HOUSTON—A tense congressional race here is pitting a pair of onetime friends against each other. The Democratic primary is asking a largely Latino electorate to decide whether the opportunity to send a local Hispanic to Congress is worth unseating a lawmaker long viewed as an ally.
Representative Gene Green has represented the east side of Houston for 23 years in a district that was created specifically to increase Latino representation, with just one real Democratic primary challenge back in the early 1990s. But this year, former sheriff and mayoral candidate Adrian Garcia has launched what the congressman acknowledges is a “real challenge.”
As National Journal noted recently, Latinos make up about 17 percent of America’s population, and yet, Latinos hold just 7 percent of the seats in Congress. Meanwhile, at least two recent Latino candidates in Texas—running for the mayor’s seat in San Antonio and for a congressional seat in a district that stretches from San Antonio to El Paso—failed to win.
The race brings a tricky question to the fore: Is it more important for a majority-Latino district to be represented by a Latino, or is a long-serving Caucasian ally just as fit for the post? Garcia’s argument, that it is past time for a Latino to be the voice of a district that is three-quarters Hispanic, resonates with some local voters. But it doesn’t sit well with high-profile Latinos in Congress, who see Green as a known and easy-to-work-with politician who has the Latino community’s best interests in mind. To them, Garcia’s challenge is something of a disruption.
“Gene has earned a chance to do more because he’s committed to serving families in his district, working to make sure hardworking people get access to affordable care,” said House Democratic Chairman Xavier Becerra, one of the highest-ranking Latinos in Congress, in a statement to The Atlantic. “He’s a passionate leader on immigration reform and a strong supporter of safeguarding Social Security and Medicare to guarantee seniors can retire with dignity.” BOLD PAC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s financial arm, announced in January that it would back Green for his progressive legislative record.
Armed with those endorsements, Green is, at least publicly, taking the challenge in stride. “I guess he was looking for something to do, and I was probably the next office he was looking at,” Green said during an interview one recent morning at a gym in the east end, alluding to the fact that Garcia had barely concluded a failed run for mayor when he called the representative to say he would be running for his congressional seat. Decked out in a campaign pin and a green tie, Green is calm and measured in his discussion of the race; if anything, there is a tone of disappointment. “Our families go back a long way,” Green said, recalling how the two grew up in the same neighborhood and how Garcia’s father advocated for his election to the state legislature. “Some of my toughest races are people I’ve known, because it gets more personal than it should be.”
Garcia, who several days earlier was shaking hands and stumping for votes at a transit center in the same neighborhood during the morning rush hour, insists the challenge isn’t personal. But he’s running a much more aggressive campaign, playing up the area’s low high-school-graduation rate, high poverty, and low levels of homeownership as evidence that Green has failed to bring prosperity to the district.
“For me, it’s about the community,” Garcia said, after waving goodbye to a bus pulling away from the curb and pausing to send a quick tweet. “It’s never been personal, but it’s about not accepting the status quo anymore, and it’s about giving the community a loud and active and engaged voice, especially when you have individuals like Donald Trump who are out there spewing all kinds of vitriol about Latinos in general. This is the fifth-most Hispanic congressional district in America … To have representation that doesn’t stand up and defend them is unconscionable.”
But many high-profile Latinos in Washington and here in Texas don’t agree with Garcia’s assessment of Green. Instead, they paint a picture of a man who has fought for immigrant rights, helped people become citizens, and helped broker job placements for struggling workers. Their support says as much about Green’s careful elevation of Latinos to power—several Latino former staffers now hold elected office in the state and have publicly backed him—as it does about his policy positions. “I do have a lot of alumni in Washington,” he said.
If Garcia is elected, he will be working with some of Green’s most strident allies. And, the aggressive tone he hopes will rally disengaged voters to head for the polls in the primary isn’t winning him many fans in Washington, D.C. “They’re endorsing bad water, bad air, and votes against the environment,” Garcia said of people like Becerra. “They’re endorsing the status quo. They’re endorsing low educational attainment … So if that’s what those politicians want to do, God bless ‘em.”
But Garcia’s campaign is resonating with some voters here, several of whom said they think it is past time for young Latinos to see someone who looks like them holding the seat. “He can be the voice of my community,” said Alma Esquivel, a district resident who stopped by a recent Garcia campaign event. “I want my children to be able to identify with Adrian,” said Jessica Hulsey, another voter. “I want my children to be able to say, ‘I have a chance.’” Added Jay Deleon: “We don’t have the programs to help these communities, and I think he understands that because he’s coming from the bottom like us.”
Whether Garcia is able to muster enough support to win is unclear. Both men are well-known in the community: Garcia as a former city councilmember and sheriff, and Green as the longtime U.S. representative and former state representative. Several voters said that while they don’t necessarily have anything negative to say about Garcia, he hasn’t convinced them to switch sides. “If it’s not broke, why fix it?” said Nestor Perez, the 30-year-old owner of the gym Green is speaking at. “It’s about who is good for the community. Race has nothing to do with it.”
The problem, said Maria Jimenez, who is an active advocate for immigration reform and has known both men for years, is that “there’s very little difference” when it comes to policy. Both men skew left and align with the broader community on issues such as immigration reform. And, she added, Ted Cruz’s election demonstrated that just because a Latino is elected to a position of power does not mean that he will represent the views of most Latinos. “As someone said to me, ‘Brown faces in high places make very little difference, because you look at what they stand for…” she trailed off before adding a final thought: “In that sense, Gene Green has served the district in general well.” Plus, Green, the ranking member of the health subcommittee on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has had decades to forge connections in Washington, both within and outside of the Democratic Party—connections that would likely take Garcia years to match.
Still, that hasn’t stopped Garcia from trying to highlight differences on the campaign trail. At the transit center, he criticizes Green for being too soft on gun control and for not being tough enough on polluters. Green acknowledges having a mixed record on gun control, but he characterized Garcia’s comments as an attempt to manufacture opposition. “Somehow he has to raise my negatives, which are not real high,” he said. For now, though, both men have at least one thing in common: They are both pursuing the same end goal—with the hope that the result will be in their favor.
This article is part of our Next America: Communities project, which is supported by a grant from Emerson Collective.