Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Great Awakening

New Hispanic Caucus Chief Becomes Top Target for Democrats
as Someone Who Represents Threat of Losing Last Stronghold


The way Texas Democratic Party official Anthony Gutierrez sees it, a new Hispanic caucus that six state House Republicans have started can demonstrate how its commitment to the Latino community by having its leader take State Reps. Debbie Riddle and Leo Berman with him to a town hall meeting in the city where he lives in the Rio Grande Valley. The TDP's deputy executive director says that would give State Rep. Aaron Peña of Edinburg a prime opportunity to explain to his constituents why he joined a political party that opposes the federal Voting Rights Act and wants Texas to use Arizona as the role model on immigration law.

Texas Democrats don't have Tom Craddick to kick around anymore - with the Midland Republican no longer running the state House as the speaker even though he's still a member of it. The Democrats chased Tom DeLay out of politics several years ago - and it's hard for them to get excited anymore about attacking Governor Rick Perry when they've thrown everything they have at him and failed to knock him down or out. While some Democrats outside the Capitol have taken shots at Speaker Joe Straus, his Democratic colleagues in the House have refused to play along because they like him a lot and think he's been a fair leader. The Democrats simply can't afford to take on Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst because he's so rich.

But the Democrats have a new target in the heart of their crosshairs with Peña, a five-term state lawmaker who's been public enemy number one as far as the Democratic Party is concerned since he spurned it in December and joined the GOP in a brazen act of defiance that flew in the face of conventional wisdom, local custom and Texas political culture.

At a time when Democrats were still staggered by an election that turned talk about taking the state back into a scramble for ways to simply stay relevant, Peña poured napalm into the wounds when he appeared with Perry, Dewhurst, Straus and a long list of other GOP leaders and legislators 10 days before Christmas to tell a room packed with giddy Republicans and reporters in disbelief why he no longer wanted to be associated with the only political party in town for all practical purposes back home in South Texas. The Republicans had already scheduled a press conference at the state party office in Austin that day to toast State Rep. Allan Ritter's decision to switch parties after he'd won a seventh House term as a Democrat a month earlier in Beaumont-Port Arthur area district where the GOP would have probably taken him out if it had known how big the November tsunami would be. But Peña made it a two-fer when he showed up without advance warning and hit the red carpet with the exuberance and joy of a kid on a Slip 'n Slide and essentially told the Democrats where they could stick the plans they'd been making to try to beat him in the primary election in 2012.

Ritter's shift to the GOP made perfect sense as a moderate lawmaker in a district that had become increasingly Republican since he won a House seat initially in 1998. But the defection by Peña sent shock waves through political circles from Brownsville to Pampa as an event that appeared at first blush to have all the markings of a kamikaze mission in the making if he had any desire at all to run for another term in the House without relocating to a different part of the state.

Peña - an attorney who'd planned to run for state Democratic Party chairman in 2000 before shifting his sights to the Legislature instead two years later - had been an outcast in his own party since he and a dozen other Democrats backed Craddick in a bruising re-election bid that he won in 2007. But Peña turned back a high-dollar challenge when Democratic bosses in Austin targeted him for defeat in the primary election a year later - and after running unopposed in 2010 - he'd been duly warned to expect to face another party-backed first round foe when he sought a new term next time around.

As a Democrat who'd been independent politically and openly critical about a party that he said had little or no interest in South Texas beyond the money it raised there and guaranteed votes, Peña had become an annoyance who the Democratic Party no longer trusted to toe the line. But as a newly-converted Republican who seems to be as confident about winning re-election as he's ever been if not more - assuming he doesn't run for Congress in 2012 instead - Peña represents much more to the Democratic Party that he jilted than a standard legislator with only one vote on legislation and an R by his name where the D used to be.

After watching Nueces County a few hundred miles to the northeast go Republican last fall, Peña has become symbolic in the minds of Democrats who'd have never believed that the GOP would take over in Corpus Christi if you'd told them that could happen a few years ago. Democrats have ample cause to be concerned that Peña could be a harbinger for an era they hadn't contemplated in their wildest imaginations until he bolted less than two months ago amid substantial fanfare.

If Peña wins another term in House District 40 at the polls next year, he could be kicking open a door through which younger Hispanics with the same relatively conservative views would feel less reluctant to pass as voters and prospective candidates for public office. A Peña victory in 2012 would have the potential to trigger a political chain reaction that turns the Rio Grande Valley from the Democrats' last true bastion outside the inner-cities into Republican territory. While most of the people who live in deep South Texas still vote Democrat, they tend to be just as conservative if not more so than folks in suburban areas that lean Republican.

So the Democrats will have a lot more incentive to try to oust Peña than any other Republican on the ballot in 2012 if he runs for the House again as he says he plans to do. The Democrats won't just want to oust Peña from the Legislature. They'll do everything in their power to beat him badly enough to make an example out of him.

The TDP was just warming up with the rhetorical grenades it lobbed this week at the Hispanic Republican Conference while mentioning Peña by name each time and all but ignoring the other five founding caucus members. The swing that Gutierrez took today designed to offset a counterpunch that the Texas GOP threw Monday in response to the Democratic Party's first attack on the new GOP group in the House for Hispanics.

“Aaron Peña’s new friends can protest all they want; the Hispanic Republican Conference will remain nothing more than a public relations stunt until they take a hard stand against the many discriminatory policies the Republican Party is pursuing," Gutierrez said.

Now it's the Republicans' turn.

Mike Hailey's column appears regularly in Capitol Inside

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