Barrientos on CD 25
Austin's state senator defends his endorsement of Leticia Hinojosa
"It was not an easy decision."
Austin state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos began by emphasizing that point, and would return to it at the end of the conversation, underlining each word: "It was not an easy decision." The difficult choice he was defending was his early and public endorsement of McAllen Judge Leticia Hinojosa for Congress in the new Congressional District 25, against the Travis Co. hometown favorite and 10-year incumbent in the pre-redistricting version of CD 10, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett. In making his declaration, Barrientos had described Hinojosa as having the requisite "life experiences" to represent the new 25, adding that Hinojosa "knows Austin both in terms of its potential and its problems."
In itself, the endorsement of one Democratic candidate by a Democratic officeholder was unremarkable except that in this case, it effectively left the senator out on a political limb, as the only prominent Travis Co. Democrat not backing Doggett in his attempt to survive the political devastation finally wreaked by congressional redistricting. Among Central Texas Dems, the conventional wisdom generally seems to be, "We'll dance with who brung us" but Barrientos has decided that in the new Texas politics, the old formula is just not going to work. In a conversation in his Capitol office last month with the Chronicle, Barrientos defended his endorsement by reference to the new political situation, as well as to the background of last year's redistricting wars.
"What I tried to do is look at the whole picture," said Barrientos, recalling his decision a couple of weeks after it had been made, and after he had been blasted in the Austin American-Statesman for abandoning his local constituency and placing "personal resentment" against Doggett above the interests of his constituents. The thrust of that editorial reaction might have been a little lost on Barrientos, still stinging from the newspaper's treatment of his candidacy in last year's senatorial campaign, when it endorsed Republican Ben Bentzin. To the Statesman's editors, the current race comes down to a question of regional loyalties, which they believe Barrientos has betrayed. "Barrientos noted that whoever is elected will represent the entire district, not just Austin," the editors wrote. "But the senator was elected to represent the best interests of his Austin constituents, not all the voters of the new 25th District."
Barrientos rejects that argument as narrow and shortsighted. "Let me put it this way," he began. "There's only a little part of [CD 25] that is my district, and most of that is on the Eastside, and a great percentage of those are minorities. I care about my district, my city, my state, and my country. I'm not going to sit here and have tunnel vision about this. Am I out on a limb? Politics is not about being safe and sound and cozy. Politics ... is doing what you think is right. And so I made a decision. ... There are some with whom I've talked who said, 'Oh, I never thought about it that way.' There are some who are saying, 'You're simply doing this because she's a Mexican-American and you're a Mexican-American.' How simplistic."
Barrientos seriously considered running against Doggett himself, and visited the southern end of the district to ask Democratic political leaders there if another candidate was available "who knows the district, knows the people, has had the same life experiences, and can communicate well." Later they called and told him, "'We want to present to you, Judge Leticia Hinojosa' who was born in Brownsville; grew up in a home that was humble, poor; whose mother was a union member who worked at Kroger's a single mom, her dad had died I think when she was 11. [She] came to the University of Texas, went to the University of Texas Law School, worked in Austin for Legal Aid, and left here about eight to 10 years ago. I talked to her, what she thought about several areas, issues, and I said, 'All right, I shall not run.'"
Barrientos acknowledges that on most issues the distance between Doggett and Hinojosa will not be large, and he minimizes the importance of Doggett's congressional seniority in the Republican-dominated Congress. But he emphasizes repeatedly that CD 25 is "76 percent minority, 66 percent Hispanic," and his brief for Hinojosa is simple and straightforward. "I think that the best candidate who filed is Judge Leticia Hinojosa, who, by the way, if she wins, will be the first Hispanic woman in the history of Texas to be in Washington. So one of the observations is that [the district] is obviously 66 percent Hispanic unless there is something very unusual, that should be a Hispanic who gets elected. Some people ask me, why are you getting blasted for this? What if that district was 66 percent African-American, and you endorsed Doggett? What would be the discussion and debate and argument then?" (For a more precise breakdown of the CD 25 demographics, see p. 28.)
A more caustic version of that argument is in fact being made over the new CD 9, a predominately African-American Houston-area district where incumbent U.S. Rep. Chris Bell is being challenged in the primary by African-American opponents. State Rep. Ron Wilson, the only black Democrat to support redistricting, insists that Bell's attempt to hold on to his office amounts to paternalistic racism by Democrats. Barrientos does not make that charge, and leaves to the voters in CD 25 whether race should play a factor in their decision. "That's a thought," he says. "It's a thought that has to be dwelled upon for a while, by the voters. Then they decide."
He also declines to criticize Doggett directly, repeating his public statements that Doggett "has represented Austin well." He dismisses out of hand the charge, repeated by the Statesman, that his choice reflects a decade-old grudge against Doggett, who in 1994 outmaneuvered him for the congressional opening. "That was 10 years ago," he repeated. "Since then, I have worked with Governor Bullock, Governor Ratliff, Governor Perry, Governor Dewhurst. ..." And of course, he's worked with Doggett. Yet, he does raise his eyebrows a bit when asked if Doggett consulted with him before declaring his candidacy. "The only thing I can say is, he had plans to run for Congress, and he didn't call me," he says. "Not that he should have I'm just one of the guys here." (Doggett says that, in fact, he did call Barrientos before declaring his candidacy.)
Had Doggett asked, Barrientos says, he would have advised him to run in the reconstituted CD 10 "since he's got $2.5 million, and he would have been competitive over there" a now-heavily Republican district anchored in Houston. Does he think any Democrat (none is running) would have a prayer in that race? "Who knows, unless you try?"
Barrientos takes great pains to explain that his endorsement must be set into the context of everything that has happened in Texas politics over the last year. He recounts the series of legislative battles over re-redistricting, the House Democrats' flight to Ardmore and the Senate Democrats' exile in Albuquerque, and his continuing conviction of final victory had Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, not defected from New Mexico and ended the stalemate. Only Whitmire's defection made it possible, he says, for the Republicans to beat the legislative, judicial, and electoral deadlines required to enable redistricting, and "only a few weeks" separated the Democrats from defeating the plan for this year. "We would have won I'm convinced. I don't care what Whitmire says."
Back to the Future
In that larger political context, Barrientos sees his endorsement of Hinojosa as one more step in the fight for better minority representation in Texas. But at least part of last summer's Democratic argument was that incumbent Anglo Dems who had represented minority Texans well as confirmed by their strong minority support should be allowed to continue to do so. Facing the new map which he calls "unscrupulous, unprincipled, and obscene" Barrientos argues that for those districts now anchored in Hispanic South Texas, and including (like CD 25) largely minority segments of Central Texas, the case for direct Hispanic representation is simply too strong. "I looked at the district," he repeats. "Seventy-six percent minority, 66 percent Hispanic, 52 percent of the vote is in Hidalgo and Starr Counties."
Although he and Doggett have in recent days exchanged fairly mild barbs, whatever happens in the race, Barrientos does not anticipate tension will linger among local Democrats. "In the primaries," he says, "all of us know there can be differences of opinion, and I think that's positive. That's the way we come to a clearer view, a clearer mandate of what we need to do as a society. I think we should remember, as John Kennedy said, civility is not a weakness."
What does he think the current Republican ascendancy, in Texas and Washington, means for the long-term fortunes of Democrats, and more broadly for social progress? Barrientos gestures at the family photographs dotting his office, and responds, "I won't rehearse my life story, I'm sure you've heard it, but we've been here before. We have to work harder, and those individuals who are still elected, they have to work harder. After that this is my son, this is my nephew, that's my daughter, that's my daughter, those are my grandchildren. And that's what we have to look forward to. They're going to be doing the same thing we've been doing all of our lives."
And then, once again, as we turn to leave: "It sure as hell was not an easy decision."