Adrian Garcia, a former “frontrunner” in the Houston mayor’s race who came in third on Election Day, this week filed paperwork to challenge Congressman Gene Green, a Democrat who’s represented Houston’s 29th congressional district for more than two decades. Explaining his decision, which a very surprised Green has called a “Hail Mary,” the former Harris County sheriff outlined no policy differences between himself and the longstanding congressman — in fact, Garcia said, there’s much they agree on.
But Green’s district is 78 percent Hispanic, Green is Anglo and Garcia is, well, not.
“What I learned during my mayoral campaign was that the Hispanic community is excited to have their candidate,” Garcia told the Texas Tribune. “I’m not against Gene Green. This is not about him. This is about the fact that with the national issues that we have, Donald Trump just spreading vitriol and his vitriol that's directed in the Hispanic community — and since 78 percent of the 29th Congressional District is individuals who are Hispanic — he’s speaking to us, to those folks in the community."
Electing anyone with the surname “Garcia” to the 29th congressional district would be historic. State lawmakers carved out the so-called minority “opportunity district” in 1991 in reaction to the area’s booming Latino population. Finally, the thinking went, Houston Latinos would be able to elect one of their own to Congress.
More than two decades later, Houston is the largest city with a sizeable Hispanic population that’s never sent a Hispanic politician to Congress. Green won the district after it was created and hasn't budged.
Which means Garcia has a steep hill to climb in the Democratic primary. Even before Garcia announced he’d run for Congress, the current generation of local Hispanic political leaders had publicly discouraged the kind of bitter primary battle Garcia’s entry to the race will probably trigger.
For instance, state Sen. Sylvia Garcia told the Houston Chronicle last year that replacing Green with someone who better reflects the district’s demographics simply isn’t a priority. State Rep. Armando Walle told the daily Green’s built up enough support over the past two decades that “he can continue to be a member of Congress as long as he wants.” Green himself has called the notion that a Hispanic-majority district must be represented by a Hispanic politician “racist." He told the Chron last year: “We’re not South Africa under apartheid. They’ve had the opportunity, and they made that decision. I’m up every two years.”
It seems Garcia’s best crack at the seat would be to goose Latino voter turnout in a district where Hispanics, while more than three quarters of the population, only make up about half of registered voters, says Rice University political scientist Mark Jones. “His only real path to victory would be to mobilize Latinos who normally don’t participate in the Democratic primary,” Jones told us.
That could be a difficult task for Garcia, in part due to the baggage he brings to the race from his time as Harris County Sheriff. Garcia has already framed himself as an answer to the anti-immigrant, Mexicans-are-rapists rhetoric that launched Donald Trump’s disturbingly successful campaign for the GOP nomination for president.
But when it comes to immigrant communities, Garcia's got a more complicated, controversial history. He championed an agreement between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Harris County Sheriffs Office that trained jailers to help the feds screen for undocumented immigrants. He supported another federal jail screening program, known as Secure Communities, that critics have decried as resulting in the deportation of immigrants who committed no crimes or only minor infractions. Critics and supporters alike often pointed to the Harris County jail as evidence that Houston is in no way a so-called “Sanctuary City” where immigration enforcement is lax.
That could spell trouble for Garcia, who will likely need help from grassroots, progressive political activists and organizations to boost Latino voter turnout enough to make Green's congressional seat competitive in the Democratic primary. “The difficulty for Garcia is that if you're looking to unseat a popular Anglo incumbent, many of the groups you'd first turn to for support would be some of the activist groups in favor of immigrant rights,” Jones said. “Those groups have issues with Garcia dating back to his tenure as sheriff.”
And it’s not just that running for Congress, unlike mayor, opens up a whole new set of issues, like immigration. It's Garcia who's positioned himself as the anti-Trump candidate, as someone who understands and can represent the immigrant community at a time when it’s under increased attack — and not just by the deport-them-all rhetoric coming from the GOP presidential primary race. Texas is again seeing an influx of kids fleeing violence in Central America. The state, under pressure from a federal judge who has ordered it to reform the way it detains immigrant children, is considering whether to license immigrant lockups run by private prison companies as childcare facilities. Obama’s plan to shield the parents of U.S. citizen children from deportation is dead in the water because of a lawsuit spearheaded by Texas.
“Texas is on the front lines of the immigration debate,” said Angie Junck, an attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. In part, she said, that’s because of HCSO’s embrace of federal immigration enforcement efforts under Garcia. “It really was one of the deepest relationships between local law enforcement and ICE we’ve seen,” she said. Many, she said, might be hesitant to elect a sheriff who advocated putting la migra in the jail, even if he is from the community.
Still, if Garcia wants to make attacks on the immigrant community a theme in his campaign, it seems there’s ground to be made in the district. “In the last ten years that we’ve worked on immigration reform, Gene Green hasn’t been a leader whatsoever on this issue,” Junck told us.
The symbolism of Garcia’s run — the first Hispanic politician in recent memory to run for a district created for someone like him — means this particular primary race could attract national attention, says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political analyst at the University of Houston. “You might see national organizations that will have an interest in having a Latino represent that district,” he said. The district, he said, is a microcosm of a problem that’s nagged at Texas for decades: serious population booms that don’t translate into greater minority representation. "If this district can’t be won by a Latino, then there might be serious concern about how other districts can possibly be won by Latinos."
Still, Frances Valdez, a local immigration attorney, says Garcia’s hardest sell may be to progressives, not necessarily Latinos. Sure, the Latino community has probably the strongest personal connection to the debate over how to reform the country’s immigration laws. “But immigration is largely a progressive issue, not necessarily a Latino issue,” she told us. “How people define Latino issues varies by person, by campaign,” she said. The interesting thing about Garcia’s campaign, she said, will be to see “how he defines ‘Latino issues’ for Latino candidates."