Ted Cruz challenger Roland Gutierrez stumps in the RGV

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Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez speaks during a news conference at a town square in Uvalde, Texas, Thursday, June 2, 2022. (Jae C. Hong/AP Photo)

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, used his weekend away from the Ken Paxton impeachment trial to make a couple of campaign stops in the Rio Grande Valley as the Democratic primary race to challenge Republican Sen. Ted Cruz heats up.

Gutierrez made two campaign stops with Democratic supporters in Cameron and Willacy counties Saturday afternoon. But before that, he participated in a town hall in McAllen with a group of doctors who are working to prevent gun violence.

Over the last year, gun violence has become a pivotal issue for the politician, who has spent nearly two decades in the Texas Legislature — first as a state representative, then as a state senator since 2021.

In 2022, Gutierrez was galvanized by the Uvalde school massacre, where 19 children and two teachers were killed by a lone gunman.

Uvalde lies within Gutierrez’s District 19, which stretches from San Antonio, westward toward the U.S.–Mexico border, including Del Rio, Eagle Pass and the Big Bend.

It was the failures of local, state and government officials not only in responding to the mass shooting as it occurred, but in the tragedy’s aftermath, that prompted Gutierrez to seek a higher office.

“What we saw in Uvalde, and what sparked my motivation for running, was a system that was broken,” Gutierrez told The Monitor during an exclusive interview on Saturday.

“It started with law enforcement, went to the attorney general’s office and the governor’s office, and it was championed by a guy like Ted Cruz who did absolutely nothing else to help. He embodies this broken system,” he added.

Gutierrez lambasted Texas’ junior senator for his inactions in the wake of the Uvalde massacre. Instead, during media interviews that occurred in the small town just after the May 24, 2022 mass shooting, Cruz blamed Democrats for politicizing the event.

One month later, Cruz voted against the Safer Communities Act, a bipartisan gun control bill that passed both the U.S. House and the Senate, where it got the support of Texas’ Republican senior senator, John Cornyn.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks with reporters as he heads to a vote on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023 in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

“Running against Ted Cruz, for me, was very much a response to what happened in Uvalde. Here’s a man who did nothing and he had a chance to do something,” Gutierrez said.

Since the massacre, Gutierrez has become a champion for gun reform legislation, which he characterizes as the single greatest issue facing the country.

In support of grieving Uvalde families, Gutierrez sued the state of Texas to disclose law enforcement records from the mass shooting.

He lost the lawsuit, but was later allowed to receive the information — including graphic surveillance video — on a hard drive that contained 2 terabytes of data — so long as he signed a nondisclosure agreement.

Gutierrez said the information on that hard drive was something “like you’ve never seen in your life.” It so impacted him that this May he brought the hard drive to the senate floor where he implored his fellow lawmakers to look at it and take action.

It was a powerful moment — one that prompted Texas Monthly in July to report that Gutierrez had gone from being an “unremarkable” politician to an “extraordinary” one.

“We all need to be extraordinary when it comes to living in a state where policymakers are doing nothing to create new policies to safeguard children. And that’s the facts. That’s what’s happening,” Gutierrez said.

But it’s not just gun safety where Texas’ Republican leaders have failed, Gutierrez said.

They have failed when it comes to infrastructure, women’s reproductive rights and immigration, all while touting a sense of Texas exceptionalism — what Gutierrez referred to as the “Texas miracle.”

“Kids don’t wait 77 minutes to be rescued in a ‘Texas miracle.’ Eight-hundred people don’t die when it gets cold if we lived in a ‘Texas miracle.’ We shouldn’t have the problems with our grid that we’ve been having here this summer if we had our act together,” Gutierrez said.

“So much needs to change in this state, and it is beyond guns,” he added.

Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez speaks during a news conference at a town square in Uvalde, Texas, Thursday, June 2, 2022. (Jae C. Hong/AP Photo)

But before Gutierrez can face off against Ted Cruz, he has to survive a March 2024 Democratic Primary that is becoming increasingly crowded.

More than a dozen candidates have filed for a place on the primary ballot.

Thus far, Gutierrez’s biggest challenge has come from Colin Allred, a fellow attorney and currently the U.S. congressman from Dallas.

And in recent days, two more politicians have announced their runs as well — Carl Sherman, a pastor and state representative from DeSoto and Mark A. Gonzalez, who stepped down as the Nueces County district attorney ahead of a trial to remove him from office.

But Gutierrez isn’t worried about the competition, or the millions of dollars that candidates like Allred have already raised for their war chest.

“I’m not afraid of primaries. I think primaries is (sic) what hones us as a party and sends up the best candidate,” he said.

Gutierrez added that, despite his long tenure in office, he’s not a politician.

“You asked me what sets me apart? Well, number one, I’m not a professional politician. I have a day job. I’ve volunteered in public service in the Texas Legislature for the last 20 years, OK?” he said.

For him, running for the U.S. Senate isn’t a way to seek a feather for his cap, it’s about wanting to “transform our country.”

“There’s a lot of young men in this race looking for the next job. That’s not me,” the 53-year-old Gutierrez said.

U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, left, is running to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Michelle Vallejo, right, of Mission, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Monica De La Cruz, R-McAllen, in the 15th Congressional district race, visited McAllen on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

Of the three strongest primary challengers Gutierrez is facing, Allred is 40, Gonzalez is 43 and Sherman is 57.

And while Allred has garnered the endorsement of Michelle Vallejo, the progressive millennial Democrat from Mission who is seeking to unseat Republican Monica De La Cruz for the District 15 U.S. House seat, Gutierrez has won the support of beloved Valley Tejano artist, Ramon Ayala.

Ayala officially announced his endorsement of the state senator in a short video where the pair appeared together in late-August.

Realmente, este muchacho si es una buena persona para ese puesto,” Ayala says in the video, which translates to: “Honestly, this man really is a good person for the position.”