Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D)
Texas 23rd District
The Mexican-American tradition in the part of South Texas radiating from San Antonio is anchored in two culturally conservative institutions, the Catholic Church and the United States military. Both are a major presence in San Antonio, just 150 miles north of the border, which for many years had the largest Mexican-American population of any American city and where Spanish has long been widely spoken. The church in San Antonio was led for years by liberal bishops; they also ran St. Mary’s University, which educated many Hispanic politicians and leaders, including two longtime House Democratic committee chairmen, former Reps. Henry B. Gonzalez and Kika de la Garza, as well as Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who graduated from St. Mary’s law school. Just as visible a presence in San Antonio are the Army and Air Force, with huge Fort Sam Houston, Lackland Air Force Base, and the Randolph Air Force Base, all in or near the city limits. In 2006, at the site of the former Brooks Air Force Base, Toyota opened a $1.2 billion plant to manufacture Tundra pickup trucks. About 55% of the nearly 2,000 workers are Hispanic. Mexican-Americans have long volunteered for military service in numbers higher than members of most other ethnic groups, and for many years Mexican-Americans in San Antonio worked in civilian jobs for the military service. San Antonio’s Mexican-American community also has produced many politicians who are liberal on economic issues and civil rights but also are pro-military and at home with traditional religious and cultural values.
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Although farmland has disappeared around San Antonio, some small towns remain, such as Castroville, where you can see 19th-century Alsatian architecture and where citizen groups have been fighting big development projects. Fifty or so miles west of San Antonio, the hills flatten out and become the parched uplands of West Texas. This is a borderland, just north of Mexico, where people are concentrated in tiny hamlets amid the empty ranchlands. Most residents are Latino. Once Indians were the threat on this frontier. Now the challenge is assimilation, and the threat is lack of water. The aquifers of West Texas are being drained, and state law still allows landowners to pump out as much water as they want. The Rio Grande, dried out by a dam in New Mexico, gets most of its water from the Rio Conchos in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Mexico owes the United States hundreds of thousands of acre-feet under a 1944 treaty.
Big cities have sprung up on the border. But in the hundreds of miles between El Paso and Juarez, Chihuahua, which between them have about 2 million people, and Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, which between them have about 900,000, there are only a few border crossings and much wilderness. The mountains of Big Bend National Park rise above the Rio Grande, where in the clean air you can find dozens of species of birds and can see for 180 miles. Eccentrics have built an art colony in Marfa and stage a chili cook-off in Terlingua. Texas’s frontier in many ways is thriving. Huge wind farms have flowered along the interstate in Crockett County. Unlike in California and Arizona, trade is actively conducted here, and local communities often have a binational “good neighbor” policy. But all this activity makes people thirsty. Private companies are buying ranchland so that they can pump water out to Texas’s growing cities, and there is even some talk of building a pipeline from Hoover Dam in Nevada.
The 23rd Congressional District of Texas is geographically the largest in the state, larger than almost any state east of the Mississippi River. It stretches from the west side of San Antonio to the outskirts of El Paso, from Eagle Pass and Maverick County to the New Mexico border. About two-thirds of its population is in Bexar County. The August 2006 court-ordered redistricting added a large portion of the south side of Bexar County, which includes many Latinos. The district’s Latino population is 65%. Many of the border counties are Democratic. With the changes, the district voted 57% for Republican President George W. Bush in 2004 compared to the 65% he would have received if the old boundaries had held up. In 2008, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama won the district 51%-48%, though GOP nominee John McCain won the Bexar County portion by about 300 votes.
Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D)
Elected: 2006, 5th full term.
Born: Dec. 9, 1946, Piedras Negras, Coah., Mexico .
Home: San Antonio.
Education: St. Mary's U., B.A. 1973, Our Lady of the Lake U., M.S.W., 1978.
Family: Married (Carolina); 1 child.
Elected office: Harlandale Schl. Bd., 1975–87; TX House of Reps., 1986–97; U.S. House of Reps. 1997-2004.
Professional Career: Substance abuse counselor, 1971–74, 1978–80; Educ. consultant, 1980–87; Faculty, Our Lady of the Lake U., 1987–97; Founder, Rio Strategy Group, 2005.
The congressman from the 23rd District is Ciro Rodriguez, who was elected in 2006 and previously served three full terms in the old 28th District. Rodriguez grew up in San Antonio, was a social worker, teacher and educational consultant. He spent 12 years on the Harlandale school board, and in 1986, he was elected to the Texas House, where he had a liberal voting record. He started running for the U.S. House soon after Democratic Rep. Frank Tejeda, of the old 28th District, died of a brain tumor in January 1997. He got the critical endorsement of the San Antonio Central Labor Council, and House Democratic leaders promised him Tejeda’s seat on the Armed Services Committee. His only serious competition for the seat came from San Antonio Councilman Juan Solis. Like Tejeda, Solis opposed abortion and gun control, and he called Rodriguez “a wild-eyed liberal.” But in the March primary, Rodriguez led Solis 46%-27%, and he won the low-turnout runoff 67%-33%. In the House, he had the most liberal voting record of Texas’s six Hispanic congressmen.
|Ciro Rodriguez (D)||134,090||(56%)||($2,362,363)|
|Lyle Larson (R)||100,799||(42%)||($813,774)|
|Lani Connolly (Lib)||5,581||(2%)|
|Ciro Rodriguez (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (54%), 2002 (71%), 2000 (89%), 1998 (91%), 1997 (67%)
Then in 2004, Rodriguez lost the 28th District seat in a bitter contest with Henry Cuellar after the district was revamped to include half of Laredo’s Webb County. When the ambitious Cuellar announced his decision to run, Rodriguez said he had a hard time believing that a friend and former legislative colleague for whom he had raised money in 2002 would run against him. In their five-month campaign, Cuellar campaigned more aggressively. He mobilized voters more effectively from his base in Laredo than Rodriguez did from his in San Antonio. After recounts and court reviews that took four months to resolve, Rodriguez lost by 203 votes. Their bitter conflict resumed in the 2006 primary for the 28th District. But without incumbency working for him, Rodriguez raised less money than Cuellar, and his campaign skills seemed stale. He lost again, this time by 53% to 40%. His political obituary appeared to be written.
But a court-ordered redistricting gave Rodriguez the unusual opportunity to run for a second time in 2006, against a new opponent and in a very different district. The contest was hardly a straight line to victory. The 23rd District’s representative, Republican Henry Bonilla, first elected in 1992, was chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee and also served on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. He had earmarked money for many district projects. He also had had good relationships with President Bush. When the August redistricting added large sections of south San Antonio to the 23rd, Rodriguez became a logical challenger to Bonilla. But five other Democrats also entered the contest. In the Election Day all-party primary, the main question was whether Bonilla could get the 50% required to avoid a runoff. He fell just short, with 48.6%. Rodriguez was runner-up with 20%.
For the December runoff, Bonilla began with nearly $2 million in campaign funds, while Rodriguez had all but depleted his account. But Rodriguez had some factors in his favor, including the enthusiasm generated by Democrats taking control of the House that November. National Democrats thought Bonilla was vulnerable, and Rodriguez agreed to let them send in professionals to help run the campaign in place of his wife, Carolina, who in the past had run an old-fashioned volunteer effort. Rodriguez criticized Bonilla for voting in 2003 against a $1,500 bonus to soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bonilla said that Rodriguez showed “dangerous judgment” for opposing a law to allow the use of secret evidence in immigration hearings. In the closing days, with polls showing a tight contest, Bonilla ran an ad that depicted Rodriguez as a terrorist sympathizer. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put nearly $1 million into the contest, and former President Bill Clinton made a last-minute campaign appearance in San Antonio. Rodriguez won 54%-46%. He took 56% in Bexar County, where his 5,700 vote lead was nearly the margin of his victory district-wide. Bonilla won 13 of the other 19 counties, but Rodriguez ran especially well around Eagle Pass and Big Bend, where Bonilla was hurt by his support for the GOP’s bill creating a border fence.
Back in the House, Rodriguez sealed his remarkable comeback when House Democrats gave him a seat on the Appropriations Committee, which more senior Texas Democrats had been seeking. With his new constituency, his voting record shifted to the center, and his focus shifted to issues such as water rights, agriculture and the border. He said, “It’s a totally different ball game. Although my basic values haven't changed, what changes is that I am responding to views of different constituents. I have a better appreciation of members who represent swing districts and how the leadership has to deal with those members.” During the 2007 energy debate, Rodriguez helped pass an amendment to require utilities to produce 15% of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020.
Rodriguez faced a competitive re-election in 2008. Republican Bexar County Commissioner Lyle Larson said Rodriguez was part of the big spending problem in Washington. With a large increase in campaign funds, aided in part by his powerful position on Appropriations, Rodriguez emphasized his vote against the $700 billion government rescue of the financial-services industry in 2008. In an easier than expected victory, he won 56%-42%, including 52%-45% in Bexar County.