When the 82nd Texas Legislature convened in January 2011, Republicans cheered the inroads they made with Latinos after swearing in five Hispanic members.
Two years later, however, veteran Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, and freshman Jose Aliseda, R-Beeville, have opted out, and one new recruit, Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, who switched over to the Republican Party in March, faces a tough primary challenge in his bid to return for his sophomore session. Add to that Rep. Raul Torres, R-Corpus Christi, who is running for Texas Senate, and El Paso Republican Dee Margo, who faces a general election contest with Joe Moody, and it’s possible the ranks of the GOP’s Hispanic members will dwindle.
In the Rio Grande Valley, six Democrats are running in the May 29 primary for the seats vacated by Aliseda (House District 35) and Peña (House District 40). There are no candidates from other parties in either race.
Four candidates, all with life-long ties to Hidalgo County, are eying Peña’s seat: Lawyers Agustin Hernandez Jr. and Terry Canales, small-business owner “T.C.” Betancourt and Robert Peña Jr., the former executive director of the Edinburg Economic Development Corp.
HD-40 now has a voting-age population of about 108,000, according to the Texas Legislative Council’s district analysis.
Canales comes from a well-known political family: His father, Terry Andres Canales, served two House terms in the 1970s, and his sister, Gabi Canales, served one House term from 2003 to 2005. Canales insists, however, that doesn’t matter.
“We are dealing with educated voters, and people identify me for me and not for who my family is,” Canales said. Who “he” is, Canales added, is the race’s most well-rounded candidate. He cites his experience in ranching and in the oil-and-gas business, both as an attorney that represents the latter and as a former roustabout, as proof.
“I know the oil field from the ground up as a businessman and as an attorney, and I know what effects those industries have on the community,” he said. “I would say that that’s what sets me apart from the rest of the candidates.”
Canales also has the support of the Texas AFL-CIO and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, groups associated with the more progressive wing of the party. Asked how he reconciled that support with his oil-and-gas credentials, which represent a more conservative-minded industry, Canales said he is capable of separating the two.
“I don’t vote on party lines just because the Democrats say something, I can make my own assessment and make up my own mind intelligently and make my own decision,” Canales said.
Canales has an Edinburg address, but Peña calls him outsider who lists that residence for the sole purpose of running in the district.
“In Edinburg we are going to take care of our own, we are going to look at who the Edinburg boys are and go for them first versus an outsider,” said Peña, who is not related to the outgoing representative. “I was born here and raised here and went to school here, the only time I spent away from here was my nine years in the military and post-secondary education.”
He cites his private-sector work as evidence that he is what the district needs in Austin.
“I feel like my opponents have limited, if any, community experience or background,” said Peña, who has also worked as an area manager of the county’s workforce office. “I have spent over 20 years of my life [giving] to my country, first as a Marine and veteran of Desert Storm, and to my community and to the our school district.”
Hernandez said his humble upbringing is relatable to a lot of people in the district.
“I am not a career politician, and I don’t come from a family that has groomed me to become a politician,” he said. “My parents weren’t well off growing up, and I think that is pretty much what a lot of people in my district can say.” He said he doesn’t have a campaign manager and instead handles all the aspects of the task himself.
Hernandez doesn’t use interviews to talk about opportunism, redistricting or distancing himself from his opponents. What he wants to talk about, he said, is the cycle Hidalgo County is trapped in.
“We have the highest [high school] dropout rate, the highest unemployment rate. We are the youngest part of the nation, yet we have the lowest number of children with health care,” he said. “And I am running because we want to cure those disparities, and I think we have a very valid argument that we give a lot to the state of Texas. We are always one of the top 10 counties that produce sales-tax revenue. We just want equity and to cure those disparities because we know that we deserve it.”
Hernandez concedes that voters in the district are partially to blame for the situation, having shied away from the voting booths for years. The low turnout, he said, means voters don’t elect the best candidate, but instead the one with the most money or name identification.
But he said that’s a byproduct of the same cycle.
“We are very close to the poverty line, if not under it, so we spend our time worrying about what we’re going to do to put food on the table rather than voting,” he said.
“It’s all connected with voter distrust. At least two of 10 people say that they don’t vote because ‘why waste a Sunday or a Monday or a Tuesday when I can spend it with my family and we are trying to work or trying to find ways to put food on the table?’”
Betancourt and his campaign staff did not respond to requests for comment.
As for the current state representative, Aaron Peña said he has no regrets about not seeking another term. He said he would have lost anyway, and that had as much to do with his decision as the politics he hopes to leave behind.
“It’s the reason I didn’t run, it’s a 75 percent Democratic district,” he said. “And it is heavily influenced by the old ways of getting elected — the machine method of paying for votes.”
With such a crowded field, a July 31 runoff could greet two of the challengers after the May 29 contest.
Aliseda’s district was redrawn and he would have entered into the HD-43 race and faced three Republican challengers. But he opted out before that and chose instead to run for district attorney of Bee, Live Oak and McMullen counties.
That has set the stage for an HD-35 Democratic primary contest between Oscar Longoria and Gus Ruiz, two lawyers who have taken out more than $60,000 each in loans — mainly money they lent themselves — to be competitive.
HD-35 now includes 17 percent of Cameron County and 13 percent of Hidalgo County and has a voting-age population of about 109,000, according to the Texas Legislative Council’s district analysis.
Ruiz, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who served in Iraq, is also a former prosecutor in the Cameron County district attorney’s office. He was elected to the Harlingen City Commission in 2010 but resigned his seat after deciding to run for the Texas House.
Longoria, a graduate from the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, currently serves on the board of trustees for South Texas College.
The sparring has been light in the race. Longoria’s only criticism of his opponent is that he initially filed to run in another district.
“A lot of the community was pretty upset with my opponent,” he said. “He sat on the City Commission for a couple of months and stepped down because he was thinking about running against Rep. J.M. Lozano. At the end of the day, that district didn’t end up happening so I think they kind of saw him as an opportunist.”
Calls to Ruiz’s staff seeking comment from the candidate were unsuccessful.