The phone call U.S. Rep. Gene Green took Monday turned out to be one of the most awkward conversations of his political career. His longtime friend and ally, former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, was on the line to say that he intended to challenge Green in the March 1 Democratic primary for the Houston-based 29th Congressional district.
While Garcia's decision surprised many in Texas Democratic circles, such a challenge has long hovered in the background. Green, a 12-term incumbent, is a caucasian representing a predominantly Hispanic district, holding a seat plenty of up-and-coming Latino politicians have coveted for years. But that it was Garcia, most recently an unsuccessful Houston mayoral candidate, who followed through stunned many in Texas, including Green.
"I was surprised when he called me yesterday a little before he was going to file, and we talked, and I expressed disappointment," Green said in a phone interview with The Texas Tribune on Tuesday.
Garcia confirmed making the call and said Green asked him to reconsider.
"I went to Mass yesterday ... I went to go visit my father's grave site, who supported Gene in some of his early campaigns," Garcia said. "So it was not an easy decision by any stretch of the imagination.
"But what I learned during my mayoral campaign was that the Hispanic community was excited to have their candidate."
Garcia insisted the race is neither personal nor about policy, saying he agreed with Green on many issues. Instead, it's about demographics and real estate mogul Donald Trump's incendiary comments about the Hispanic community on the presidential campaign trail.
"I'm not against Gene Green. This is not about him," Garcia said. "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."
But for Green, 68, who recalled he and Garcia watching each other's children grow up, it is indeed personal. Trump is a smokescreen.
"I’m not Donald Trump," the incumbent said. "If he wants to run against Donald Trump, he needs to go file in the Republican primary.”
Green pointed to his years of loyalty to Garcia. He praised his newfound rival's public service, albeit lacing his compliments with what could be a coming political attack.
"I supported him when he ran for city council, when he retired from the Houston Police Department, and I supported him when he ran for sheriff," Green said. "He was a good sheriff — he had some problems with the jail — and I supported him for mayor."
Those "problems" include his handling of 2013 incident involving a mentally ill inmate while sheriff. The issue proved politically fatal to Garcia, 54, in the mayoral race.
"It plays into why this campaign is important," Garcia responded, stressing the need to examine criminal justice issues involving mentally ill, high school dropouts and the poor.
"What we see in county jails is an indication of the failure of our educational system, failure on addressing the income inequality, failure of being able to provide access to health care and mental health care," Garcia said. "So yeah, those are things I confronted, and I'm looking to have the opportunity to address this on the national level."
At first blush, some Democratic observers charged that Garcia is running for Congress seeking a consolation prize after his failed mayoral bid. Both men disagreed, with starkly different reasoning.
"There was an incredible amount of encouragement, and people were saying, 'Don't settle for mayor — shoot higher,'" Garcia said in the wake of his mayoral campaign.
Green, meanwhile, called the primary challenge run "more of a Hail Mary."
"I thought he had a chance, but when he didn’t get that many votes — and there was some controversy from his time when he was sheriff, that’s all in the public domain, and I don’t know if I’m going to talk about it, but it’s there — and I think that’s what hurt him because I’ve seen polls during September where he was second to [Houston Mayor-elect] Sylvester Turner," Green said. "And when the articles came out about some tragedies in the Harris County jail, his poll numbers went down and he never recovered."
"I don't know about a Hail Mary, other than I'm Catholic," Garcia joked in response.
Regardless of Garcia's optimism and the demographics, Houston is one of the most expensive places in the Lone Star State to run for public office. Green has nearly $1.2 million in his war chest, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Unless an incumbent is deeply flawed, faces a personal scandal or the challenger is self-funded, raising money to oust a sitting House member is a daunting endeavor.
Garcia conceded money will be a challenge, but remained hopeful.
"Just like in my mayoral campaign, I started with zero dollars and I raised more than any candidate in the race," he said. "So, I'm going to continue to work in that sphere and my donors, several have already responded that they're ready to help."
As for the Texas delegation, several Democratic members are known to have friendly ties to Garcia. But it is not proper form in Washington to endorse against a fellow member.
Garcia said he will make the ask anyway.
"I have a good relationship with all of our delegation, and I know that it’ll be difficult to endorse against a colleague but I’m going to be reaching out to everyone just the same, in hopes of being able to demonstrate that this is an opportunity to take our delegation service to a whole new level with my candidacy."