Saturday, December 11, 2010

Rio Grande Valley Democrat Mulls Switch to GOP Amid Growing Frustration with Party Leadership

By Mike Hailey, Capitol Inside Editor

State Rep. Aaron Peña is contemplating a possible conversion to the GOP as a result of growing disenchantment with the Democratic leadership that he says has neglected Hispanics, alienated small business and excluded moderate and conservative party members in the Texas House.

Peña, an Edinburg Democrat who entered the lower chamber since 2003, said he will make a decision on a potential party switch after returning to Texas from a brief vacation that he and his wife have been taking out of state.

Peña would give the Republicans an unprecedented supermajority with 100 House seats when the regular session convenes in January if he decides to join the GOP.

Peña suggested that he feels compelled to put an end to speculation about his partisan allegiance after being deluged with calls in the wake of a barrage of criticism that he leveled at the Democratic Party and its leadership in Texas in an interview this week with a South Texas publication.

Peña said that Democrats who've contacted him argue that the party can become competitive again within the decade. “Many of the calls from Republicans, including lawmakers, were that our community can still have a seat at the table now," Pena added. "Why wait a decade when you can have opportunities now?

A 51-year-old attorney who represents one of the poorest districts in Texas, Peña would become the second House member to make such a switch in the past 13 months if he changes teams after winning five terms as a Democrat and running unopposed for re-election in 2010. But while State Rep. Chuck Hopson of Jacksonville found it much easier to win as a Republican in a rural East Texas district after switching parties last year, Peña would rolling the dice in a high-stakes gamble in a re-election bid in 2012 as a Republican in a part of the state where the GOP has won only one House race in modern times.

While Harlingen lawyer Ken Fleuriet broke the Democratic Party's monopoly on House seats in the Rio Grande Valley when he claimed an open seat in neighboring Cameron County in 1990, no Republican has ever been elected to any office in Hidalgo County where Peña is based.

But Peña has been warning since he considered a campaign for state party chair 10 years ago that the GOP would make significant inroads in South Texas if Democratic leaders continued to take the Hispanic vote for granted. But Peña stirred a hornet's nest when he reiterated that assertion in a story in the Rio Grande Guardian on Friday when he pointed to a GOP sweep last month in three House races in the Coastal Bend and Republican Blake Farenthold's stunning win over veteran U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz of Corpus Christi as prime examples of what he's been predicting for years.

Peña told Capitol Inside at the Democrats' state convention in Corpus Christi this summer that the Democratic Party had become largely irrelevant in the Rio Grande Valley even though a majority of the voters there still backed its candidates as a result of family heritage and culture. Pena's concerns appeared to be reinforced that day when the Hispanic Caucus refused to endorse Texas Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie in his campaign for re-election to the leadership post. While Richie claimed a new term as party leader by an overwhelming margin of support before the convention adjourned, a little-known challenger had more support among delegates from the Rio Grande Valley.

Several months later, Peña suggested the several House Democrats from suburban swing districts in the state's largest cities would have trouble winning re-election as a consequence of relatively liberal voting records that reflected the positions of the leaders and operatives who'd recruited them to run. Democrats ended losing all but two of more than a dozen seats they'd picked up in recent years in suburban districts when the GOP won 99 House races with a 22-seat net gain in the November general election.

One of the suburban Republicans who lost, Dan Neil of Austin, hasn't conceded so far in a race that Democratic State Rep. Donna Howard won by 12 votes in a recount. The GOP would have 101 House seats in 2011 if Neil challenges the outcome of the Austin race and prevails and Peña switches parties.

Peña - a relatively conservative Democrat who drew the wrath of party leaders and activists when he backed Republican Tom Craddick's re-election bid for House speaker four years ago - told the local publication that Democratic power brokers in Dallas and Austin have been leading the party down the path of doom and depending almost exclusively on trial lawyers for funding.

Peña suggested that the Democratic leadership's focus on swing races in East Texas and suburban Dallas-Fort Worth area districts backfired when Democrats lost two House two seats in Corpus Christi, one in a district that's anchored by Alice and all of the seats that the party had been defending in the North Texas suburbs.

After supporting Craddick in 2007 when most of the House Democrats were attempting to oust him from the speaker's office, Peña survived a hotly-contested primary challenge the following year despite opposition from Democratic power brokers and activists from outside the district. But Peña and the vast majority of the chamber's Democrats rallied behind Republican Joe Straus when he unseated Craddick in early 2009 - and Peña reaffirmed his support for the current speaker when he appeared at a press conference with the incumbent the day after the election last month.

“I am who I am and my intention is to represent my community and to give them the best possible advantage under the current environment,” Peña said in response to questions about a possible party switch.

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