For the past decade, Republicans have not allowed U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett to take anything for granted.
The arcane and complicated legal battle over congressional redistricting in 2003 forced Doggett to move into another district after five terms. In two elections while the fight made its way through the courts, Doggett beat Republican challengers by vote totals of more than 67 percent.
In 2010, when Republicans were upsetting incumbent Democrats and retaking control of Congress, Doggett beat back an aggressive challenger, winning by the slimmest majority since he first ran for federal office.
Doggett has again decided to move, with a considerable push from Republican legislative mapmakers, to a newly created District 35, setting up a Democratic primary that pits his longtime Austin and Travis County base against a Latino majority in San Antonio and Bexar County.
Doggett, 65, is facing two challengers from San Antonio, Sylvia Romo, 69, Bexar County Tax Assessor-Collector, and Maria Luisa Alvarado, 55, a U.S. Air Force veteran and candidate for lieutenant governor in 2006.
The nine-term congressman has responded with some of the hardest campaigning of his career and almost $3 million in cash to spend on television ads carpet bombing the I-35 corridor of the district.
“He’s been through this before,” Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in San Antonio says. “Lloyd Doggett has never been accused of being complacent. He’s come out and worked. He’s been to every event you can think of in San Antonio. He wants to win.”
The difference this time is not that District 35 was drawn to be more conservative. The winner of the Democratic primary is expected to be a heavy favorite in November against the winner of a three-person Republican primary, a candidate each from the Libertarian and Green parties and an independent.
The district is now heavily made up of Democrats who have no investment in Doggett. The legal challenge to the congressional map drawn by the Legislature, turned back by the Supreme Court, pivoted on the desire to give a growing Hispanic population in Texas commensurate electoral power.
The success of what Hispanic voting advocates say was a flawed redistricting compromise will be tested in District 35, Steve Bickerstaff, an election and redistricting expert at the University of Texas School of Law, says.
“Doggett’s district (old District 25) was not made up of predominantly minority voters,” Bickerstaff says. “That has changed considerably in the 35th.”
Romo believes these newly empowered Latino voters are ready to make a change. Romo insists she is running not as a Latino but as a professional who happens to be Latina. Nonetheless, she says voters in the district recognize a cultural gulf between Doggett and them.
“What I’m hearing from voters is he (Doggett) doesn’t represent the new district,” she says. “I’m hearing them say, ‘It’s our time now.’”
Romo says she has spent a lot of her campaign time in Austin and thinks Democrats there may be suffering from Doggett fatigue. Whether or not that is true, a week before the May 29 primary, Diane Holloway, staff reporter and blogger for the Travis County Democratic Party, posted on her Facebook page, “Is this really the best we can do? Turnout for the Democratic Primary in politically hip Travis County is currently at 1.63 percent. That's no good. We MUST do better.”
From what she has seen, Camarillo thinks voter interest should be high among Hispanics. She isn’t sure how much either Romo or Alvarado will benefit from the increase.
Romo knew going in she would be taking on Doggett’s long incumbency. Her relatively late December start cost her in donor support, she says.
Doggett has through May 9 listed with the Federal Election Commission $1.1 million in money spent. Romo spent $60,800 during that same period and has just $20,021 on hand. Alvarado, who says she has made little attempt to raise funds, has spent $5,093 and has $896 in cash.
You can view FEC donor figures for every candidate running for Congress in Texas by clicking here.
“You can’t begin to compare my money versus his money. He’s buying all these ads. Yes, I’d like to be on TV more, but I am a known commodity here in Bexar County,” Romo says.
A district of working and middle class families would benefit from a congresswoman who has been a CPA for 31 years and whose profession involves balancing a budget, Romo says.
After serving two terms in the Texas House, Romo ran for and in 1996 became the first Latina elected tax assessor-collector in Bexar County.
Her knowledge of the tax code would help identify and close loopholes for special interest groups and to identify and protect those few tax benefits available to the middle class, Romo says.
“I will be the watchdog for financial matters,” Romo says.
Alvarado, too, has heard from voters in Bexar and Travis counties that Doggett’s core Austin constituency looks, works and lives differently than the majority in the new district. “I call them class issues,” Alvarado says. “It isn’t my goal to define the district that way (by race). I don’t hear that, and I don’t ever bring it up.”
Those class issues most important to Alvarado are job creation and serving a significant population of veterans who work in and have retired from military service. If elected, Alvarado proposes an inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Claims of all kinds for veterans are not handled in a timely enough way, she says.
Alvarado’s support for term limits (although she says she isn’t sure what that limit should be) is consistent with her idea of true public service from someone elected to Congress.
“Incumbency shouldn’t be some guarantee, and I really believe that money shouldn’t have an impact on elections,” she says. “Real democracy doesn’t work that way.”
Alvarado’s definition is far removed from Doggett’s democratic reality: that of a resourceful, close-quarters puncher who knows how to raise a lot of money and knows how to deploy it.
Doggett has survived because of, not in spite of, his being the chief, unabashed liberal tormentor of the state’s Republican leadership.
The Doggett campaign did not respond to several e-mail requests made by Texas Watchdog for an interview with Doggett or a spokesman.
During Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign for president, Doggett drew national attention to a regular stream of criticism that made it appear the two were running against one another for some office.
“Doggett is simply embracing a confrontational political style that is the hallmark of his career,” Politico said in August. “An unapologetic liberal, Doggett loves to paint himself as a defiant, stick-in-the-eye of Republicans who dominate the conservative state but who (have) not yet managed to oust him from office.”
Doggett was at his most defiant poking an amendment to a $10 billion teacher hiring and retention bill in the face of Perry. Mightily piqued at how the Texas Legislature spent $3.2 billion in stimulus funding for schools in 2009, Doggett convinced a Democratic-controlled Congress to include an amendment for Texas – and only Texas – dictating the conditions of spending the state’s share of the funding.
Attorney General Greg Abbott sued on behalf of the state and won.
“After months of waiting, Texas schools will finally receive their $830 million share of education funds that were unnecessarily delayed in Washington, D.C.,” Abbott said in a statement at the time. “We are grateful that the new Congress remedied Congressman Doggett’s attempt to discriminate against his own State—and its school children.”
Doggett regularly takes on the Republican House majority, particularly on entitlement and education budget cutting. He is an outspoken member of the House Budget and Ways and Means committees and the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Human Resources.
Earlier this month, Doggett assailed a plan to trim back the Social Services Block Grant Program.
“I think this whole bill is misnamed,” Doggett told colleagues. “It’s not reconciliation—it’s WRECKonciliation because it will wreck one life after another whether it’s preventive health care or whether it’s Jenny and the food she relies on through the Meals on Wheels program. I think we should reject the wreck and adopt the motion.”
This pugnaciousness plays particularly well in Austin where the Republican ascension in the state has been endured like a locust plague. The San Antonio Express-News was sufficiently charmed to endorse Doggett over the hometown candidates.
“While Doggett's abrasive style has made him a GOP target,” the Express-News editorial board wrote. “his experience and seniority are assets that far outweigh the attributes of his Democratic opponents.”
What is left for the primary to decide is whether or not Doggett’s liberal message is interpreted as college town elitism or working class populism and whether or not Hispanic voters want their Democratic message delivered by someone who is not Hispanic.
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