Will definitely want to keep an eye on this.
This cycle, [Sen. Eddie] Lucio’s record will be dissected as two opponents—one a trial lawyer and daughter of a former Cameron County Democratic chair, and another a current State Board of Education member—take aim at this titan of Rio Grande Valley politics. Can they persuade the voters of Lucio’s district, which is 89 percent Hispanic with a 37 percent poverty rate, to reject the Texas Senate’s most conservative Democrat, or will the 73-year-old prevail again?
Lucio’s two primary challengers are Sara Stapleton-Barrera, a 35-year-old trial lawyer whose father chaired the Cameron County Dems in the ’90s, and Ruben Cortez, a sitting member of the State Board of Education who won re-election last year.
Stapleton-Barrera practices injury and constitutional law and criminal defense, but she’s politically inexperienced. Her campaign is founded on the idea the district needs new blood and on a promise to prioritize women and children. She’s been endorsed by the Cameron County Democratic Women, said Lucio’s not a “real Democrat,” and condemned his anti-equality views. “I’m 110 percent supportive of the LGBTQ community,” she told me over the phone. She’s also stressing the need for renewable energy and addressing climate change, an area where Lucio may be vulnerable: The senator voted to kill Denton’s fracking ban in 2015, and wrote a letter of support in March for one of three controversialliquefied natural gas plants proposed east of Brownsville. Stapleton-Barrera opposes the gas plants.
Seven months before writing the letter of support, Lucio accepted $5,000 from the company, Exelon, proposing the natural gas plant. Over the phone, Lucio told me he couldn’t remember who requested the letter and said his support for the gas plants depends on them operating in an environmentally “safe” way.
Stapleton-Barrera also hits Lucio for his tort reform record. “He’s taking money from the insurance companies and leaving people injured in a car wreck or by medical malpractice high and dry,” she said, adding that she wouldn’t take money from any PACs including TLR.
On abortion, Stapleton-Barrera is to Lucio’s left, but may not excite pro-choice advocates. In an email to me, she stole a line from the 1990s, saying abortion should be “legal, safe, and rare.” When pressed, she told me she would not support any further restrictions on abortion and would consider any measures loosening restrictions on a case-by-case basis. Her online platform doesn’t mention reproductive rights at all, and she told me she’s not making it a prominent part of her campaign because many in her district are anti-abortion.
Cortez has served on the state education board since 2013 and used his role to fight for Mexican-American studies; before that, he was on the Brownsville school board. In 2018 in Lucio’s senate district, Cortez got more votes than any other candidate, including Beto O’Rourke. (Lucio was not on the ballot.) Cortez, who currently represents an area larger than the state senate district, is attacking Lucio’s liberal bona fides. In a recently-posted bilingual announcement video, he slams Lucio for “consistently break[ing] his promise to carry forward the Democratic Party values” and accuses the senator of siding with “Trumpist Republicans” against Valley residents. According to the video, Cortez has endorsements from three local teachers’ unions and a letter carriers’ union.
But Cortez’s grasp of Lucio’s record appears a bit shaky. In the video and a separate post, he hits the senator for supporting a bill this year to allow more guns in schools, even linking the vote to the recent mass shooting in El Paso. Lucio, however, voted against that bill both in committee and on the floor. (Hinojosa, the McAllen-based state Senator, is the one who broke party ranks.) Cortez did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Money could be a problem for both challengers. In the first half of this year, Stapleton-Barrera raised around $4,000 and took about $20,000 in loans from her husband; as of July, Cortez had only about $1,000 on hand. Lucio couldn’t fundraise during the legislative session, but in the second half of last year he pulled in almost $350,000.
I’m a big non-fan of Sen. Lucio, so I’m happy to see him draw a couple of serious challengers, flawed though they may be. There’s a lot of attention being paid to the primary challenge in CD28, where national Democrats are funding a more progressive candidate against Congressman Henry Cuellar, whose record on many issues is as problematic as Lucio’s. I’m skeptical about that effort, in part because challenger Jessica Cisneros is flawed in her own ways, but it’s a worthwhile thing to try. Lucio is arguably a bigger impediment to progress than Cuellar, because he’s one of 31 Senators, giving him that much more influence in his chamber, whereas Cuellar is one 435 Congressfolk. The good news is that even if Lucio survives this race, every Senator will be up for election in 2022, so the next opportunity to have another go at him will be in short order.