Why Vicente Gonzalez may not be safe in his solidly Democratic district

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, has deep ties in South Texas and is running in a comfortably Democratic district. But he still isnt leaving the race up to chance. (Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune, Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune)

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WASHINGTON — On paper, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez should be sitting pretty.

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He’s running in a comfortably Democratic district. He has a pocketbook that other candidates can only dream of. And he’s well known in the community where he worked for decades before taking office.

“There’s no way Vicente can lose this race,” said former U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, the last Democrat to represent the district. “The world could collapse and he’s still going to win.”

But Vela’s confidence about the race isn’t universal. Despite his advantages, Gonzalez is running a hard-fought campaign that has been beset by obstacles — some of his own making.

In a twist, Gonzalez, a three-term congressman, is not the incumbent where he’s running, since he opted to run in a new district after redistricting. That distinction goes to Republican U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, who won her special election and flipped the district red in June after a tsunami of support from national Republicans hopeful to make South Texas their new stomping grounds. Emboldened by that win, Republicans are relentlessly going after Gonzalez’s verbal gaffes and portraying him as an out-of-touch creature of Washington.

Gonzalez’s aggressive spending in the race shows that he’s not taking anything for granted. His campaign has spent $2.2 million as of the end of June on a robust ground game — nearly twice the expenses of his past two campaigns combined — and that’s before he released his first TV ad in late September. With over $1.4 million in cash on hand, he’s on his way to surpassing his 2016 spending of $2.3 million. This year is his most robust operation since he first ran for Congress in 2016, he said.

To Republicans, it’s an admission that their forays into the traditional Democratic stronghold of South Texas are scaring Democrats and that Flores’ special election was not the one-time, off-season fluke they’ve made it out to be. Flores stresses her message of hard work, faith and border security appeal to the socially conservative values of the region, saying Democrats took South Texas Latinos for granted even as the party became increasingly out of step with their values.

National forecasters are also less certain about Gonzalez's odds with the Cook Political Report assessing the race Wednesday as a "toss up."

Flores’ special election victory last summer followed her party pouring over $1.7 million largely from out of state, into the race and the House Democratic campaign arm declining to match the spending. Gonzalez, who did not run in the special election because he still occupies his seat, warned at the time that neglecting the district in the special would swing momentum in Republicans’ favor, calling the loss a “self-inflicted tragedy.”

“It was a mistake to not have gone all in on that special, but we are where we are,” he said in a recent interview. He also said that the Republican cash was the only reason Flores was doing well and that November “is going to be a very different election than the special.”

Gonzalez is now running in the 34th District after three terms representing the next-door 15th District, which runs from the suburbs of San Antonio to McAllen’s Mexican border. Gonzalez’s home and much of his old district’s urban core was looped into the newly recast — and far more Democratic — 34th District after redistricting.

The 34th District has a strong record of Democrats succeeding down the ballot. Cameron County, which makes up the district’s population center along with portions of Hidalgo County, voted 54% for Democrat Lupe Valdez in the 2018 gubernatorial election, even though she was widely seen as a weak candidate even within her party.

And it has only gotten bluer with redistricting, which lobbed off a large tail of the district that extended far north into Gonzales County east of San Antonio and included more conservative parts of the state. Flores won her special election under the old district lines, where President Joe Biden won by 4 percentage points over Donald Trump based on the 2020 election results. But this November the new district will apply, which would have had Biden winning with a 15.5-percentage-point margin.

Republicans contend that Gonzalez fled the 15th District to the 34th in order to enjoy running in an easier race for a Democrat.

“He had no idea who he was going to be running against. He had no idea he was going to have to be running against an incumbent,” Flores said. “He’s abandoning his constituents.”

It’s a narrative that visibly irritates Gonzalez, who retorts that he moved because the Legislature put his home in the new 34th district. Members are not legally required to live in their districts.

“We could have won [District] 15 as well. It would have been more of a challenge because of the way they drew it to be a very Republican district,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez faced off with Monica De La Cruz, who is ideologically and personally close to Flores, in the 15th District’s 2020 general election. The incumbent Gonzalez spent over twice as much money as De La Cruz but won by a margin of only 2.9 percentage points.

His run in a far safer district also leaves the much more modestly funded and lesser-known progressive Michelle Vallejo responsible for defending the hotly competitive 15th District. Vallejo has brought in just under $700,000 as of the end of June with under $160,000 in cash on hand — a shadow of the seven figures at Gonzalez’s disposal.

Regardless of the new district, Gonzalez says his ties to the community are unchanged. He has represented the region as a lawyer for decades before taking office and built relations throughout its legal and political community. Gonzalez also has personal ties to the coastal areas of South Texas. He was born in and attended college in Corpus Christi, whose southern portion dips into the district.

Gonzalez worked closely with Vela on South Texas issues on Capitol Hill, including legislation impacting District 34. The two were often aligned on the policy issues, voting together well over 90% of the time, and Gonzalez co-sponsored nine bills sponsored by Vela, mostly over parochial concerns and border issues.

The two, along with U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, belong to a brand of moderate South Texas Democrats who can butt heads with the more progressive wings of their party. Though Democrats have made climate change a central policy issue this congress, Cuellar and Gonzalez were staunch defenders of their districts’ oil and gas workers (both members still voted for Democrats’ signature climate and social spending bill this year after weeks of holding their cards close to the chest). Gonzalez sits atop the Congressional Oil and Gas Caucus and is a member of the centrist groups the Blue Dog Coalition, the New Democrat Coalition and the Problem Solvers Caucus.

“For 20 years as a lawyer, I fought for the same working families that I represent now in Congress, and many of them were from these new areas that I’m representing now in Congress in District 34,” Gonzalez said. “So it’s not like I moved to Dallas.”

Gonzalez takes fierce pride in those deep ties, but they have also led to some verbal gaffes that Republicans have centered in their attack strategy.

Gonzalez tried to distance himself from Flores, his Republican opponent and the first Mexican-born congresswoman, by casting himself as a native of the district who “wasn’t born in Mexico,” Newsweek reported in June.

“I didn’t come here through chain migration, I didn’t come through asylum or amnesty or whatever,” he told Newsweek.

Gonzalez also landed in hot water after his campaign paid for advertising on a Texas political blog that used racist and sexist language to describe Flores. Flores often now says the congressman “hired” the blogger to verbally sexually harass her, but Gonzalez denies knowing about the content of the blog and vowed not to give it any more money.

Flores said he was attacking her identity as an immigrant because he was panicking over her momentum.

“He should be talking about himself, and he’s just constantly attacking me and constantly disrespecting me,” Flores said.

U.S. Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-California, a fellow member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus with Gonzalez, defended his colleague as a “champion for immigrants in Congress” who “fights to help people of all backgrounds achieve the American Dream.”

“I’ve known Vicente for a long time — he’s Mexican American and proud of his roots,” Cárdenas said in a statement. “The idea that he’s attacking Mayra Flores, or anyone, for her heritage is absurd.”

Gonzalez has also come under fire after The Texas Tribune reported that he and his wife misfiled on their property taxes for years, claiming homestead exemptions on more properties than is usually allowed. The couple “voluntarily corrected” the “simple oversight” as soon as they were aware of it, Gonzalez said.

He was also subjected to a Republican attack ad that alleged “millionaire attorney Vicente Gonzalez” had made his fortune by making “a living working for people charged with human trafficking.” The claim was in reference to his work in 2006 defending Marin Martinez-Hernandez, who pleaded guilty to illegally transporting migrants from Texas to Florida.

In reality, Gonzalez was not primarily a criminal defense attorney. Rather he was appointed to represent Martinez-Hernandez by the court under “managed assigned counsel” at a modest hourly rate, as was common practice in South Texas at the time.

Still, it’s no secret Gonzalez’s legal practice has made him rich. He owns investment properties in the nation’s capital, Texas, Mexico and Spain. He won his 2016 primary over Juan “Sonny” Palacios Jr., a deeply connected Democrat coming from a highly influential Valley political family, after lending well over $1 million of his own cash to his campaign.

While Gonzalez cast the personal spending blitz at the time as freeing him from corporate interests and the result of years of hard work out of a working class background, Palacios’ camp at the time felt he was buying his election.

Gonzalez maintains he gained his wealth defending working families and — as a member of the Blue Collar Caucus, Small Business Caucus and Medicare for All Caucus — is an advocate for working class issues on Capitol Hill.

Flores’ campaign also hasn’t escaped its own share of scandal. Her district director, Aron Peña, left the campaign after allegations arose of sexual harassment and assault. Flores’ campaign said he resigned, and Flores herself closely tied the departure to the allegations. Peña maintains he did no wrong and that he left due to his health.

Gonzalez said Flores’ personal attacks merely hide the chasmic differences in their legislative records — namely that he has one. Flores’ small stint so far in Congress was poorly timed for positioning to get major legislation passed. It coincided with the last-minute summer crunch for agenda-setting bills to get through before election season consumes everyone’s attention.

Gonzalez is also gleeful in pointing out that one of Flores’ first votes in Congress was against the bipartisan gun safety legislation spearheaded by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, which passed this summer in response to the Uvalde shooting. During a panel at The Texas Tribune Festival in September, Flores justified her vote by saying it did not go far enough in funding school safety. She introduced legislation last week that would redirect $11 billion from the IRS toward hardening school security as an alternative.

When asked in an interview about her biggest wins, Flores first cited funding for local infrastructure projects in her district. Flores was not in office when the House voted on the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that poured billions into regional projects. She joined all Republicans in voting against the Inflation Reduction Act, Democrats’ cornerstone climate, social spending, health care and energy bill.

Flores adds that in her short time in Congress, she has blown up visibility for the district’s issues, hosting town halls and attracting national attention simply by having such an aggressive ground operation. No one cared about District 34 before she rolled around, she said, with Democrats merely assuming the seat was safe.

But Gonzalez is confident in the maturity of his campaign operation and his seniority to meet the challenge. While both candidates tout their aggressive door-knocking and town-halling, Gonzalez and his allies lean on the fact that this is far from his first time at the rodeo.

“To the extent that Democrats are fretting and concerned about what happens in November in that district, they’re just getting worried about nothing,” Vela said.

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