For state Rep. Lon Burnam, there’s the opponent on the ballot officially running against him and the one who might as well be.
The Fort Worth Democrat is facing a primary challenge — his first in 16 years — from Carlos Vasquez, a Fort Worth school board member. But the bigger threat to Burnam’s re-election could be Domingo Garcia, a former state representative from Dallas who is running for a congressional seat that includes most of Burnam’s House District 90.
Garcia has vowed to put his campaign resources into increasing Hispanic turnout across the newly drawn Congressional District 33, which unites minority communities from Fort Worth to Dallas. In District 90, in which 71 percent of the voting-age population is Hispanic, Garcia’s push could drive a lot of votes to Vasquez, too.
“Domingo Garcia is the major issue in this race,” said Burnam, who is white. “I think Carlos is counting on a much larger electorate turning out to vote straight Hispanic.”
Garcia was a major player in the redistricting litigation that resulted in the drawing CD-33 and is one of 11 Democrats running for the seat.
Garcia’s campaign denied playing any active role in Vasquez’s challenge against Burnam.
“Domingo is not endorsing any candidate in that race,” said campaign manager Anna Casey. “We don’t plan to get involved in any other race than the race for 33.”
Vasquez, who has publicly endorsed Garcia, sees things differently.
“Yes, he is supporting my campaign,” Vasquez said. “He is involved. He has donated to my campaign, and he does give me advice and we are collaborating in some aspects.
“When [Garcia campaign workers] pass out literature, they pass out some of my literature,” Vasquez added. “We attend a lot of events together.”
Casey said Vasquez is mistaken. Garcia made a commitment last year through his political action committee, New American PAC, to support Vasquez. The commitment for $10,000 was made before the state’s congressional map was redrawn to incorporate part of Dallas County into District 33, which prompted Garcia to launch his own campaign, Casey said. Since then, Garcia has opted to not endorse in any Democratic primaries.
Last year, $6,000 in donations from New American PAC made up about a third of Vasquez’s total fundraising.
“There is no coordination between the two campaigns ever,” Casey said. “I understand from the field that we do share some enthusiastic volunteers.”
Vasquez said he believes his ethnicity helps him identify with the constituents of District 90 but that it isn’t what qualifies him to represent the district.
“I think it’s important to have diverse representation but not [in place of] quality,” Vasquez said. “I’m not running as a Latino in District 90. I’m running primarily as an educator.”
That said, Vasquez acknowledged that Garcia’s campaign would play a role in his race against Burnam. Last week, Garcia opened a campaign office on Fort Worth's north side in the heart of District 90.
“We don’t normally have people with deep pockets who turn out the Latino vote,” Vasquez said. “Domingo has made a commitment to either double or triple the Latino turnout which will be nice. … I’m sure that’s a concern for Lon. If he had been more involved in issues impacting Latinos, maybe he wouldn’t be so worried.”
Burnam said he has worked hard for his Hispanic constituents and will soon launch a “Latinos for Lon” coalition of supporters.
“I think I've done an exemplary job of representing the entire district, and the Latino district in particular, but obviously not everyone is on board with that way of thinking,” Burnam said.
For years, prominent Fort Worth Hispanics have expressed interest in finding one of their own to replace Burnam in the House.
Tarrant County Constable Sergio De Leon and Fort Worth City Councilman Sal Espino said they are supporting Vasquez because of his background in education and because the district needs a change.
De Leon agreed that many area Hispanic voters will be motivated to cast a ballot next month because of the congressional race but may also end up supporting Vasquez without knowing much about him.
"We need to be celebrating that, potentially, Hispanic turnout could be at a maximum this election cycle," De Leon said.
Burnam is one of only a few Anglo members of the state's Mexican American Legislative Caucus — and with good reason, said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, the caucus chairman.
"You have to be brown or you have to have a brown heart, and I think Lon fits wholly in that brown heart category," Martinez Fischer said.
First elected to the House in 1996, Burnam will be the most senior member of Tarrant County's House delegation if he wins re-election. He is also a co-chairman in the House Democratic Campaign Committee. Yet his strong stances have alienated him from Republicans on occasion and hobbled his ability to move legislation. In 2003, Burnam was the only “no” vote on the election of Republican Tom Craddick to Speaker of the House. For years afterward, bills with his name on them were nonstarters.
Burnam said he has worked on bills behind the scenes and been effective in helping stymie efforts by Republicans to pass measures that would be bad for his constituents.
Vasquez said it’s time for the district to have a representative who can work with both parties.
“People just have Lon Burnam fatigue,” Vasquez said.