In TX, Latinos pass on opportunity to win congressional seat

by Nathan L. Gonzales September 17, 2013 · 10:17 AM EDT

Robert “Beto” O’Rourke defeated 16-year incumbent Silvestre Reyes in last year’s Democratic primary in a West Texas congressional district. Now the Anglo congressman is running for re-election in a district that is 78 percent Hispanic, but no Latino candidates are stepping up to challenge him next year.

Why not?

If O’Rourke were running in a majority black district, he wouldn’t be given a free ride. White Democrat Steve Cohen represents the Memphis-based 9th District of Tennessee, which has a black voting age population of 64 percent.

Cohen was initially elected in 2006 with less than a third of the vote in the Democratic primary when multiple African-American candidates divided up the black vote. Even though he has done a good job of locking up institutional black support over the years, the Tennessee congressman has still faced an African-American challenger in each of the last three primaries.

But even though there is no shortage of Latino elected officials (and potential congressional candidates) in Texas’ 16th District, multiple factors are keeping them on the sidelines in 2014.

Reyes was first elected in 1996 and became the first Latino to represent the El Paso area in Congress. He defeated multiple candidates in the primary and carved out a relatively moderate voting record in the House.

In the meantime, state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh and El Paso Mayor Ray Caballero led a movement to elect more liberal Democrats to state and local office and created a powerful political machine. Defeating an old guard politician like Reyes was just a continuation of the plan, and O’Rourke was in place to do it.

O’Rourke was a popular El Paso city councilor with deep family roots in the district. His father was a former county commissioner and judge who switched parties to run for Congress as a Republican in 1992. He lost, but his son won last year when he defeated Reyes by less than 3,000 votes.

The freshman congressman is regarded as a hard worker and gifted politician whose office is given high marks for constituent service. But one of the biggest reasons why he isn’t likely to face a primary is because many aspiring Latino candidates are also allies of Shapleigh.

Up and coming Latino politicians include El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar, state Rep. Marisa Marquez, state Sen. Jose Rodriguez (who replaced Shapleigh in the legislature), and former El Paso city councilman Steve Ortega, who lost a bid for mayor earlier this summer. But none of them will challenge O’Rourke.

State Rep. Joe Moody (who is Mexican American) isn’t regarded as a member of the inner circle, but local observers say he has a bright political future. He was elected to the Legislature in 2008, lost his competitive seat in 2010, and regained it in 2012. But Moody is focused on getting re-elected next year.

Another reason for the lack of the primary could be that O’Rourke said he supports term limits for Members of Congress. Even though he didn’t specifically say how long he would serve, conventional wisdom is that he won’t be around long and the seat will open up. Maybe then a Latino candidate will run.

But Texas’s 16th District is just one example of a more fundamental issue. Latinos appear to be more willing to be represented by non-Latino candidates.

“You either have to be brown or be brown at heart,” Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the Texas House’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus, told the Texas Tribune about MALC’s philosophy of accepting non-Latino legislators to their group. Fischer’s comments summarize the feelings of multiple other Latino sources in the 16th District.

But there is a potential political consequence for that openness. If Latinos aren’t getting elected to represent Latino-majority districts, it will be more difficult to increase the number of Latinos holding higher office.