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How a Brownsville Democrat’s retirement, the migrant surge and new political maps leave South Texas vulnerable to GOP takeover



TX – Two days after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, half-jokingly suggested that if Donald Trump had put a laser focus on subduing the COVID-19 pandemic, the political landscape would have looked far different.

That went for the nation, including an area that has been one of the safest parts of Texas for Democratic officeholders.

“I might have got beat,” Vela said with a chuckle during an interview Jan. 22. Less than three weeks earlier, he was sworn into office for a fifth term representing a largely rural district stretching across 11 counties from the Rio Grande Valley to just east of San Antonio, and he was looking ahead to his new volunteer role as vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

But there was more than a little truth to Vela’s off-the-cuff comment about his own political vulnerability. His victory margins had grown smaller with each election, and so had those of his fellow Democrats in neighboring congressional districts anchored along the Rio Grande.

When Vela issued his surprise announcement Monday that he will not run again in 2022, both Republicans and some neutral observers saw it as recognition that the Democrats’ solid lock on South Texas could be loosening.

“The Republican Party has clearly targeted the Rio Grande Valley following this last election,” said Clyde Barrow, chairman of the political science department at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “So Republicans will be looking to strengthen their position in the Valley to see if they can capture (one or more) congressional seats.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, is targeting Vela’s district, along with two other South Texas Democratic seats in the 2022 election, in an effort to regain control of the U.S. House.

Matt Mackowiak, Travis County GOP chair and a veteran Texas Republican operative, noted that Trump ran surprisingly strongly in several border counties as he carried Texas in 2020. And that helped boost down-ballot GOP candidates, even if they did not win, Mackowiak added.

“The challenge for Republicans is to consolidate those gains and hold them in the next election,” he said. “And I think there’s an opportunity for that. I have to think that this Biden border crisis is playing terribly down there, even among people who may not think of themselves as, quote-unquote, Republicans.”

Migrant surge

The influx of migrants crossing into Texas without authorization, and the Biden administration’s struggle to find room for unaccompanied children in shelters has surfaced as an ongoing talking point for Republicans both in the state and around the nation.

Gov. Greg Abbott, almost daily, has accused the new administration of being inept and even “enticing” minors to put themselves at risk of being trafficked because of what he calls lax immigration enforcement. Several GOP state senators visited South Texas detention facilities on Monday and decried the crowded conditions.

And Republicans are not the only ones sounding the alarm about Biden’s approach to immigration. On Monday, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, sent news outlets photos of young migrants inside crowded detention centers with little or no social distancing to limit the spread of COVID-19.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, whose district lies between those of Vela and Cuellar, also has called on Biden to take the escalating number of migrant crossings and apprehensions more seriously.

“We need to address this migrant issue head-on with the input of stakeholders that know the border region best,” Gonzalez said. “It’s imperative we get this situation under control or we are looking at another crisis on our hands.”

Drawing new districts

The next congressional elections will take place after the districts are redrawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature to reflect changes from 2020 census data. Since Vela was reelected last year with about 54% of the vote and Gonzalez’s share was just over 50%, mapmakers could be eying one or both districts as opportunities to carve out GOP majorities.

Longtime Texas Democratic operative Matt Angle said such an effort would be a deliberate attempt to dilute the votes of South Texas Hispanics, who tend to be conservative on many social issues but more progressive on such bread-and-butter matters as access to health coverage.

“What they are doing is setting the stage for a discriminatory map,” Angle said. “The redistricting ‘big lie’ is the notion of a Hispanic Republican district. There is no such thing in Texas.”

When he announced his decision to step aside, Vela made no mention of the coming redistricting, nor did he give any clue about his own political future. In his January interview with the USA TODAY Network, Vela did acknowledge having had some interest in serving in Biden’s Cabinet. He wasn’t selected for a position.

Vela’s wife, Rose, a former state judge, was recently named director of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. The commission is responsible for selecting emerging leaders interested in public service to gain first-hand experience on the inner workings of the federal government.

Carlos Cascos, a former Republican Cameron County judge who more recently served as Texas secretary of state, said he’s mulling entering the race to replace Vela. But he said he’s not sure “if I have the fire in my belly” to mount what he predicts would be a partisan-charged endeavor at a time when hard-right conservatives control much of the state GOP organization.

“It’s kind of challenging to convince the primary voter – do you want somebody who can win in that November race,” said Cascos, who considers himself a middle-of-the-road Republican. “I just don’t see extremists, not in the Valley, winning races.”

Tony Zavaleta, a longtime Brownsville political insider, said it would be foolish to write off Democrats in the race, unless the district were gerrymandered beyond recognition. Most of the local political machinery is run by Democrats, he said, and the party’s bench is deep in South Texas, from local city council seats through county courthouses to the statehouse.

“This is a huge opportunity for a Democrat that doesn’t come around too often,” said Zavaleta, 74. “If I were younger, I’d run for it myself.”