By Betsy Rothstein - 10/26/05 12:00 AM EDT
The mood in La Lomita Dos is nothing less than hyperfestive.
The music, naturally, is Mexican, and it’s fast enough to shuffle patrons in and out quickly. It’s one of those places where the food seems to arrive within 20 seconds.
This is fitting because a congressman like Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), though his love of Tex-Mex food has no bounds, can’t spend hours dawdling over lunch.
“It’s convenient and it’s about as close to Tex-Mex as we can get in Washington,” he says.
Today Green is neither ravenous nor jaded. He orders a cup of queso for the table, which arrives in a flash and serves as a goopy red-pepper dip for the tortilla chips. His wife, Helen, is in town, and, since there are to be no votes that night, the couple will enjoy dining together out on the town. He doesn’t want to spoil his appetite.
So a big plate of cheese enchiladas with a mound of yellow rice, beans, sour cream and salad it is. He takes about five bites and spends the rest of the time tap tap tapping at his food and moving it around on the plate.
And so to politics. Being in the minority rankles; “Frustrating, although we get things done,” he says. “But if we were in the majority I could get a lot more done.”
Green is a Texan through and through. He grew up in Houston in the 29th Congressional District and graduated from the University of Houston.
One of his favorite colleagues is Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and he recalls the first time they spoke: Brown sat down next to Green and said, “I never met anyone from Texas I liked.” But the pair soon discovered how similar their blue-collar districts are, and a close friendship bloomed.
“Texas is proud,” Green says. “It’s just ingrained in you.”
Sixty-five percent of Green’s district is Hispanic, which is why Green spends every Wednesday night in a U.S. Department of Agriculture Spanish class. It’s something he has been doing for four years. But when asked if he can speak Spanish, he replies, “Un poquito,” with a slight Texan twang.
Green’s Mexico City-born press secretary, Fernando Cuevas, orders his tacos de carb�n in perfect Spanish. Green reasons that you can’t learn a foreign language unless you live in a country where it is spoken, and he hasn’t the time to spend three weeks or more in an immersion program.
“You can’t learn another language one day a week, but it helps you keep up,” he says, recalling a week in northern Mexico in 1998.
He isn’t fussy about his food. Most days he eats a turkey sandwich from the Cloak Room. On Wednesdays he grazes at a Texas Democratic Delegation buffet lunch in the House Dining Room. “Unless there is a lunch, you eat on the run,” Green says. “The turkey sandwich is about the safest thing I can do.”
He likes Cajun food but is “not much on real hot. I’ll use pepper sauce on my eggs.” Green makes an exception when his sinus problems act up; then he chooses a hot soup called menudo.
“It’s pretty spicy,” he says. What’s in it? “It’s like sausage — you don’t really want to ask.”
Oh, but we do. It turns out, menudo is a specialty of the central coastal area of Sonora, Mexico. The essential ingredients are tripe (the stomach of a cow), corn and chili. Sometimes calf’s or pigs feet are added. (It’s hard not to see the appeal, and easy to see why the soup is, apparently, a good cure for a hangover.)
“I’ve been invited into a lot of constituents’ homes for menudo,” Green says.
He cannot cook but “can make a peanut butter sandwich.”
The congressman’s pet political projects these days are energy and health. He has a huge petrochemical factory in his district. He is trying to get more federal qualified health clinics for constituents with employers who don’t offer health insurance. The district already has one such clinic; Green wants three more.
The cheese enchiladas arrive, and Green looks neither excited nor unwelcoming. Tap tap tap. He moves them around. Tap tap tap … he moves the rice and the enchiladas and the beans around some more. The enchilada is on the fork, and he’s on the verge of a bite.
False alarm. He sips iced tea. The fork stays on the plate. More tapping. The enchilada plate is, by nature, messy, but Green is not. He’s careful, and slow — tap, tap tap — and he drinks lots of iced tea between bites. He also drinks four cans of Diet Coke a day, down from two six packs.
When the subject of ex-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) comes up, Green turns meek — and with good reason. As a member of the ethics committee, he is forbidden to discuss a subject that could come before the committee, even though Green’s ties to DeLay go back to the their days in the state Legislature.
“My joke is we actually went hunting together but nobody would put us together with a gun,” he says. “Up until two years ago, we didn’t talk very much because I was so opposed to what he was doing with redistricting. It’s gotten better the last year. We’re the only two graduates [in Congress] of the University of Houston.
“He’s got some good sides to him, and he’s very focused on whatever he does.”
Serving on the ethics committee is a chore: “Nobody who serves on it likes it. I got it because [former House Minority Leader] Dick Gephardt [D-Mo.] asked me. I turned him down twice. I could resign, but you’re given a responsibility and you need to do it.”
The congressman’s full name is Raymond Eugene Green. He has sometimes been introduced as Mr. Green Jeans, as in the children’s TV character. He sees the benefits: “Gene Green turned out to be a pretty good political name because it’s easy to remember.”
His campaign literature is green. The lettering on his business cards is green.
Green is a professional politician. At 58, he is serving his seventh term in Congress. When he was 24, he ran for the Texas state House, where he served seven terms before moving to the Senate for two terms.
“I try not to tell the term-limits folks,” he jokes.