cinderella campaign for U.S. Senate got swamped by Phil Gramm and the Reagan landslide. He hasn't faced a credible challenger since 1996's Doggett vs. Doggett showdown (his opponent, despite having divorced and remarried, is still Teresa Doggett Taylor and is now running in the GOP-only CD 10 contest), and he's never faced a credible Democratic primary opponent (no offense to Jennifer Gale) in his five prior congressional races. That's what worries him. "I have people come up to me here [in Austin] and assume I've already won the election," he says. "But only one of every five or six of those people can vote for me on Election Day. Unless I can motivate a lot of people in Austin to turn out, to volunteer, to participate in an election that's happening in just a few weeks, my career is over.

"We ended up with well over 1,000 people at the sham redistricting hearings" in Austin in the spring, Doggett continues. "If people in Travis County don't vote, all that will have been for naught. Tom DeLay will have won. ... He set out to destroy me and any voice for Austin in Congress." Doggett comments on a recent barrage of GOP ads in the CD 10 race: "I saw one Republican candidate after another try to demonstrate how they're more right-wing than the next guy." (Or gal, in Taylor's case.) "I'm afraid the people of Austin won't realize how they've been disenfranchised by Tom DeLay until this election's over."

Doggett will, until January 2005, represent CD 10; his address-of-record still lay within that district in its new Austin-to-Houston incarnation. (A last minute redraw to include Doggett in CD 10 made the three-way Austin split even weirder than it already was.) Which has set up rhetorical questions: Is Lloyd Doggett the incumbent? Did Tom DeLay redraw Doggett's district down to the border? Or is this a new district, designed to be an open seat, in which Doggett should be given no breaks? Both Barrientos and Hinojosa have said the latter, and Doggett says that's hogwash. "I've been amazed by how many well-renowned people have seized on this concept – that I'm leaving my district and running in a new one. I've represented as many people in Travis County, for as long, in CD 25 as I have anyone in CD 10. In Austin, there's nothing 'new' for me about this district."

It's not certain the redistrictistas designed CD 25 to be an open seat. It's the only district in which Doggett, or any other Austin Democrat, stands much of a chance, but it also offered a congenial home to current CD 15 congressman Rubén Hinojosa (no relation to Leticia), whose district office in McAllen (though not his home in Mercedes) is now in CD 25. After the GOP got through with CD 15 – which now stretches all the way to Bastrop – it included the most conservative boxes in Hidalgo and Cameron counties and relatively GOP-friendly counties in the Coastal Bend. Thus, a race pairing Doggett and Rubén Hinojosa – which Doggett would be loath to make and prone to lose – in CD 25 would leave an opening for a Latino Republican in CD 15.

Rubén Hinojosa has declared his neutrality in the CD 25 race, but Ciro Rodriguez of San Antonio – who currently represents some of Hidalgo Co. and all of Duval, Jim Hogg, and Starr counties – encouraged Doggett to run for the new seat, Doggett says. (Rodriguez is facing a tough primary challenge from former state Rep. Henry Cuellar in his new CD 28, which stretches north to Buda.) Doggett also insists that he discussed his plans with Barrientos, on several occasions, before making his announcement. (Barrientos flatly claims otherwise; see "Barrientos on CD 25," p.36.)

Though the congressman and the senator both claim their differences are but civil ones between colleagues, both are somewhat less than convincing. This is the second time that Doggett has gotten in the way of Barrientos' running for Congress himself, and as the election grows nearer, the two are having more and more trouble playing nice. After the Austin Tejano Democrats endorsed Leticia Hinojosa, Doggett told the San Antonio Express-News that his own endorsement by the United Farm Workers (awarded last weekend in Pharr) was a lot more meaningful than her support from "the Barrientos family political club." Barrientos retorted, "I might get up a little more energy for this campaign" if Doggett keeps it up.


Fine Distinctions

The Barrientos camp, and a handful of behind-the-scenes players, are the only stars of the Austin Democratic firmament to not embrace the Doggett gospel: If he loses, Tom DeLay wins; they'd vote against Jesus Christ himself to preserve an Austin voice in Congress; they actually believed what the Killer D's and Texas 11 – including Barrientos, they note bitterly – said all summer about Texas Anglo Democrats' valuable experience and sterling record at representing people of color. But Hinojosa herself is not discouraged. "I know Austin is rightfully very angry about redistricting," she says. "I hope I don't feel the backlash, because I'm not an enemy of Austin. If people feel and realize that I intend to represent them with the same zeal as I've served South Texas during my career, I hope they'll be OK with it. But I can see why Austinites feel so strongly about this race."

"It's a different dynamic," she continues. "It's a new district, and people in Austin will have to share a member of Congress with South Texas. And people in South Texas have to realize the same thing – I couldn't exclusively be their representative either. Whoever wins has to represent a large area and be fair to both sides." Hinojosa feels the two-headed district should be receptive to the message behind her effort to be the first Tejana in Congress. "If anybody's going to be open to supporting that kind of diversity, it's going to be Austin. These two very special parts of Texas can partner to break that last racial and gender barrier."

To Hinojosa, the citizens and needs at both ends of CD 25 are more alike than different, and not just in ethnic terms. "It's really the middistrict that's different – very rural and agricultural. And here in South Texas, agriculture is changing, but it's still largely a farming community. But East Austin is really very similar to McAllen and Mission – there's still a lot of need for infrastructure improvements, for access to educational opportunities. There are pockets of people in Austin and in McAllen that are more affluent, but mostly it's working people."

Austinites have argued that such similarities are only visible from 30,000 feet and disappear at ground level, but Hinojosa takes pains to emphasize her own familiarity with the capital city. "When people tell me, 'Welcome to Austin,' I almost feel a little offended," she says, "because I lived here for a quarter of my life." After graduating from UT Law, she worked for years at Legal Aid of Central Texas before returning to the Valley in the mid-1980s; she was first elected to a county-court-at-law seat in 1989, becoming the first female judge in the Valley, then moved up to a district court seat in 1996. As a Texas Ex and as a lawyer and judge, she has maintained an Austin network – "It's a pretty good cross section of the community in the district" – which she is now tapping to lend support to her campaign. Nonetheless, she notes, "I wish there was more time during this campaign for me to spend more time in Austin."

Leticia Hinojosa (middle left) campaigning with state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City
Leticia Hinojosa (middle left) campaigning with state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City (Photo By Mike Clark-Madison)

Despite her sense of CD 25's symmetry and similarity, Hinojosa faces a disadvantage up north that Doggett doesn't face down south. She's asking Austinites to trade in a congressman who she concedes has served them well, while either she or Doggett would represent a net gain for the Valley. If she and Doggett differ on issues, Hinojosa suggests, those are issues of greater weight in South Texas.

"There's probably not much difference on social issues – women's issues, civil rights, stuff like that," she says. (And, so far, they appear to be the same on immigration-specific border issues.) "But on trade issues, there might be. He's received endorsements from the unions, which are opposed nationally to trade issues that impact South Texas economically. On the inheritance tax – which is a big issue here, where people are land-rich and cash-poor – I would have voted differently on that. On funding issues, he voted against certain things I would have voted for – for concerns in South Texas, like the colonias."

Doggett concedes that his general fiscal conservatism (he's a favorite Democrat of the anti-deficit Concord Coalition) may have led him to vote against projects buried in porky omnibus spending bills. "So far, there's been a vague attack that I don't vote the way any other Democrat votes," he says. "I think it's important to be both effective and efficient, and I think it's OK to question spending proposals to keep the deficit from getting out of control." He adds that "for more than a year, people in the Valley have been praising my record in Congress" – as part of the fight against redistricting. "Now they're trying to find something to draw distinctions, but I think they'll have to do a lot more combing."

Doggett also claims that, despite running to his fiscal left in the Valley, Hinojosa has campaigned in the district's more conservative center, in Live Oak and Karnes counties, raising alarms about Doggett's lack of support from right-wing "GOP front groups" like the National Federation of Independent Business. "If she's embraced their agenda, then we have major differences." As for the other issue everyone in Austin brings up – Doggett's unstinting opposition to the war in Iraq – he sees no backlash so far in South Texas. "There are obviously active veterans' groups in the Valley," he says, "but what I've heard so far are grave concerns about the differences between this war and prior wars."


"Nosotros" vs. Austin?

Hinojosa claims that Doggett's conscious choices to stand on his principles – alone, or (on fiscal issues) with the GOP, as necessary – are not what her constituents need. "I'm a pragmatist; I'll do what's best for the district, and I intend to make my votes count," she says. "We need to take what we can get to improve the lives of our constituents. As a woman and as a minority ... sometimes we have to take a lot of baby steps to achieve our goals. As a judge, I learned that you have to have consensus; a win-lose situation is not very effective. I think that may give me an advantage in getting things done that Mr. Doggett lacks."

In the Valley – especially in the poorest parts of the Valley, like McAllen's south side or Starr Co. or the colonias – Hinojosa's message to voters is not about being effective or pragmatic or less polarizing than Doggett. It's about being one of them. Her radio ads on local stations, in Spanish, open with "I'm Leticia Hinojosa, and I grew up poor in the Valley." In person and in media, she talks about living in a one-room house in Brownsville and losing her father when she was young, about her mother supporting the family working at Kroger and depending on Social Security payments, about how even going to college – let alone becoming a lawyer and then a judge – were accomplishments not to be disparaged. Especially for a woman.

In Austin, Hinojosa's message of "life experience" sounds like a euphemism for ethnicity, but in the Valley, where being Mexican-American is the norm and thus not really an "asset," the gender and class elements of her "life experience" come to the fore. Even in the Valley, Hinojosa is still the underdog, as measured by typical political standards, with less money, fewer endorsements, and less on-the-ground organization than Doggett. All of this is only partly outweighed by her name ID; though she's a longtime elected official and public figure in Hidalgo Co., she's never been on the ballot in Starr, Jim Hogg, or Duval. It certainly helps Hinojosa that she's running against an Anglo, but nobody knows how much, because it happens so rarely in the Valley.

So Hinojosa's campaign – partly as strategy, partly because that's just who she is – has started to polish a people vs. power appeal to neutralize Doggett's establishment advantages. "The only endorsements that matter are those of the people on Election Day," she says, adding that Doggett's ever-growing list of Valley-elected officials comes with potential liabilities. "From the outside, it looks like a good thing to be endorsed by the mayor. But really, that means half the town is against you because they don't like the mayor."

Starr Co. – the poorest in the nation – is such a place, and as of last week it was clearly Hinojosa country. (Doggett has picked up the support of Starr Co. Commissioner Jaime Alvarez, running for re-election himself – overnight last weekend, Alvarez's big yellow signs each sprouted a little blue Doggett sign in the corner.) As she handed out Valentine's Day flowers (with her campaign sticker attached) to attendees at a pachanga at a senior center in Roma, she barely mentioned Doggett at all – the key word in her message being "we." (Well, "nosotros.") We in the Valley have enormous needs for federal assistance; we need a voice for the Valley in Congress. Just as Doggett aims to do in Austin, Hinojosa is depending on voters like these – Spanish speakers who've barely heard of Lloyd Doggett – to get to the polls March 9. That they will vote for her goes without saying.

The center itself – a modest affair by any standards – provides essential health care for dozens, if not hundreds, of older people, and its medical director (a very important figure in these voters' lives) joined state Rep. Ryan Guillen in echoing Hinojosa's message – "Every day," said Guillen, "I see just how much help we need along the border." Guillen's friend and campaign manager Leo Lopez is Hinojosa's Starr Co. guy. He's also cousin to our own Rep. Eddie Rodriguez and a childhood friend of Council Member Raul Alvarez, both of whom have endorsed Doggett.


A Family Affair

And Raul Alvarez is cousin to Jaime Alvarez (and Jaime's brother Chuy, a county-court-at-law judge, and their father Chema, Jaime's predecessor). In other words, Hinojosa is not alone in working the Austin-Valley pipeline to secure support. Doggett says he's planning an event for later in the campaign bringing his Austin backers with Valley roots, like Rodriguez and Alvarez, down to South Texas to sing his praises.

"My first trip to Hidalgo County was more than 20 years ago," he says, during his U.S. Senate campaign, and Doggett cites longtime friends – his former Texas Senate colleague the late Raul Longoria of Edinburg and Dr. Ramiro Casso of Mission, the founder of the Valley's El Milagro Clinic – who told him last year, when Doggett's future first looked southbound, "'Lloyd, you have a lot of friends in Hidalgo County.' And I do. I have friends since the race against Phil Gramm, since my days on the Supreme Court, and who've followed my work in Congress. It gave me a credibility base, since I realized I needed someone to vouch for me – that I wasn't just an Anglo from Austin looking to feather my nest."

Beyond the friend-of-a-friend endorsements, Doggett's Valley strategy depends on convincing local leaders – people who, like Guillen, deal daily with the problems caused by the Valley's poverty and underdevelopment – that "my voting record is consistent with their area, and that the Valley, which has been left out a lot, is better off with someone who knows how to get things done in Washington than with someone new. It hasn't been a hard sell." This is why, he says, he's been able to pick up the important endorsements of the Rio Grande Valley Central Labor Council, the teachers and police unions, and most dramatically the United Farm Workers, who gave their nod to Doggett last weekend at their convention in Pharr. (He spoke to the gathering in English; his wife Libby spoke to them in Spanish.) "It's really meaningful," he said afterward, "to see the faces of those who so often put in a hard day's work and so often get left out. They're real people." (Hinojosa, who's been endorsed by the UFW in her local races in the past, claims that the unions in the Valley are responding to national pressures and that actual members will support her on March 9.)

After the UFW event, Doggett (and Hinojosa) journeyed west to Palmview, west of Mission, for the dedication of Irene M. Garcia Middle School. Garcia is also a real person, a longtime teacher and then board member in the La Joya ISD, and now a trustee of South Texas Community College, a very important institution in the Valley. She is also the mother-in-law of Kino Flores, whose initial rivalry, then official neutrality, in the CD 25 contest wasn't much in evidence as he and his family and supporters welcomed Doggett into their back yard. (Garcia's husband is mayor of Palmview; Flores' own father is mayor of Sullivan City. It's like that. Seemingly half the people in the room at the dedication – a very large crowd – were either former, current, or future elected officials.)

"It's a bridge that's still under construction," Doggett says of his new relationship with Flores. "But I think if Kino Flores had objections to my being in this race, his father and in-laws wouldn't be endorsing me publicly. What they want most is someone who will be effective, and part of that is being accessible. No doubt, Kino Flores' in-laws would rather see Palmview represented by Kino Flores than by me. But I've convinced them I can be effective."

Doggett says he's basically lived in Hidalgo Co. since December, and that during that time "a lot of people have seen more of me than they've seen of their congressman in years." What that suggests about Ciro Rodriguez or Rubén Hinojosa, or about Hinojosa's predecessor Eligio "Kika" de la Garza, Doggett leaves unsaid. (De la Garza, who represented CD 15 in Congress for 22 years and rose to become chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, is reportedly leaning toward a Doggett endorsement.) "In Peñitas, they'd never had a congressman sit down with them with a yellow pad and take notes about their issues.

"But I didn't have a preconceived notion of how to do this," Doggett continues. "I'm trying to compete actively in every county. In Travis County, the biggest obstacle is complacency. Here, it's the name." That is, an Anglo name. "Support from folks like the Farm Workers helps a lot, but the question will never really be settled."

Doggett says that, when he described CD 25 as "a district drawn to fail," he was mostly referring to constituent service – at least two offices, with two staffs fluent in two different sets of issues, each being held by Doggett to his legendary demanding standards. But the more basic political paradox of the two-headed district is not lost on the congressman seeking to represent it. "This district is set up for permanent conflict every two years. Unless anyone can build up strong support at both ends of the district and not just be a regional candidate, any representative's position will always be tenuous." end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

elections, CD 25, Live Oak County, Duval County, Lloyd Doggett, Leticia Hinojosa, Gonzalo Barrientos, United Farm Workers, Jaime Alvarez, Ryan Guillen, Leo Lopez, Eddie Rodriguez, Raul Alvarez, Ramiro Casso, Raul Longoria, Rio Grande Valley Central Labor Council, Kino Flores, Eligio Kika de la Garza

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