in Houston, Texas

Ciro Rodriguez, Pete Gallego poised for runoff in Democratic primary for Texas’ congressional District 23

Wednesday, May 30, 2012, 02:29AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
voter registration

EAGLE PASS, Texas - After a round of high fives for what would have been a primary night triumph, someone let Victor Perry know the numbers were wrong. Very wrong.

Perry, who had in 2010 taken over a Democratic Party in Maverick County in complete disarray, had set a goal of bringing out 12,000 Democratic voters for Tuesday’s primary.

With a turnout like that, Perry predicted, Maverick County could help determine the winner in the congressional race in District 23 between state Rep. Pete Gallego, former U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez and newcomer John Bustamante.

A text message while he was analyzing the local return for the local cable television Channel 13 reported 12,149 voters had come out. The actual number of Democrats was actually 7,449, a little more than 25 percent of the roughly 28,000 registered voters in the county.

More than 1,000 of those voters didn’t bother to cast a vote for Congress. Rodriguez, a big favorite here, got 3,784 votes. Gallego got 2,119 and Bustamante 566.

With 99 percent of the precincts in in the 29-county, 48,000-square-mile district, Rodriguez appeared headed to a runoff with Gallego, with 46 percent of the vote to Gallego’s 41 percent. The winner will take on incumbent Republican Francisco “Quico” Canseco.

Perry stepped away from the live election show downcast and searching for answers. Maybe redistricting and the last-minute changes made to local precincts by the county commissioners. Maybe moving the primary back from March to May 29.

“It’s extremely disappointing,” Perry said, not bothering to hide his disappointment. “There is nothing we can do but go back to the drawing board and figure out what happened.”

Insurgents, including Tea Party activists who promised to clean house in Republican congressional primaries, may want to return to the drawing board, too.

Rep. Ralph Hall in District 4, Rep. Joe Barton in District 6 and Rep. Lamar Smith in District 21 scored convincing Republican primary wins despite efforts to target entrenched Republicans in Congress.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, shunted by redistricting into a heavily Bexar County District 35, garnered more than 73 percent of the vote.

Wes Riddle, a first-time candidate in District 25, won a Tea Party victory by making his way into what looked to be a runoff with former Secretary of State Roger Williams and ahead of former Railroad Commission chairman Mike Williams.

The biggest surprise among congressional primaries was first-time candidate Beto O’Rourke’s victory over longtime Rep. Silvestre Reyes.

O’Rourke secured just over 50 percent of the vote to Reyes’ 44 percent.

In another, lesser surprise, Steve Stockman and Stephen Tackach headed to a runoff in congressional District 36, leaving a favorite, state Sen. Mike Jackson, out.

And in no surprise at all, state Rep. Marc Veasey garnered 37 percent of the vote to earn a runoff with Domingo Garcia with 25 percent in the Dallas area’s new congressional District 33.

In Eagle Pass, there were earlier in the day portents of a low voter turnout and low interest in the race for Congress.

Ricardo Daniel Jr., candidate for constable, had been out in front of the polling place at Kennedy Hall School since 8 a.m. Tuesday chatting up voters.

Maverick County TexasMaverick County, TX

For miles in either direction on Del Rio Boulevard volunteers had put up dozens of signs for the sheriff, court of appeals and Daniel’s constable races. Among them were a handful of modest, green-and-black signs promoting Rodriguez for U.S. Congress for the 23rd District. There were almost no signs for his opponents, the state representative for this city and Maverick County, Gallego, and first-time candidate Bustamante.

“Until you just brought it up, I hadn’t heard anyone say anything about that race, and I’ve been here all day,” Daniel said, sitting in a fold-out chair under a stand of big trees. “Come to think about it, that’s weird.”

Or perhaps not. Officials with the Democratic Party in this border county 150 miles southwest of San Antonio had worked for weeks urging voters to come out for the primary. Perry, the party chairman for Maverick County, said he truly believed that Maverick County could make a difference in the congressional race if their work brought people to the polls.

Perry is fond of paraphrasing Luis Gutierrez, a congressman from Illinois, whose calls for increased voter participation among Hispanics he referred to as “waking a sleeping giant.”

Just four hours before the polls closed, Perry said he was not sure he had succeeded in awakening the giant. Maverick County has 28,000 registered voters with a potential for 35,000, Perry said. Perry set a goal to bring out 12,000 of those voters today. In 2010, about 7,000 people voted in the primary.

In 11 days, 4,700 people voted, not a record but one of the highest early voting totals in years. In 2010, 3,100 people cast early ballots, Perry said. Whether or not this was a forecast, Perry said he can’t be sure.

“I tried to be very forceful in my message,” Perry said. “Voters here need to be better informed. By that I mean they need to know that if they come to vote that their vote will be counted.”

While Perry steadfastly resisted endorsing any of the candidates, it was clear he thought heavier than usual voter turnout would be a big boost to Rodriguez, the former congressman, who was beaten in 2010 by Canseco.

Rodriguez continues to have solid support in the southern node of District 29. Jose Martinez, who has spent nearly 20 years in local politics, most recently on the city council in Big Wells in neighboring Dimmit County, said he thinks people find Rodriguez more approachable than Gallego.

“I’ll tell you the difference,” Martinez, who stopped in to Maverick County Democratic headquarters, said. “With Ciro, people asked him to take care of senior citizens and veterans, and he came through. He’s always done what he said he would do.”

Ciro RodriguezCiro Rodriguez

However, neither Rodriguez nor Gallego, who was considered the favorite district-wide, spent much time or money in Maverick County, hence the absence of yard signs and billboards.

The perception is that Maverick County doesn’t get out the Democratic vote unless voters are motivated. Why spend the money? Perry said that without the money for advertising to spur interest voter turnout can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“I have to say, I haven’t really seen any of the three here in Maverick County, and that’s a shame,” Perry said. “I have tried to convey that Maverick County could be a force to be reckoned with.”

Pete GallegoPete Gallego

Money is less an issue with Gallego than his opponents. As of May 9 he had $83,387 remaining after having raised more than $656,000. Rodriguez raised $242,000 during the same period and had $61,074 left. Bustamante had just $1,546 remaining, but had raised only about $28,000.

Perry has no complaints about Gallego’s service to the county during his 11 terms representing House District 74. He has been active in the House on criminal justice, ethics and public education issues.

Still, Perry said he finds Gallego “distant.”

Rodriguez made clear to the people of Maverick County that he was willing to work to win back the seat, Juanita Martinez, a volunteer whose shirt carried Maverick County Democrats embroidery, said.

But, Perry said, even supporters wondered if Rodriguez would be the strongest Democrat to win back the 23rd District after having once lost to Canseco.

In the shade in front of Kennedy Hall School, no one could say whether voters of Maverick County had spent much time considering which candidate was more electable.

“It’s been very slow all day,” Daniel said. “The sheriff’s race, people are talking about. Ciro and Pete? I haven’t heard their names come up.”

Editor's Note: This story was updated with new vote totals.

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of voter registration card by flickr user bluepoint951, used via a Creative Commons license.

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