BY BERENICE GARCIA AND MARK REAGAN | STAFF WRITERS
There was a shift in the winds in 2020 when Republicans caught Democrats off guard, nearly flipping Starr County toward former President Donald J. Trump while drawing record-high votes elsewhere in the Rio Grande Valley as well.
That turnout foreshadowed future Democratic difficulties in the region while emboldening the Republican approach to redistricting here.
The strong conservative showing set in motion a much anticipated battleground election in the newly Republican-leaning District 15 after its incumbent was redrawn into neighboring District 34, which remains securely Democratic.
The move has caused ripple effects in the Valley’s political landscape, leading to an amendment that moved through the Texas House of Representatives in barely the blink of an eye — with 134 votes for it and only four votes against it — which ushered in how the border’s representation in Congress will look for the next decade.
THE MYSTERY REQUEST
At the beginning of October, before the new district maps were adopted, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen for District 15, made it known he was mulling a switch to District 34. The maps, as they were proposed at the time, already showed they would be redrawn in a way favorable to Republicans throughout Texas, including District 15.
Even before the changes, Gonzalez had faced a tough race in 2020 against Monica De La Cruz, the Republican candidate who is running once again for District 15 in 2022.
During that first encounter at the ballot box between the two, Gonzalez won the seat by 6,588 votes, or just 50.5% of the votes.
With the approved redistricting, Gonzalez said he didn’t necessarily believe he would lose his seat to De La Cruz but said it would be hard to keep.
“I think it would be an expensive race and something that will have to be reoccurring every two years,” he said in early October, “but I solidly believe that this is still a winnable district and that we will (have) the right candidate, if this were to happen.”
The Texas Tribune reported Gonzalez would have moved in order to run in District 34, but that turned out to not be necessary as just two weeks later state Rep. Ryan Guillen introduced an amendment to the maps that moved Gonzalez’s residence there.
Upon introducing the amendment on the House floor, Guillen said it was “based on local preferences.”
But Edinburg-based political consultant Desiree Mendez-Caltzontzint questioned whether the reason for the amendment was just that simple.
“You know a deal was made there,” said Mendez-Caltzontzint, who worked for former U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa in District 15 for 10 years. “I’m really surprised that people are not questioning that more. What kind of deal was made or … for him to get just his neighborhood attached to 34.”
The passage of the amendment seemed “very odd” to her, she added.
“Like I said, there has to be a deal made somewhere along the way,” she said. “You just don’t get that for free.”
A month after the amendment passed, Guillen — a longtime Democrat — announced he would run for reelection as a Republican in Texas’ House District 31 during a news conference held in Floresville, a city newly drawn into his district.
Prior to that announcement, Guillen’s office did not respond to three emailed inquiries asking about the amendment, who requested it and whether his office had any communications with Gonzalez regarding the amendment.
It was at that news conference when Guillen finally responded to The Monitor about the amendment.
“Requests come into the office and we try to fulfill them if we think they’re good,” Guillen said.
Asked if the request came from Gonzalez or other sources, Guillen said he was “not sure.”
Gonzalez’s camp was also not forthcoming on whether it knew about the source, or sources, of the amendment.
Collin Steele, his campaign manager, said he didn’t have that information.
And in a statement about his new district, Gonzalez said: “We didn’t switch districts, the new districts switched us.”
When pressed again about how Guillen made the amendment as a Democrat before switching parties, Steele declined comment.
“Per the amendment, we will not be providing a statement,” Steele said.
The Monitor also asked whether Gonzalez, or anyone in his camp, requested the amendment but did not get an answer.
Sonny Palacios, who ran against Gonzalez in the 2016 Democratic primary, said he hoped the amendment was done in good faith.
“We try to believe the best in people and hopefully it was done in good faith and everything was done in fair play,” he said.
When asked whether he thought Gonzalez requested the amendment, Palacios drew from his experience as an attorney.
“In law we call that circumstantial evidence … but something just stinks and unfortunately, the ones that end up getting hurt is our district,” he said, adding that he was only speculating.
He said he was disappointed in Gonzalez for leaving District 15.
“One of the things we ran on was that this was going to be a committed position, that this was for our community,” Palacios said. “We both ran on this; as our community, this is our home and both ran that this was going to be one of those positions that we were going to hold for a while.”
Palacios, however, also gave Gonzalez the benefit of the doubt.
“I’m sure he had a good reason for what he did,” he said.
Guillen’s amendment had an immediate effect on the newly redrawn District 34 when days after Gonzalez announced he would run in the primary, a previously announced candidate pulled out and said they would run for attorney general.
Brownsville civil rights attorney Rochelle Garza was the first to announce. On Nov. 1, she instead said she would seek the Democratic nomination for the Texas Attorney General’s Office election.
That announcement followed Gonzalez’s Oct. 26 announcement.
While Gonzalez has name recognition and experience in Washington D.C., that doesn’t mean his bid to run on the District 34 ticket won’t go uncontested.
The district mostly encompasses Cameron, Willacy, Kenedy and Kleberg counties post-redistricting, but does include approximately 250,000 new voters from Hidalgo County, according to Steele.
These voters are familiar with U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, who is not running for reelection and has endorsed Gonzalez.
Redistricting removed the northern, less populated, half of District 34, with voters from Goliad, Bee, San Patricio and Nueces counties being moved out of the district, ensuring the traditional strength of the Democratic vote in this region. And Cameron County remains the most populous part of District 34.
Jared Hockema, the Cameron County Democratic Party chair, says he believes the primary will be exciting and that there will be numerous candidates, which he says is a testament to the strength of the party.
Harlingen resident Beatriz Reynoso, an Air Force veteran who was deployed to Afghanistan and graduated from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in 2019 with a Political Science degree, has also announced her candidacy for District 34. Reynoso served in the Air Force from 2007 to 2015.
On Saturday, Osbert Rodriguez Haro, a coach and farmer, and William Thompson, an investor, also filed to run for District 34. Aside from Gonzalez, they are the only candidates who have officially filed.
Hockema indicated that there are several other potential candidates who said they are running, but deferred to them to make their campaign announcements.
Asked whether the fact that Gonzalez’s previous representation of Hidalgo County might have any impact on how Cameron County voters would receive him, Hockema said both border counties have a lot in common.
“The people from the two counties are going to have to come together and we’re going to have to elect someone,” Hockema said. “We will elect a nominee who is supported by the entire region.”
Those commonalities from his perspective include job creation, higher wages, quality of life, safety and security, and access to education and quality healthcare.
The party chair said voters should expect a lot of engagement from candidates and also from the county party as it also will be out encouraging people to vote.
“And so we’re excited about that and so we’re going to keep on engaging with people about issues important to Texas and people on the border,” he said.
Whoever wins the Democratic primary, will face the winner of the Republican primary where Mayra Flores, a Tamaulipas-born migrant worker who is a respiratory care practitioner; Philip Sotelo, a former police officer; and Frank McCaffrey, a former KRGV reporter are running.
Despite his departure from District 15, Gonzalez’s 2016 run is likely to influence what it will take to win the office in 2022.
Mendez-Caltzontzint, who worked on Palacios’ 2016 campaign, pointed out that Gonzalez set a spending precedent.
“It changed in 2016 when you only needed like $600,000 to run a congressional race in Hinojosa’s days — $600,000 maybe,” she said. “Vicente changed that. He ended up spending like, what, $2.2 million in his race which is unheard of.”
If De La Cruz’s campaign and war chest carry her through the Republican primary, like it did in 2020, District 15’s newest Democratic candidate is likely to face an expensive race like Gonzalez anticipated.
“Monica De La Cruz is a front contender for the Republican Party in this area and according to what I hear — that she’s getting a lot donations — she’s probably about, they say about $1 million in her war chest right now, and she’s somebody to be battled with,” Mendez-Caltzontzint said. “And the Republican Party of Texas and the National Republican Party is going to support (her). They want this seat because it is the seat on the border.”
However, she is not without challengers in the primary.
Ryan Krause, a businessman she beat out in the 2020 primary is running again, as is retired Border Patrol supervisor Aizar Cavazos and businessman Mauro Garza.
Hidalgo County Republican Chair Adrienne Peña Garza said District 15 is this community’s most vulnerable district, which will prompt a lot of people to run in the election.
“We do commend Monica De La Cruz because she did do a lot of the work, she put in a lot of the work and got very close to defeating (Vicente) Gonzalez,” Peña Garza said. “So now there’s going to be options on the ballot and that’s a win-win for our community, it really is, because we’ve always just seen one ticket on the ballot and so more options, more choices — that’s freedom for our community.”
Whoever is successful in the Republican primary will then face the winner of the Democratic primary, which is between Ruben Ramirez, a lawyer and veteran; Eliza Alvarado, a director with the Region One Education Service Center; and Roberto Haddad, an executive with DHR Health.
Vanessa Tijerina, a nurse from Willacy County, also filed for election on Saturday.
Tijerina previously ran unsuccessfully for state Senate District 27 as a Republican.
Now, she is running as a Democrat.
During the last election, she livestreamed her arrest at a Stars Drive-in in Raymondville on charges of possession of drug paraphernalia, interfering with public duty and two charges of driving while intoxicated with child passengers.
As of Saturday afternoon, Tijerina was the only candidate who has officially filed for District 15.
And the primary is heating up with this weekend’s filings.
Hidalgo County Democratic Chair Norma Ramirez said she was excited about what the Democrats had to offer, adding there was no shortage of qualified individuals who would be capable of keeping District 15 blue.
“The redistricting by the Republicans obviously is a gain for them to try to get Republican candidates elected,” Ramirez said. “We feel that it doesn’t matter how they redistrict the lines, we’re going to have very qualified (people) and people that are ready to step into those positions, and so we feel that in Hidalgo County we’re going to be triumphant and we’re going to win.”
With campaign signs popping up around Hidalgo County and candidates trying to reach voters through social media, one Democratic primary hopeful has traveled to Washington D.C. and met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and with Gonzalez, the congressman he hopes to replace.
While he met with officials in D.C. to bolster his election bid, Alvarado has already spent time in the Capitol while previously working with Hinojosa, an indication she has experience in maneuvering in Congress. She is also backed by Alonzo Cantu because she previously worked at DHR Health, according to Mendez-Caltzontzint.
Nonetheless, the fact that District 15 is in play for both parties bodes well for the Republican candidates, including De La Cruz who maintains name recognition and national backing.
Palacios, who ran in 2016, said he thinks economics and mistrust in government will be a factor for voters going into the 2022 races.
“Gas prices are going up, food shortages, people not being able to work or not being able to get living wages — things that we talked about during the congressional race — it’s all happening right now,” he said. “People mistrust the government … some people mistrust the vaccine and the mandates and … when it’s all said and done, we’re Texan and we don’t like being told what to do. … We’re going to see, we’re going to see what happens.”