Lloyd Doggett has been a loyal ally of the Hispanic community during his nearly four-decade political career.
But when it comes to his difficult 2012 reelection campaign, the Texas Democrat can’t count on the support of his Hispanic colleagues in the House.
Doggett, one of the last remaining Anglo Democratic House members in Texas, is facing a post-redistricting primary challenge from Democratic state Rep. Joaquin Castro, a 37-year-old Hispanic rising star, in a race for a newly created, San Antonio-area Hispanic majority seat.
The members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are torn between their loyalties to Doggett, a longtime incumbent many Hispanics view as a strong voice for their community who began championing their cause as a young state senator, and Castro, whose election would expand the caucus’s ranks.
“There’s no doubt about it, it’s not a comfortable situation,” Texas Rep. Charles Gonzalez, chairman of the CHC, told POLITICO. “Does it pose a dilemma? Of course it does.”
“You have competing interests, because on one hand you want more Latinos in office, but on the other hand you have someone in Lloyd Doggett who has been creating opportunities for the Latino community in Texas for the last 35 years,” Gonzalez said.
The CHC has been noticeably tight-lipped on the race. Several top-ranking CHC members declined to speak about the contest — a spokesman for New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, a CHC vice chairman, said the congressman “doesn’t have a comment on the race.” And a spokesman for California Rep. Xavier Becerra, the highest-ranking Hispanic in the House and a longtime Doggett friend, did not respond to a request for comment.
That hasn’t kept Castro from trying to make inroads with Hispanic lawmakers. The Texas Democrat attended the annual Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala last month. And Dean Aguillen, a former top aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi who is now a Washington-based lobbyist, has acted as something of a D.C. ambassador for Castro, introducing him around town.
Castro has won the quiet support of Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, a fourth-term Democrat who has provided advice to the young candidate. Cuellar told POLITICO that he had not endorsed Castro or contributed money to his campaign but said: “Would I like to see more Hispanics in Congress? Yes, definitely. Was I happy to see a Hispanic district created? Yes.”
Cuellar said he had contacted the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which supports sitting members in primary races as a matter of policy, and urged it to treat Doggett as a nonincumbent because due to redistricting he was running in a part of the state where he didn’t currently serve. Cuellar said he told Doggett about the position he was taking with the DCCC and that Doggett had politely told him he understood.
Jesse Ferguson, a DCCC spokesman, said the committee was backing Doggett despite Cuellar’s push: “We are a member participation organization, which means we support Democratic incumbents.”
Few are in a tougher spot than Gonzalez, the influential CHC head and former judge whose allegiances are being put to the test. Gonzalez, who under Texas’s previous congressional map counted Castro as a constituent, has known Castro’s family for years and recalls having dinner with them before the now-candidate headed off to Harvard Law School. But he is also close to Doggett, whose relationship with Gonzalez goes back to the 1970s and ’80s, when Doggett was serving in the state Senate.
Gonzalez said he doesn’t plan to take sides in the primary but noted that other members of the CHC could do so individually. Neither Doggett nor Castro has sought his endorsement — perhaps, he speculated, because they understand the difficult position he is in.
For now, there is little incentive for torn CHC members to get off the sidelines. A federal court is reviewing the GOP-formed Texas redistricting plan, and there is an outside chance the map could be thrown out — and with it, the Castro-Doggett race.
The stakes are high for the Hispanic community, whose population explosion has fueled much of Texas’s growth over the past decade and which is hungry to see an infusion of new Hispanic officeholders in Washington. Of the state’s four newly established seats in the current round of reapportionment, the San Antonio-area district Doggett and Castro are competing for presents Texas Hispanics with their best opportunity to send a lawmaker to Congress.
The desire among top CHC lawmakers to see more Texas Hispanic members is palpable. Earlier this year, before the state’s redistricting plan had been finalized and the prospect of a Doggett-Castro primary took shape, Gonzalez, Becerra and Lujan flew to Texas to meet with Castro as part of a nationwide tour seeking out potential Hispanic congressional candidates, according to a source familiar with the meeting.
As he campaigns in the South Texas district, Castro, whose mother is an influential Hispanic grass-roots activist and whose brother is the mayor of San Antonio, is highlighting his heritage and arguing that the seat should be represented by a Hispanic.
“Texas gained four congressional seats because of the explosion of Hispanics in Texas,” said Castro campaign manager Christian Archer. “In the 35th District, there should be a Hispanic elected.”
Archer said Castro is reaching out to CHC members as a way to intensify his appeal to the Hispanic community.
“We’re pursuing as much help as we can across the country, and certainly from the Hispanic members of Congress,” he said.
Doggett, too, has made Hispanic outreach a central thrust of his campaign. On the trail, he’s touted everything from laws he’s championed aimed at improving education for Hispanic children in the state to his wife’s work as a bilingual teacher. He’s even launched a Latinos for Lloyd group, which held an August fundraiser for the congressman that included a host committee of more than four dozen local Hispanic supporters.
“For so many of us, we have been friends always and for so long,” Doggett told supporters at the event. “When I dedicated my life to social justice in Texas, I didn’t do it for the next election. I did it for the next generation.”
Doggett campaign manager Matthew Arnold declined to detail Doggett’s outreach to CHC members but said: “We’ve gotten a lot of support in the Hispanic community.”
Castro’s camp hopes a monster third-quarter fundraising haul of more than $500,000 helps move some potential allies off the fence. Castro advisers believe some prospective supporters were waiting to see whether the state representative could mount a serious campaign against Doggett, who had more than $3 million in the bank at the end of June.
But Castro is facing a political survivor in Doggett, who as one of only two remaining white Democrats in a delegation that is otherwise made up of Republicans and minorities members of his party has proved he can appeal to Hispanics. After the 2003 round of Tom DeLay-led Texas redistricting, Doggett defeated former District Court Judge Leticia Hinojosa in a primary for an Austin-area seat that included a large Hispanic population.
Cuellar said he told Castro that he had advantages running in a heavily Hispanic seat but warned him that “if there’s anyone who can beat you, it’s Lloyd Doggett.”
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