PHARR — Nine candidates filled the stage at a Monday night debate in the contest to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, an Edinburg Democrat. But the evening's lone personal shot was directed at the retiring incumbent rather than anyone's competition.
“I have the charisma to be able to get this done,” said law student and Democratic hopeful Ruben Ramirez. “Part of the reason we have failed in Washington — and when I say ‘we,’ I mean our current congressman — is because he lacks that charisma.”
That was the closest thing to mudslinging at a forum that focused mostly on infrastructure, education, economic, border and drug policy. And with the exception of marijuana legalization, the Democrats agreed with each other.
An open-seat U.S. House race is sure to draw a packed field, and nine candidates — six Democrats and three Republicans — are aiming to succeed the 10-term congressman.
It’s mostly a mad scramble on the Democratic side, predictable since the party is expected to easily hold the 15th District in the fall.
So six Democrats — former Hidalgo County Democratic Chairwoman Dolly Elizondo, attorney Vicente Gonzalez, Edinburg School Board Member Juan “Sonny” Palacios Jr., former Hidalgo County Commissioner Joel Quintanilla, Ramirez, and accountant Randy Sweeten — are in a fight to place in the top two during the March 1 primary and make it to a probable runoff.
Three Republicans — former Rio Grande City Mayor Ruben O. Villareal, Edinburg School Board Member Xavier Salinas and Pastor Tim Westley — are also hoping to win the GOP nod or force a March 24 runoff in their party, but the Democratic nominee is likely to coast through the fall election.
All the candidates in the debate exhibited fluency with federal and local issues and boasted enough local accomplishments to build a base of support.
With such a sprawling Democratic field, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will emerge into the runoff. But three in particular, bring formidable advantages to the race: Elizondo, Gonzalez and Palacio.
More than anyone else, Gonzalez turned the race upside down with the $750,000 he loaned his campaign, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission reports. His rivals suspect he has put in far more since the Dec. 31 reporting deadline.
“I believe in myself and I believe in my race, and campaigns are expensive, unfortunately,” Gonzalez said, adding that he has no affinity for dialing for dollars. “It just takes resources and there’s not much time to do fundraising, so I committed myself personally and financially to winning this campaign.”
Self-funding has allowed Gonzalez to have a sustained and saturated presence on television in a way no other candidate can.
Palacios and Elizondo were both sheepish about Gonzalez’s investment, but they insisted the race is about more than television and loans. “Money buys a lot of things, but it doesn’t buy you elections, it doesn’t buy votes,” Palacios said.
Palacio’s best asset? His family name.
Political observers frequently note that the family brand is political gold in South Texas where a Palacios has never lost a political campaign. He attributes the strength to political and business goodwill built by his family over the decades.
“The strong family name is not just because politically or because we’re attorneys,” he said. “It’s because of what we’ve done [on a] community services basis within a span of 40 years.”
Elizondo, the lone woman in the Democratic race, has a chance to make history: Texas has yet to send a Hispanic woman to Congress, and it’s been 20 years since the state sent a freshman woman to serve a full term.
Recognizing this, prominent state and national women are invested in her cause. Former state Sen. Wendy Davis cut two personal checks to the campaign so far, and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York donated to Elizondo from her leadership political action committee.
But more than anything else, Elizondo has EMILY’s List on her side, a national fundraising juggernaut that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights.
Elizondo said she had no idea about the historical angle of the race until EMILY’s List contacted her immediately after the Hinojosa retirement in November. She said group operatives were on the ground within days.
“Where I come from, it’s just getting out the message,” she said. “I try where I can to let women know that history.”
“They structured us,” she said of EMILY's List. “They helped tremendously with fundraising ... once they endorsed, that just opened the floodgates.”
Still, it’s an oddly shaped district, encompassing a solid amount of the Rio Grande Valley — mostly McAllen and Edinburg — but snaking north from the border, all the way to Seguin.
President Obama carried the district in 2012 by a 16-point margin, lending confidence to Democrats who believe the party will hold the seat in the fall.
It's a historically impoverished region, and the candidates argued that its time has come. A common thread in the debate and in interviews is an interest in using education to develop the region economically.
Gonzalez said his chief policy goal would be funding two years’ worth of training and education for each post-secondary student. Besides helping move South Texans into the middle class, he argued, it would boost tax revenues as people move up tax brackets.
Asked what committee assignment she would most prize, Elizondo did not miss a beat picking appropriations, arguing she could use the position to direct economic, education and infrastructure development in the region.
But, she conceded, such an assignment is rare for a freshman, and she expressed interest in serving on the U.S. House’s Education And Workforce Committee.
Palacios incorporated his educational bent, thanks to his time on the school board. Asked if he had any reservations about running against the would-be first Latina in Congress, he pointed to his efforts to achieve pay equity among male and female athletic coaches.
And, he argued, the job honed his retail outreach. “I get a lot of people who are saying, ‘Sonny we are with you, we trust you,’” he said.
“I’ve been on the Edinburg School Board for the past six years," he said, "championing these things handing out diplomas, going to a lot of graduations and going to a lot of Christmas events ... just new teacher orientations and shaking hands for the last six years.”