U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, the nine-term, liberal Austin congressman, foiled Republicans’ efforts to redistrict him out of office in 2003 and intends to do it again in 2012, living “in a Winnebago, if that’s what it takes,” to vie for a newly-drawn district that encompasses San Antonio’s most Democratic and Hispanic neighborhoods and spreads up to southern Travis County.
The Republican Legislature drew him a bad map again this year, and getting through March’s Democratic primary could be a doozy. At a minimum, Doggett will face State Rep. Joaquin Castro, a 36-year-old rising star in his party who has politics in his DNA — his identical twin brother Julián is San Antonio’s mayor — and grew up in one of the San Antonio neighborhoods central to the new district.
“If you’re going by the numbers, I would say Castro is the heavy favorite,” said Harold Cook, a Democratic political consultant based in Austin. “But if there’s any Anglo candidate, any Austin candidate, who can win this race, it’s Doggett.”
While Castro isn’t the only prominent Latino Democrat to eye the seat — in the last month, several of his colleagues in the San Antonio delegation have attested to considering it — the consensus appears to have gelled around him.
“I think we’ve all learned in the past the mistakes of everyone ganging up on each other,” Castro told the Tribune during an interview at an East Austin Mexican restaurant, in his first public confirmation that he’s running for the seat.
In a phone interview from Washington, Doggett said he thinks the newly redistricted Congressional map is unconstitutional, and is confident the court will redraw it. In the meantime, he’s gearing up for a run in the new District 35 — the only way “for a Democrat to win from my hometown.”
“My campaign is going to be more about the Republican power structure and their determination to have Democrats fight Democrats” than about Castro, Doggett said.
While Castro agrees the redistricting map presents serious legal problems, he thinks the new District 35, with its largely Hispanic, largely Democratic base, will survive it. He sees it as a “blessing in disguise for two cities that really complement each other, that are intertwined.”
The Legislature’s GOP majority has tackled congressional redistricting — the post-Census restructuring of Texas’ U.S. House seats — in the special session, drawing a map that largely keeps Republicans safe, while adding four new districts to account for the state’s booming population. The map redraws Doggett’s current district in a way that almost assures he can’t be re-elected to it. And it alters the 23rd district, which Castro considered running in before redistricting, in a way favorable to U.S. Rep. Francisco "Quico" Canseco of San Antonio, the Republican incumbent. But the map includes a new 35th district spanning from South Austin to east Bexar County — territory that voted 60 percent for Obama in the last election — laying the foundation for a dog-eat-dog Democratic primary.
Castro is expected to have the upper hand with the new district’s base. He and his brother were born to activist parents in San Antonio, raised in the city’s neighborhoods and educated in its public schools. They’ve been active in politics since returning from Stanford University and Harvard Law: Castro, an attorney, was elected to the Texas House in 2002 and is serving his fifth term; his twin and law partner served on the San Antonio City Council, and was first elected mayor in 2005.
In the Texas House, Castro has advocated for higher education affordability, opposed massive budget cuts in public schools and health care, and this session helped restore millions of dollars in financing to them. But he’s been stymied by a Republican majority that has left little room for up-and-coming Democrats. “To say it’s taken no toll would be insincere,” Castro said.
Doggett has faced similar challenges, like Republicans’ repeated efforts to unseat him. The former Texas Supreme Court justice and state senator, who was elected to Texas’ 10th congressional district in 1995, held his seat until 2003, when then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay came to Austin to help state GOP lawmakers redistrict him out of it. Undeterred, Doggett jumped to the 25th district, which he has held ever since.
And while he may not be as familiar to San Antonians, Doggett said Central Texas voters know his reputation for working for education, seniors and veterans, for standing up to Wall Street banks and international tax dodgers, for generally taking on Republicans at every opportunity.
“Republicans have done all that they possibly could to eliminate me as one of their most effective adversaries” — to no avail, Doggett said.
Castro said he had a candid conversation with Doggett about running for District 35 several weeks ago, before the final maps were drawn. He said Doggett didn’t directly ask him not to run, but reminded Castro that he has a hefty war chest. (At last count, Doggett had $2.8 million cash on hand; Castro said he can’t legally start fundraising until 30 days after the regular legislative session that ended May 30, but that he’ll be “very competitive.”)
But Doggett said Castro wasn’t clear about his intentions. He said he reached out to Castro first to discuss the Congressional field, and that at that time, Castro appeared to be considering a run against Canseco in District 23, “to help pick up a seat rather than to cause an internal battle.”
Castro said he has no desire to start an internal fight, he just wants to be “a fresh voice for a new district.” And he took a not-so-veiled jab at Doggett’s lone ranger reputation, saying, “I’ve mixed it up with Republicans, and I haven’t been shy about it, but I’ve also found a way to be effective by working with others and not alienating anyone.”
Both candidates downplay the effect their geographic differences will have on the race. San Antonio’s Castro said Austin has been a second home for him since he was elected to the Legislature in 2002. Austin’s Doggett said he has previously represented roughly half of the new District 35, which Castro’s current state House district barely overlaps.
Cook, the political consultant, said if the congressional map is upheld, the new district’s makeup — highly Hispanic, centered around San Antonio — bodes well for Castro, “to the tune of about 100,000 voters.” But the reality, he said, is that Doggett performs best when he’s up against a wall. When he was redistricted in 2003, Cook said Doggett scrambled, leaving no stone unturned as he raised money and built allegiances up and down his new district.
“I don’t necessarily think Doggett’s going to win because he starts at a huge disadvantage,” Cook said. “But if it were anybody other than Doggett, I would go to Vegas and put my money on Castro.”