Mr. Castro Goes to Washington

A behind-the-scenes account of the big votes, dashed hopes, tough choices, and real accomplishments of a freshman lawmaker’s first year in Congress.
A "DREAMers Welcome" sign greets visitors to Castro's D.C. office, in the Cannon House Office Building.
Photograph by Jeff Wilson

One year ago I was sworn in as a United States congressman. Representing Texas’s Twentieth District, I was the successor to a South Texas legacy and part of the most diverse freshman class in American history. We came to Washington to change things, certain that we could do better than the do-nothing Congress that preceded us. We would take on big issues and finally find agreement on things like immigration reform, which had been stuck in partisan gridlock for a generation. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way. By the end of the year, the 113th Congress was one of the most unpopular in history. But through the frenzy of tough votes, committee hearings, media hoopla, policy stalemates, and lots and lots of talking, I learned a great deal about our legislative branch. I learned that Congress is a place with more heart than courage; there are more good souls in Washington than brave ones. I learned that the whole is not always the sum of its parts, that what you put in doesn’t always match what you get out. All 535 of us can be individually busy—we routinely work twelve-hour days—yet together we often wind up producing very little. That’s because gridlock isn’t just a result of a bunch of people who can’t agree on anything, it’s a result of the customs and traditions that enable those people to cause dysfunction. And yet despite all that, I learned that when it comes to finding meaning in that kind of mix, hope and faith lean on each other, and there’s a reason to keep going. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let me start at the beginning, which actually comes before the beginning. 

I. The Campaign
Around five p.m. on the day after Thanksgiving in 2011, my cellphone rang. Stirred from a nap, I saw that it was Charlie Gonzalez, the congressman representing San Antonio’s main congressional district, the Twentieth, and the son of Henry B. Gonzalez, an icon in South Texas politics who had held the same seat for nineteen terms. For a second I thought about not answering, going back to sleep and returning Charlie’s call later. If I had, I’m not sure I’d be in Congress today. 

Five months earlier, I had decided to run for one of the state’s four new congressional seats. The Thirty-fifth District was an hourglass-shaped district spanning six counties between San Antonio and Austin along Interstate 35. It would draw nearly half its constituency from San Antonio, including a large part of the West Side, where I grew up. It was the only new minority district created by the redistricting map drawn by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011, even though minorities had accounted for 89 percent of the population growth in Texas between 2000 and 2010. This was part of why the map had been instantly challenged in court by several civil rights groups. Not only did it neglect minority growth, but it was also aimed squarely at Lloyd Doggett, one of Texas’s two remaining white congressional Democrats. 

Back in 2003, a mid-decade redistricting scheme masterminded by “Washington Tom” DeLay and executed by “Texas Tom” Craddick had already laid to rest most of the other white congressional Democrats. Lloyd, who had been in Congress for sixteen years, would now have to run in District 35 and face a set of mostly new voters. His previous district, the Twenty-fifth, had been a true Southern anomaly: centered around Travis County, it was both majority white and also majority Democrat. Houston’s Gene Green, at that time the only other white Texas congressional Democrat, is from an overwhelmingly Hispanic area. The Voting Rights Act arguably allowed Republicans to mess with Lloyd but not Gene. Meanwhile, Travis County was at risk of losing any Democratic representation in Congress, as District 25 morphed into an overly Republican jurisdiction stretching from Austin up to Fort Worth. 

I’d been in the state legislature for a decade at that point. I believed I had something to contribute at the national level, particularly in the areas of education and health care, but I had never seriously considered running for Congress before since my home district was District 20, which had been represented by the Gonzalez family for more than fifty years. Henry B. Gonzalez first came to office in a special election during the Camelot years of President Kennedy. He was known as a man of principle; everyone could tell you the story about that time he punched a man out at Earl Abel’s restaurant for calling him a communist. He stood up for himself and for the little guy, no small thing for someone who came of age when signs reading “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed” still hung outside some Texas establishments. Henry B. represented San Antonio for almost 38 years, before his failing health forced him into retirement. Charlie, the third of Henry’s eight children, succeeded his father in 1999. By 2011, Charlie had made his own mark, leading the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in its battles over immigration, redistricting, and voting rights. 

I could never run against that legacy, but the creation of a new district encompassing parts of San Antonio meant I could still represent my hometown in Congress. 

Not that the race against Lloyd was going to be an easy one. Primaries are the family feuds of politics. Small differences get blown up into big deals. The contrast between our profiles fueled the race: Hispanic versus white, new blood versus experience, San Antonio versus Austin. By November 2011, Lloyd was accusing me of being a Republican stooge complicit in cheating Austin out of its congressional seat, and I was painting him as an ineffective lawmaker who felt entitled to be in Congress. It was going to be a long race.

Fortunately, on the day before Thanksgiving in 2011, the U.S. District Court ruled that the Legislature’s maps violated the Voting Rights Act and restored Lloyd’s district while retaining the new Thirty-fifth. We’d each have a district to

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