Civil rights lawyer, Brownsville native announces Democratic congressional bid

Rochelle Garza

Brownsville native and civil rights lawyer Rochelle Garza has announced her candidacy for Texas’ 34th congressional district, a seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, who’s retiring from the office.

Vela, D-Brownsville, announced in March he would not be seeking reelection to the district that encompasses Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties, along with eight others.

Garza formally announced her campaign Monday, though she traces her interest in public service to her childhood.

“Advocacy really started at home for me, which is really the reason why I became a lawyer,” Garza said.

Her family became politically active after experiencing the challenges to health care for one of Garza’s brothers who suffered a brain injury at birth.

“One of my earliest memories is of my mom, going with my mom to testify in the capital. She was testifying against a bill that would have negatively impacted people with disabilities like my brother,” Garza recalled.

Seeing her mother’s resolve left a lifelong impression on her that inspired future studies.

Garza graduated with a law degree from the University of Houston in 2013. She received her license later that year. She returned home and served as a community lawyer in several areas including criminal, family, international, immigration and civil rights.

“I’ve been working as a community lawyer, so that means being responsive to the needs of the community,” Garza said. “Through that work I’ve realized just how much our community is not heard politically and not heard in Washington, D.C.”

Most recently, she worked with ACLU of Texas.

Access to health care, spurring a post-pandemic economic recovery, welcoming investment and creating a diverse field of work in Cameron County are a priority for Garza.

Aside from her family’s experience with a lacking healthcare system, Garza believes the pandemic exploited a long-existing problem in District 34.

“We do not have a public hospital in the region. That negatively impacts people’s health, and their wellbeing, and their families’ and their community,” Garza said.

Other challenges were left in the wake of 2020.

The Brownsville-Harlingen region had an unemployment rate of 5.8% at the beginning of 2020. By January 2021, the unemployment rate increased to 10.9%, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

“We as a community, we are so resource-rich. We are bicultural. We are bilingual. We have so much to offer. We just need investment,” Garza said. “When you have someone like Elon Musk who is investing in the community, there needs to be an intention behind it. There needs to be a way for folks to get those jobs from the community.”

Creating jobs is one of the candidate’s priorities, but diversifying them is also important to avoid “brain drain.”

“People go off to college and they don’t come back typically because we don’t have enough economic opportunity, a diverse pool of jobs that bring people back,” Garza said, noting, “We’re starting to see the tide change clearly, and that is a really good thing.”

Garza will be running for a seat to be vacated by a fellow Democrat, but she’s not expecting a win to come without a challenge. Republican Mayra Flores of San Benito announced her candidacy in February.

“This community has been taken for granted that we vote Democratic,” Garza said. “What that says is that there hasn’t been investment in the community. We haven’t gone to people and talked to them and we haven’t met where they’re at. And we need to do that. And that’s why I’m starting this campaign early.”

Garza plans to reach out to people to talk about issues that could lead to positive policy change, a similar approach she’s taken in her legal career.

“Really what we have to do is focus on the policies that are going to make people’s lives better. And that means health care for everyone. That means access to good schools, to good infrastructure, to all of these things that are going to make our lives better and easier and happier,” Garza said.

“We deserve to be more than just a talking point for divisive politics.”