Texas House District 40, which is anchored by the Rio Grande Valley town of Edinburg, encompasses one of the poorest areas in the state, with 42 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. The population is 94.9 percent Hispanic. More than half of its adults never graduated from high school. Not surprising to anyone who follows Texas politics, the district is also solidly blue. It has never elected a Republican when a Democrat was on the ballot, and 2010 was no different. In November, 76 percent of District 40 voters backed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White over Republican incumbent Rick Perry. Those same voters also gave Democrat Aaron Peña, who ran unopposed, his fifth term in the Texas House. Though the election was a disaster for Democrats statewide, all seemed well in District 40.
Then came December 14, a day that will live in infamy, at least for Democrats in Texas. That afternoon, at a press conference at Republican party headquarters in Austin, Peña appeared, flanked by Perry, House Speaker Joe Straus, and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, to make a cataclysmic announcement. He looked giddy as he stepped to the microphone, and so did the Republicans gathered around him. “I used to think Republicans had horns,” Peña said. “But I checked, and they don’t!” Though he had spent his whole career opposing them, Peña now declared that he felt more at home among Republicans. He was switching parties.
Peña’s defection, which happened at the same time Nederland state representative Allan Ritter decided to change parties, heralded a supermajority for Republicans by boosting their membership in the House to 101 lawmakers. No longer would the GOP have to fear upstart Democrats’ resorting to guerrilla tactics like that quorum-busting road trip to Oklahoma in 2003. Thanks to Peña and Ritter, the Republicans were a quorum.
But Peña’s conversion had even larger implications. As the first Hispanic member of the House to switch from Democrat to Republican, he represented the opening salvo in an epic struggle in Texas politics. With Hispanics expected to claim a majority of the Texas population by 2020, the continued dominance of the state Republican party depends on its ability to attract Hispanic politicians, who will in turn keep the party from losing touch with a growing constituency. Meanwhile, the Democrats have staked their best hope for a resurgence with the emerging Hispanic voting bloc. For years, observers have assumed that these demographic changes benefit Democrats, but Peña’s decision casts doubt on these assumptions. He himself has argued that Democrats have been taking for granted the support of the Hispanic community. Furthermore, many Hispanics adhere to values consistent with Republican principles. As Catholics, they are pro-life; as small-business owners, they loathe taxes.
Certainly the November election provided evidence that the Hispanic Republican has emerged as a viable political species. Texas elected two Hispanic Republican congressmen and six Hispanic Republican members of the Texas House. Buoyed by their success, Republicans began planning to use their advantage in this year’s redistricting to field more Hispanic candidates. And in Austin, many political observers extolled Peña as a prescient political strategist on the leading edge of a massive demographic shift. But was his partisan maneuver as canny as all this or was it just one more odd move by a quixotic politician who, back in District 40, now has no chance of winning reelection ever again?
I caught up with the 51-year-old Peña in February, over a plate of tacos at a restaurant in Edinburg. The evening had started on a promising note, as I accompanied him to the beautifully restored Edinburg Municipal Auditorium for the mayor’s state of the city speech. Local pols greeted Peña with abrazos and backslaps. Mayor Pro Tem Agustin “Gus” Garcia politely introduced Peña, betraying no indication that only recently he’d announced that he might run against him in 2012.
But as a local journalist interviewed Peña, a scowling man accompanied by his two young sons watched in angry silence. After the interview, he unloaded on Peña, who looked crestfallen. Pushing through the crowd, I introduced myself to Daniel Vasquez, who told me he had brought his sons so he could show them to Peña and castigate the lawmaker for failing to protect their education.
“I’m very angry,” Vasquez told me. “A lot of people are. We’re one hundred percent Democratic down here!” Waving his hand at Peña, he added, “He backstabbed us!”
The exchange darkened Peña’s mood: “What I said to him was ‘Give me a chance to win back your trust.’ He said no.”
As we walked out into the balmy night air, Peña seemed sincerely hurt. “I could have become a Buddhist and nobody would have said anything. I change parties and they go berserk!” he said with wonder.
His wonder may come in part from the fact that he has always staked out an independent path for himself as a politician. The personal has always seemed to matter to him more than the partisan, for better or for worse. He was the first major politician in the state to embrace blogging (you can find him at www.acapitolblog.com) and emerged as an avid user of Twitter (follow him at @aaronpena). Like most people in the Rio Grande Valley, he inherited his membership in the Democratic party. The son of a successful attorney in Edinburg, Peña volunteered for Hubert Humphrey at the age of nine. He remembers the thrill he felt as a student at the University of Texas in the late seventies when he heard Henry Cisneros speak.
But he worked outside the local party machine when he decided to become a candidate, which he now says planted the seeds of distrust. “I didn’t ask anyone’s permission to run,” he says. In fact, it was a highly personal decision, motivated by the tragic death, in 2001, of his sixteen-year-old son, John, from a drug overdose. According to Austin political consultant James Aldrete, who worked on Peña’s first election, John’s death defined his father’s campaign. “It became about making sure we had a