Rep. Ciro Rodriguez: Democratic Party the Party of Texas Hispanics

In a state that has become overwhelmingly Republican over the last decade, the last bastion of Democratic strength in Texas is found in two places – some large cities and the Hispanic border towns.

That has many people thinking that Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-Tex., who won his last re-election with 89 percent of the vote, is poised once again to sweep the 28th District on a wave of ethnic loyalty. But not everyone is convinced the Republicans have no shot at winning over the swelling Mexican-American community.

They point to the inroads made by former Governor George W. Bush, who remains on point when it comes to declaring he has not forgotten his campaign promises to Mexican-Americans. Just this week the president persuaded Republicans to support a bill that would grant amnesty to millions of Mexicans who are here illegally, allowing them to apply for residency, instead of being sent back home.

The move was a popular one among Mexican-American voters. Bush also hopes the move will further cement his long-time friendship with Mexican President Vicente Fox, when he visits the country this month.

Rodriguez, disgusted with what he calls mere lip service on the amnesty issue, played down the vote, though he ultimately voted for it. "It doesn't change the law," he said in an interview, "which has been destroying families for years. It doesn't go far enough."

Rodriguez has been in the House for two years. Before that he served in the Texas legislature, the local school board and worked as a substance abuse counselor and an education consultant. His district, which escaped redistricting nearly unscathed, is the embodiment of Hispanic-American culture: ferociously religious and socially conservative, but liberal on economic issues and government.

The district is home to Brooks Army Medical Center and Air Force Base and is very close to several other military installations. It also has one of the largest Hispanic populations in the state – 65 percent of the total district population – and the influential presence of the Catholic Church.

Rodriguez knows he is in an interesting situation. Sept. 11 not only reminded voters of the mighty military presence of his district, but also focused more attention on the illegal immigration issue.

"Trade along the border is important – what happened on 9/11 was important," Rodriguez said. "I have issues down here that revolve around customs, and the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) and border patrol issues."

Most of the illegal Mexicans who live in his district are hardworking, productive members of society, he said. The key is to reform the laws with that group in mind, he believes.

"He knows how to work the process to get things done – he's also a person, who has never lost touch with his people," said Ed Martin, a Democratic consultant in Texas. "He's well respected and he's a man of his word."

At least one man is challenging that notion, as well as what he calls "propaganda" that Republicans are losers when it comes to Hispanic votes. Attorney Gabriel Pereles Jr., a Republican, knows he faces an uphill battle, but he has nonetheless joined the race.

"Mr. Rodriguez is not highly regarded in this district," Pereles charged. "In my travels I have heard that he has basically ignored several counties," he said, noting the 28th is made up of almost a dozen counties stretching from the southern edge of San Antonio down to the Mexican border. The district includes urban and rural, rich and the very poorest in the Lone Star state.

"There are some really good people in south Texas and the Republicans have been making inroads," said Perelas. "I think it's propaganda trying to diminish what has been done by Gov. Bush and (current) Gov. Perry."

Ted Royer, spokesman for the Texas Republican Party, claims that there are "Texas Democrats who will say all the time that Republicans have done a better job at reaching out to Hispanics," mostly thanks to Bush.

Rodriguez and Martin aren't buying it.

"Bush, I have to give it to him, he gave us good lip service and that's all it is," said Rodriguez. All the spending where it counts – in education, health care, child care – has been either cut or frozen in Bush's budget proposals, he charged.

"Their party is basically lily-white. They understand they have to reach out and that's good," he said. "In doing so, they can educate themselves. In the process, yes, they could get some of our votes."

Pereles said he's going to win because Hispanics identify more with conservatives, and ultimately with the GOP. "That's the reality of what's happening in south Texas," he said. "I think a lot of Hispanics are questioning the Democrats. I have been told that they will look at the person, rather than the party label when they vote."