Democrat Ciro Rodriguez’s upset victory over Republican Congressman Henry Bonilla in the December 12th run-off election has huge national implications – in light of this year’s massive immigration protests. What it demonstrated, more than anything else, is how Latinos are leaving the Republican Party in droves. While it was also an embarrassing set-back for Tom DeLay’s partisan re-districting shenanigans, Bonilla did not just lose because the 23rd Congressional District in Texas was re-drawn to be more Democratic and more Latino. Bonilla lost ground in parts of the District that he had represented for 14 years because of his association with a party that scapegoats immigrants, opposes basic economic justice, and sends low-income minority children off to Iraq. As Latinos continue to be the fastest growing voting demographic in the country, the Republican Party must stop their immigrant-bashing, or follow the way of the Whigs. In the end, the last (non-Cuban) Latino Republican in Congress lost re-election by a 54-45 margin to an under-funded Democratic challenger who had a reputation as a weak campaigner.
Not too long ago, Congressman Henry Bonilla was seen as the Great Hispanic Hope for Republicans – the poster child of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” In 1996, Democratic candidate Victor Morales caused a fury when he called Bonilla a “coconut” – brown on the outside and white on the inside. Elected to Congress in 1992 as a disciple of Newt Gingrich, Bonilla played a prominent role at the Republican National Conventions in 1996, 2000 and 2004. He was an early supporter of Bush in 2000, and headed up the presidential campaign’s Latino Outreach effort. He also chaired the American Dream PAC, a political action committee whose mission statement was to give “significant, direct financial assistance to first-rate minority GOP candidates.” In 2004, however, the PAC fell under criticism for diverting most of its money to white Republicans and the Tom DeLay Legal Defense Fund.
In Congress, Bonilla strongly opposed abortion, gun control and gay rights – “culturally conservative” values that Republicans often tout in their effort to win Latino voters. But he also used his seat on the Appropriations Committee to block the Labor Department from enacting ergonomic standards, and was a solid vote for big business. More troubling for his Latino constituents, Bonilla supported the construction of a 700-mile border fence with Mexico (the 23rd Congressional District borders the Rio Grande), and he voted for Rep. Jim Sensebrenner’s bill that penalizes employers who hire illegal immigrants. As Chad Foster, the Mayor of Eagle Pass – a border town in the 23rd District – explained, “it’s kind of hard to support someone who wants to build a fence.”
To reward him for being a loyal Republican, Bonilla got a little help from Tom DeLay’s mid-decade re-districting – but it backfired in a major way. After Bonilla almost lost re-election in 2002 to Democrat Henry Cuellar, the Texas legislature took Laredo out of the 23rd District to make it less Latino and more conservative. With Bonilla’s district less hospitable, Cuellar went on to unseat Congressman Ciro Rodriguez in a neighboring district in 2004. But in June 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that DeLay’s map violated the Voting Rights Act because it unfairly diluted the Latino voter base – and ordered the 23rd District to be re-drawn and add parts of San Antonio. Ironically, this allowed Rodriguez to run against Bonilla.
Still, nobody gave Rodriguez much of a shot at unseating Bonilla. In the November 7th election, Bonilla came extremely close to winning outright without a run-off (he got 49% of the vote), whereas Rodriguez lagged far behind at 20%. And in a move that some felt was intentionally aimed at suppressing Latino turnout, the December run-off was scheduled on the Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the most important dates in the Mexican calendar. Rodriguez’s campaign was deeply in debt, and the Democratic Party had to intervene and wage an independent expenditure on his behalf – in the off-chance, they hoped, that he would at least make a respectable showing. In the end, Rodriguez surprised everyone with a nine-point victory.
But the court-ordered re-districting was not the main reason why Rodriguez won and Bonilla lost. A closer look at the results shows a massive defection of Latinos to the Democratic Party. For the first time in his political career, Bonilla lost Bexar County – which includes San Antonio. In November, he carried Dimmit, Culberson, Presidio and Brewster counties – in December, he lost them all to Rodriguez. But the most shocking shift was in Maverick County, which lies along the Mexican border and is 95% Latino. In 2004, Bonilla carried it with 59% of the vote. This time, he lost it by an 86-14 margin. Only one conclusion can be drawn: Latinos voted in droves to defeat a Latino Republican because he – and his party – did not represent them.
As the Republican Congress pursued its racist immigrant bashing over the past year, it created a backlash in the Latino community. We saw this in May with the massive street protests throughout the country, but now they have translated this movement into votes. Twelve years ago, Proposition 187 helped re-elect California Governor Pete Wilson – but the long-term effect is that it turned California into a solid blue state. Now we may see a similar demographic shift in Texas, where Latinos will be a majority of the state’s population by 2030. If Republicans continue their same strategy, they’ll be digging their own political graveyard.
An interesting fact about this last Congressional race, and what it means about the President’s popularity. Rodriguez had former President Bill Clinton campaign for him during the last week of the election, but Bonilla did not have George W. Bush come down (instead opting for Bush’s nephew who is half-Latino.) Now Republicans are upset that their party didn’t do enough to help Bonilla get re-elected, but somehow I think that it was intentional not to have the President come. Who wants to be close to the worst President that this country has ever had?
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