Pastor Putting Movement to Unique Test with Campaign for the Texas House
in Southern Section of State that's Dominated by Hispanics and Democrats
By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor
A South Texas pastor who founded the first Hispanic Tea Party chapter hopes to do what no Republican has done in more than two decades with a victory in a race for the Texas House in the Rio Grande Valley this year.
Armando Vera - a naturalized U.S. citizen who immigrated from Mexico - has filed to run for the House District 41 seat that Democratic State Rep. Veronica Gonzales of McAllen isn't seeking again after four terms in the Legislature.
But Vera faces a steep uphill climb in his debut as a candidate in a race that Democrat Bobby Guerra is the early favorite to win barring a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Texas redistricting case that shakes up the lineups on the House battlefield in the state's southern tip. Guerra's most significant threat could come from within his own party if McAllen insurance company owner Abraham Padron enters the HD 41 race as he's suggested he might do before the February 1 filing deadline.
A Mission attorney who chaired the Hidalgo County Democratic Party for two years, Guerra had initially planned to challenge Republican State Rep. Aaron Peña of Edinburg in his first re-election race since switching parties in late 2010. But Peña cancelled his plans to seek a sixth term after a three-judge federal panel in San Antonio redrew the House map that the Legislature had approved last year with a district that had been tailored for him.
The election plan that emerged from the regular session last spring essentially shifted Gonzales into the heavily-Democratic district that Peña has represented since 2003 while moving him into a section of Hidalgo County where she's been the representative for the past seven years.
HD 41 is the only House district in Hidalgo and Cameron counties where Democratic voters don't outnumber their Republican counterparts overwhelmingly. About 51 percent of the voters had supported the GOP's statewide slates in the last two elections in the version of HD 41 that Republican leaders and legislators had fashioned with Peña's protection as a priority. The share of the HD 41 vote that Democrats received in 2008 and 2010 jumped two percentage points on the map that the federal court drafted as a replacement plan when the state failed to have the Legislature's proposal precleared in time for the 2012 primary elections.
Peña would have the option of resurrecting his campaign if the Supreme Court overturns the lower court plan and orders the state to hold the elections this year on a map that more closely resembles the one that the GOP-controlled Legislature adopted. Vera at that point might reassess his candidacy and determine whether he'd still want to run if it meant squaring off with a well-known incumbent who could expect substantial help from the GOP establishment across the state.
The Democratic machinery in South Texas has sought to clear the path for Guerra, a member of a family that's been a major force in local politics for several generations. Padron, who lived across the Rio Grande in Reynosa, Mexico before moving with his family to Texas as a child, would have the ability to tap a substantial sum of personal money he's made selling insurance on a race for the House if he runs.
Vera has been in the news off and on since last summer when he organized a Tea Party group for people like himself whose English is sketchy if they don't speak Spanish exclusively. Vera took the lead in the formation of the Hispanic Tea Party with encouragement from McAllen Tea Party leaders who'd had minimal success in attempts to court potential support from conservatives who had trouble communicating in English. But the Tea Party chapter that Vera established is unique in that its members are mostly Mexican natives who are new U.S. citizens and more devoted to deep religious beliefs than political goals and objectives.
Peña contended when he switched parties that South Texas Hispanics were by and large conservative and would be more inclined to support Hispanic Republicans if they had viable choices in a part of the state where contested GOP primaries have been rare.
With HD 41 voters split fairly evenly in statewide races, GOP leaders and strategists thought they'd have an opportunity to beat Gonzales in a district where the number of Republicans appeared to be on a steady rise. But Gonzales fended off GOP challengers with 57 percent of the vote in 2008 and 65 percent in 2010 - and she appeared to be on track for another relatively easy re-election victory on the Legislature's map despite her vigorous opposition to it as a result of the district swap with Peña that Republicans were forcing on her.
But Gonzales pulled the plug on her campaign after the San Antonio court reshuffled the lines in a way that put her back in the district where Guerra had already launched his campaign with her support.
Republican Ken Fleureit of Harlingen broke the Democrats' lock on House seats in the Rio Grande Valley when he defeated a Democratic foe in a battle for an open post in Cameron County in 1990. But Fleureit was unseated two years later by a Democrat in his first re-election campaign.
Peña, who won five terms as a Democrat, became the RGV's first Republican lawmaker since Fleureit when he changed teams a month after the election 13 months ago.