I’ve been meaning to blog about this story about Rep. Gene Green and CD29 and how the Houston area has never sent a Latino to Congress, but I kept getting stuck and I finally decided I was overthinking it.
Two decades after local political leaders thought they had solved the demographic puzzle with a new “opportunity district” that is today three-quarters Latino, no Hispanic has represented it.
As of this election cycle, Houston remains the most Hispanic major metropolitan area in the country without a Latino elected to Congress, a distinction that could revitalize concerns about how historic the 1991 redistricting truly was. The dozen congressional lawmakers who represent Greater Houston’s 2.2 million Hispanics can say they are voices for the community, but Latino leaders worry that because none of them are of the community, Hispanics’ voice in Washington may be muffled.
“When people see the growth … where we’re at politically, I think more and more people are opining, ‘Hey, when are we going to do it?’ ” said Democratic consultant Marc Campos. “People are becoming a little bit more sophisticated about the demographics and what it means for our community.”
What it means is that potential Latino candidates, mollified with political savvy and dispirited by political incumbency, have demurred from challenging the non-Hispanic – Gene Green – who represents them in Congress, and according to some, has served his constituents well. But with each successive election, the path to reversing the trend seems increasingly daunting.
And it draws fresh attention to the challenge that animates community organizers, Democratic groups and even apolitical Hispanics who would like to see a more representative Houston metropolitan area, a lawmaker who can bellow into a megaphone in Spanish on the population’s behalf.
And every two years for the past 20, Hispanic voters in the 29th district have sent Green back to Congress. He does not speak Spanish, but political observers note how Green has shrewdly won over the Hispanic community by co-opting threatening Latino leaders and hustling to keep tabs on the community’s pulse. That has kept Hispanic challengers at bay.
“He’s a very smart politician and has done his homework in terms of coming home,” said Maria Jimenez, a longtime Hispanic organizer in Houston.
The district is rich with potential Latino candidates, such as Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and state Sen. Sylvia Garcia and Rep. Carol Alvarado. Hispanic leaders say there is a steady drumbeat of chatter about a Latino challenging Green in a primary, but Green has hired many of these prominent Hispanics over the decades and has built personal loyalties that area Latinos are reluctant to violate.
There is also a harsher political reality: Everyone knows Gene Green.
“If there’s five people meeting in the civic club, I tell you: Gene Green is there,” said Armando Walle, a Hispanic state representative from Houston who once worked for Green. “He can continue to be a member of Congress as long as he wants.”
Green, 66, returns to the district every weekend when Congress is in session and has earned a reputation as a workhorse. Green maintains that is what matters in his district.
“It’s more of a service-oriented district. People want to know what you’re doing to help,” Green said. “I don’t think I’d get re-elected or elected if I wasn’t doing the job.”
That philosophy is echoed in Hispanic Houston, where activists say Green has represented Latinos well in Washington despite not being a member of their community. Politically, that representation means that Green has not created an impetus for change – even if the seat was designed with a Latino lawmaker in mind.
“If you have a good member of Congress that represents their district well, I think it really comes down to – who is clamoring for change?” asked Joaquin Guerra, political director for the Texas Organizing Project in Houston. “When you have a 20-plus congressional incumbent, obviously they seem to be doing something right.”
You should read the whole thing if you missed it the first time around, it’s worth your time. At this point I’d say the betting odds are on Rep. Green representing CD29 until he retires, which would then trigger a gigantic free-for-all to succeed him. You never know with politics, of course, so it’s possible someone could successfully primary him. Campos doesn’t think people will want to wait.
Having a Dem Latino or Latina in Congress from the H-Town area would be empowering to the community. What is missing is an articulate voice for us in Congress like on a day when the immigration issue is front and center. Who is going to argue with that?
I don’t buy into the notion that just because the local Latino leaders aren’t for something, it won’t happen. I can still recall the spontaneous immigration marches a few years ago that local Latino leaders were scrambling to lead.
I can picture a scenario where an articulate bilingual Latino or Latina leader steps up, grabs an issue and captures the attention of the community. That is certainly not racist, that’s politics. This discussion isn’t going away.
Sure, that could happen, and I agree that if it were to happen it would likely be a talented newcomer who can inspire people to pose a serious threat to Rep. Green. The problem is that that’s not sufficient. Look at the recent history of Democratic primary challenges in Texas legislative races, and you’ll see that there are generally two paths to knocking off an incumbent that don’t rely on them getting hosed in redistricting. One is via the self-inflicted wounds of an incumbent with some kind of ethics problems – think Gabi Canales or Naomi Gonzales, for example – or an incumbent that has genuinely lost touch with the base. In the past decade in Texas that has mostly meant Craddick Democrats, though one could argue that Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s win over Silvestre Reyes had elements of that.
What I’m saying is simply that there has to be a reason to dump the current officeholder. Look no further than the other Anglo Texas Democrat in Congress for that. The GOP has marked Rep. Lloyd Doggett for extinction twice, each time drawing him into a heavily Latino district in the hope of seeing him get knocked off in a primary. He survived the DeLay re-redistricting of 2003, then he faced the same kind of challenge again in 2012. His opponent, Sylvia Romo, was an experienced officeholder running in a district that was drawn to elect a Hispanic candidate from Bexar County. Having interviewed her, I can attest that she’d have made a perfectly fine member of Congress. But she never identified a policy item on which she disagreed with Doggett, and she never could give an answer to the question why the voters should replace their existing perfectly good member of Congress and his boatload of seniority with a rookie, however promising.
That’s the question any theoretical opponent to Gene Green will have to answer as well. You need to do that to convince the voters, but even before you get to the voters you need to do that to convince the people who write checks and the people and organizations that offer endorsements, volunteers, credibility, and other kinds of support. I’m not saying that could never happen – anyone can get complacent or can fail to recognize when the political ground has shifted underneath them – I’m saying it has to happen for said candidate to have a chance. In the meantime, I don’t think anyone is going to get rich betting against Gene Green.