In sprawling Texas swing district, three Democrats vie for right to challenge Rep. Francisco ‘Quico’ Canseco

Thursday, May 24, 2012, 08:55AM CST
By Mark Lisheron
U.S. Capitol

Maverick County might just be the key to who wins the Democratic primary between John Bustamante, state Rep. Pete Gallego and former congressman Ciro Rodriguez in mammoth congressional District 23.

Gallego is the favorite. He has raised and spent at least two-and-a-half times as much money as Rodriguez, his chief rival. Gallego has secured most of the coveted endorsements, including that of Rodriguez and Bustamante’s hometown newspaper, the San Antonio Express-News.

But in Eagle Pass, the seat of Maverick County, 260 miles from Gallego’s home in Alpine, Gallego’s name and face are not as well known as Rodriguez’. Democrats here still think redistricting was responsible for Rodriguez losing his seat in Congress after two terms in 2010 to the current incumbent, Republican Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco.

This poor county where 95 percent of the 55,000 people are Hispanic has a reputation for defying the stereotype of an apathetic Hispanic electorate and sending voters to the polls when an investment in time and money produces a competitive race, Lydia Camarillo says.

Maverick County TexasMaverick County, TX

Camarillo, who has been working the district aggressively as the vice president of the non-profit Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, says motivated voters will make it a close race between Gallego and Rodriguez in Maverick County.

Camarillo isn’t sure who benefits the most from a motivated districtwide Hispanic electorate. All three candidates are Hispanic. But with a heavy concentration of voters in and around Bexar County, Gallego will be forced to spread his money thinner and cover more ground for his votes,
she says.

“Maverick County has a record of turning out. In races where the candidates are solid on issues it becomes a question of turnout. I expect it to be close. I’d never underestimate either (Gallego and Rodriguez) candidate,” Camarillo says.

The political fate of the district, roughly 48,000 square miles spread out in all or parts of 29 counties from El Paso County to San Antonio, is inextricably tied to redistricting. Most of the land is Gallego territory. A third of the voters are in the San Antonio area.

Hispanic groups who sued to challenge the redrawing of the state’s congressional districts by the Legislature repeatedly used District 23 as an example of how Hispanic voters were shortchanged by Republican hubris.

Even after the challenge made it to the Supreme Court, and back to the state of Texas, the litigants were dissatisfied with a district with a population that was more than 55 percent Hispanic but a tossup between Republicans and Democrats.

“Districts 23 and 27 have been lost, possibly forever,” Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas State Conference of the NAACP, and Luis Roberto Vera Jr., general counsel for the League of United Latin American Citizens wrote in an editorial in March. “The plan does create a new Latino district in Dallas-Fort Worth, but only at the detriment of all other Latinos and African-Americans in Texas. We are both proud of the creation of this new Latino district, but we believe that the cost is just too high.”

By lost, the writers were referring to political party rather than ethnic background. In 2004 after a rancorous redistricting, District 23 elected Republican Henry Bonilla. In 2006 after the lines were redrawn, voters elected Rodriguez and in 2010 they went again with a Republican, Canseco.

In each case, voters elected a Hispanic representative and each by a narrow margin.

Pete GallegoPete Gallego

In 1990, Gallego became the first Hispanic to represent state House District 74. The largest House district in the state with an area of 39,000 square miles encompasses much of the west Texas portion of District 23.

Gallego has been in the House ever since. He is currently the chairman of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and a member of the State Affairs and General Investigating & Ethics committees.

Gallego, 50, has served as Democratic House leader and chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.

During his tenure, Gallego has been a reliable Democratic vote. In the last session, Gallego was outspoken on increasing funding for the state’s public schools and in opposition to the voter ID bill passed by the Legislature.

State Democratic Party leaders encouraged and supported his run for Congress. His campaign has raised more than $656,000 through May 9 and he has $83,387 remaining. This compares to Rodriguez, who raised $242,000 and has $61,074 left and Bustamante, who raised about $28,000 and has just $1,546 in his coffer.

And yet, Gallego built his reputation as a consensus builder in an overwhelmingly Republican House. If elected, Gallego would continue to work with representatives from both parties to find solutions to what seem to be intractable problems like border security, Lonny Paris, his spokesman, says.

Repeated attempts to arrange an interview with Gallego through Paris failed. In a very brief exchange, Paris said the public wants a congressman with Gallego’s temperament.

“They’re very fed up with what’s going on in Washington,” Paris says. “They want people like Rep. Gallego who can reach consensus on legislation, who can be tough, but fair.”

Ciro RodriguezCiro Rodriguez

By contrast, Rodriguez, 65, has been working the district door-to-door almost from the time the last vote in his loss to Canseco had been counted, Camarillo says. “I don’t think he ever stopped campaigning,” she says. “He wasn’t going to stay out of it.”

Often, a candidate of Rodriguez’ pedigree is a favorite in a race like this. In addition to his most recent two terms in Congress, he served as the representative of the 28th congressional district for four terms until January of 2005 after five terms in the Texas House.

Redistricting played a role in both of his losses. But given that his last loss was to the current Republican incumbent and, if anything, the new boundaries made the district a little more conservative, Democratic voters are wondering if Rodriguez is the strongest challenger to Canseco, Camarillo says.

E-mailed requests by Texas Watchdog to interview Rodriguez were not answered by his campaign officials.

According to his campaign website, Rodriguez was a supporter of stimulus money to keep American public school teachers on the job. He supported large funding increases for health care for veterans. And Rodriguez voted for appropriations to put more patrol agents on the border with Mexico.

Rodriguez voted against bailing out Wall Street, but came back to support regulatory reforms on the same industry.

Were it not for scant funding, close observers like Camarillo think a serious candidate like Bustamante could have made the Democratic primary in District 23 much more interesting.

Bustamante says eschewing big funding for his first campaign is consistent with a message he has been delivering in person in the district.

“Our representatives are not out representing people,” Bustamante said in a phone interview with Texas Watchdog. “I’ve been out in the district for the past eight months, and many of the people I’ve talked to have never even seen their representative.”

John BustamanteJohn Bustamante

Bustamante, 35, a graduate of MIT and the University of Texas School of Law, wants to make sure seniors don’t lose their major federal benefits. He’d like to see veterans get enhanced benefits.

“It doesn’t matter what your ideology, we need Medicare and Social Security for our senior citizens,” he says.

ObamaCare, he says, doesn’t need to be scrapped. It needs to be adjusted and its costs curbed. He would call for a reform of water ownership laws to protect the overall resource.

Bustamante decries funding cuts to education at all levels. He would like to create a clearer, easier path for immigrants who come to this country to become citizens. And although he isn’t sure how it might be done, Bustamante wants to get money out of politics.

“I think we can all be better working together,” Bustamante says. “This politics of the individual has gone on for at least a decade. I think a whole lot about our freedoms, but we should never lose sight of our obligation to each other and our communities.”

Bustamante’s name is a familiar one to some in the district, although Camarillo says it is likely he will not benefit from being the son of Albert Bustamante.

The elder Bustamante was a popular congressman for the 23rd District from 1985 to 1993, but in that last year he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for racketeering and taking bribes.

“If there is institutional memory of his father it is both good and bad. It’s a wash,” Camarillo says.

It is clear from his Twitter posts that Gallego intends to spend a good part of the last days before the primary in the San Antonio area. Rodriguez and Bustamante have established their intention to work the streets hard.

Invested in and competitive? Very. Now it remains to be seen whether all the effort will motivate Hispanic voters in Maverick and 28 other counties.

“I don’t see Bustamante being in the race will force a runoff,” Camarillo says. “I think it’s a clear choice, one way or the other.”

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

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Thursday, 05/24/2012 - 09:13AM

CORRECTION- Rodriguez spent months "working the district door-to-door" in district 35! Congressmen should not get to choose their voters!