Gains in Congress elude Texas Latinos despite population boom, new districts

May 30, 2012

The boom in the number of Hispanic voters is radically changing the face of American politics, and there may be no better example than Texas, which picked up four new U.S. House seats after the 2010 Census.

But while Hispanics accounted for 65 percent of the state’s population growth between 2000 and 2010, Texas is poised to add no Latino lawmakers to its congressional delegation, after primary elections this week dealt a blow to those hopes.

Originally hailed by Latino leaders as a way to boost opportunities for their community, the newly redrawn Texas congressional map has led to a pair of white Democrats claiming the nominations in districts that were crafted with Latino majorities. The result could be that five of the state’s 36 congressional districts will be represented by Latinos when the 113th Congress convenes in January — exactly the number in the current 32-member delegation. The best-case scenario would have them claiming one-sixth of the state’s House seats.

Latino leaders are split on the developments. Some are dismayed that while Latinos account for 38 percent of Texas’s population, and were key to the expansion of the state’s House delegation, that may not be reflected in a larger Latino presence in the delegation.

“There’s the strong possibility we may get zero,” said Sylvia Romo, the tax collector for Bexar County, who lost her bid for the congressional nomination in a new district stretching from San Antonio to Austin. “We got four [new seats], and we Latinos could end up with zero.”


Former state solicitor general Ted Cruz, a Cuban American, forced Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst into the July 31 runoff for the GOP nomination to the U.S. Senate. If elected, Cruz would be the first Hispanic senator from Texas. (Nick de la Torre/AP)

Others suggest that it is up to candidates and campaigns to take advantage of the new demographic reality. Nine of the 36 Texas seats next year will be from Latino-majority districts.

“The purpose of increasing Hispanic political opportunities is not about sending more Hispanics to Congress. I don’t know why people think that way,” said Nina Perales, a lawyer at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). “It’s about increasing the voice of Latino voters. They can elect whoever they want.”

That increased Hispanic voice could help former state solicitor general Ted Cruz, a Cuban American, who forced Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst into a July 31 runoff for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate. That race will probably determine the state’s next senator, given Texas’s GOP tilt. Cruz would be the first Hispanic senator from Texas.

However, Texas will probably send three white Democrats from House districts that have a majority of Latino voters, including the new 35th District, where Romo was trounced by nine-term congressman Lloyd Doggett, and the 16th District in El Paso, where Robert “Beto” O’Rourke defeated eight-term congressman Silvestre Reyes in Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

In the new 34th District in southern Texas, two Latino candidates face each other in the runoff, but that prospective gain has been offset by the Reyes loss.

In another majority-Latino district, in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, state Rep. Marc Veasey, an African American, was the top vote getter, with 37 percent, and heads into a runoff election against former state representative Domingo Garcia, who received 25 percent. If Veasey, the best fundraiser in the primary, wins the July 31 runoff, that will assure no net gain in the number of Latino lawmakers representing Texas next year.

Perales, who helped lead MALDEF’s legal efforts in redistricting disputes, said the issue was not the map but the quality of the campaigns by candidates such as Romo and Reyes. MALDEF fought the initial map offered by the state legislature and one drawn by a lower federal court. After the Supreme Court ordered the lower court to draw up another map, which provided for two additional majority Latino districts, MALDEF signaled its tentative support.

That map carved up Austin into several different districts, leaving Doggett with the decision of jumping into a GOP-leaning district or running in the 35th District, stretching down to San Antonio, with nearly 60 percent of the constituents being of Latino descent. With his $3 million campaign war chest, Doggett overwhelmed Romo and another Latina candidate, collecting more than 73 percent of the vote.

Doggett said he would have preferred the initial federal court map, which kept more of his Austin area intact and gave Democrats a better chance at more seats overall, but he said he intends to be a voice for all his constituents.

“They are opportunity seats for Hispanics to get their candidates of choice, to elect their candidate of choice,” Doggett said in an interview on the eve of his victory.

Ultimately, Perales said, the Texas Latino community must register more of its people to vote. Once the 13-percentage-point gap between the total Hispanic population and registered Hispanic voters closes, the issue will drift away, she said.

“The march is forward, slow and steady,” Perales said. “The redistricting litigation is trench warfare. People don’t want to give up power, but the march is forward.”

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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