In the year of political insurgencies, the race to replace retiring Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas) is ramping up as yet another test of an outsider’s appeal versus an opponent’s political experience.
The two Democrats vying in the primary runoff are both Hispanic, both young lawyers and both promoting liberal platforms that prioritize education, healthcare and immigrant rights.
But Vicente Gonzalez, the 48-year-old front-runner, has something that his opponent, Sonny Palacios, does not: a politics-free résumé.
In a political environment that’s seen the astonishing rise of outsiders Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats urge Biden to commute sentences of 4K people on home confinement Briahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Sanders 'disappointed' in House panel's vote on drug prices MORE in the presidential race, Gonzalez is hoping that’s an asset.
“I don’t come from a political family, I’m not a politician, I’ve never run for office,” Gonzalez said this month over coffee during a visit to Washington. “And I think that’s been a huge — one of the biggest — differences between us. And I think people in South Texas are ready for that.”
Palacios has a decidedly different take. The 44-year-old, a two-term member of the local Edinburg School Board, hails from a family that has held numerous elected posts in local government. He says that background, far from a handicap, lends him the practical know-how that would make him the more effective legislator in Washington. Where Gonzalez is boasting fresh eyes, Palacios just sees inexperience.
“I actually know what I’m talking about,” Palacios said by phone from Texas. He rattled off accomplishments the school district has achieved under his tenure, including adoption of a universal healthcare program for students regardless of legal status.
“[Gonzalez] has never served on a single board or a single office — not even a PTA organization. … All he knows is what his advisers tell him to say. … He has no practical experience,” Palacios said. “Can I say with a straight face that he’s running on his qualifications? The answer is no. He has no qualifications.”
Palacios also pushed back hard against the notion that his family has overrun local South Texas politics, saying his generation is the first to graduate from high school.
“He says there’s too many Palacioses in politics,” he said. “[But] if we’re a dynasty, we’re a dynasty of farm workers. … We’re getting slapped for living the American dream.”
Gonzalez, for his part, says his decades of work defending families in injury and insurance cases have prepared him for Washington.
“I just look at it as taking the battle to a different forum,” he said.
The fight is over Texas’s 15th District, a long, slender region — largely agricultural — that runs north to south roughly 250 miles through the Rio Grande Valley, touching the Mexican border at its southern edge. More than 71 percent of eligible voters are Hispanic, giving it the fourth-highest Hispanic density in the nation, according to the Pew Research Center.
The district has been at the center of the immigration debate in recent years, as tens of thousands of illegal immigrants — many of them families and unaccompanied children — crossed into the Rio Grande Valley in the summer of 2014.
Hinojosa, who is retiring at the end of the year after 10 terms, is avoiding the race at all costs. Asked about the runoff this month, he couldn’t disappear quickly enough.
“I’m not involved,” he said, quickly ducking into an elevator off the House floor. “I’m not endorsing anybody.”
The door closed on the last syllable.
Other lawmakers have been more vocal, and Gonzalez has picked up a handful of endorsements on Capitol Hill, including support from Reps. Gene GreenRaymond (Gene) Eugene GreenBottom line Texas New Members 2019 Two Democrats become first Texas Latinas to serve in Congress MORE (D-Texas), Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) and Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.).
“He pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, is now a successful attorney with his own practice,” Cárdenas said this month. “I think he knows what it’s like to represent poor people, because he knows what it’s like to be poor.”
On most issues, Gonzalez and Palacios are in agreement.
Both are supportive of comprehensive immigration reform and President Obama’s executive actions on deportation. Both back ObamaCare and are pushing Texas legislators to expand Medicaid under the law.
And both are vowing to build on the legacy of Hinojosa, who focused much of his energy on improving education in the poor region. Gonzales is pushing the idea of free tuition for the first two years of post-high school education; Palacios wants to model a national school-based healthcare program on the one adopted in Edinburg.
On two prominent issues, however, they differ: Palacios is urging a reduction in defense spending and the decriminalization of marijuana, positions Gonzalez opposes.
“He wants to cut down on the military, and he wants to legalize marijuana,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t know that we’re ready for that.”
Palacios is unapologetic, arguing that defense dollars would be better spent on education, healthcare and other domestic needs. And he said he’s seen firsthand how Texas’s tough drug laws have left young students “scarred for life over $10 or $15 of marijuana.”
“[They’re] losing opportunities for a drug that’s less harmful than cigarettes. It makes no sense,” Palacios said. “He doesn’t understand this because he doesn’t practice this kind of law.”
The district has played prominently in presidential politics in years past. Its first congressman, Rep. John Nance Garner (D), was a House Speaker before serving for eight years as vice president to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lloyd Bentson, another district native, didn’t fare as well as the vice presidential sidekick to Michael Dukakis, who was walloped by George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Gonzalez took 42 percent of the votes in the March 1 primary, which featured six candidates, but it wasn’t enough to avoid a runoff against Palacios, who earned roughly 19 percent. The contest is set for May 24.
The Republicans have a runoff race of their own, pitting former Rio Grande City Mayor Rubén Villarreal against Tim Westley, an African-American pastor. But the district is lopsidedly Democratic.
Obama took the region with 57 percent of the vote in both 2008 and 2012, and the Cook Political Report, a prominent online election handicapper, predicts an easy win for whichever Democrat wins the primary race.
Gonzalez thinks his anti-establishment campaign puts the political winds at his back.
“The people we talk to,” he said, “are looking for change.”