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 campaign in. For the first time since June, I was able to relax. I would get to run for the new seat without having to challenge a longtime congressman. So after the holiday, I did some Black Friday shopping at the outlet malls in San Marcos, then came back home and sank into a much-needed nap. A little while later the phone rang.
“Hey, Joaquin. This is Charlie.”
“Hey, Charlie. How are things?”
“Good. Listen, I called to let you know that I’m not going to run for reelection . . .”
Had I not answered the phone, there’s no telling whom Charlie’s next call would have been to. But I did, and by the end of the night, I had withdrawn from District 35 to run in District 20. And it’s a good thing too: three months later, a federal district court redrew congressional district boundaries, putting Lloyd back into the Thirty-fifth (which he now represents). Charlie’s call ended up sparing me a difficult primary fight.
Election Day 2012 marked a start and a finish: I could start representing the people of San Antonio in Washington and end the juggled lifestyles of a state legislator and lawyer. Either one could easily be a full-time job, but for ten years, I had tried to do both. Making a living as a lawyer and doing my job as a legislator sometimes proved difficult. Most clients don’t like it when you tell them you need to take five months off to go to Austin. One year I taught a class at St. Mary’s University law school at eight in the morning every weekday and then rushed up to Austin for the ten o’clock start of session.
As a state legislator, I had worked with Republicans and Democrats to pass a number of bills, including some related to higher education and juvenile justice; I’d created what would become San Antonio’s largest book drive and literacy campaign. But the tea party wave of 2010 had changed things at the state capitol. The new Republican supermajority swiftly cut education funding by $5 billion and passed voter ID and sonogram laws. Meanwhile, the daily grind of litigation, a routine of early-morning hearings before district court judges disgruntled by the responsibility of resolving the “he said, she said” of divorce disputes, was no longer enjoyable. The feeling that I should probably do something else overtook me one day as I waited to begin a court hearing in Medina County. Outside the courtroom sat a man and a woman with their attorneys, trying to reach a divorce agreement. In sniping voices the couple agreed on who should walk away with what until someone brought up the George Foreman grill. “No, girl, don’t give him the grill!” advised the woman’s friend.
“Man, what am I doing here?” I thought. After ten years I was ready for a change. It was time to focus on one thing.