When Democrats turn on one of their own

The same week President Bush delivered the State of the Union speech in January, the administration filed a Supreme Court brief supporting a Texas redistricting plan designed by then-House Republican leader Tom DeLay.

The idea was to put a GOP majority in the state’s congressional delegation. It succeeded famously, adding five seats. But the Texan has since been indicted for money-laundering to finance the 2003 plan.

Texas’ 28th Congressional District is often used to showcase what’s wrong with allowing incumbents to redraw their own district boundaries following the decennial Census. The 28th stretches along Interstate 35, northeast of San Antonio, through 11 counties and nearly 200 miles to the border with Mexico at Laredo. The gerrymandering was patently intended to deny liberal incumbents like Democrat Ciro Rodriguez of San Antonio safe seats. Rodriguez, who chaired the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, was completing his fourth term.

In 2003, a jubilant DeLay told Republican National Hispanic Assembly members meeting in Houston, “They (Democrats) will lecture, but we will lead.” He said white Democrats intended to keep Hispanic representation down — but that would change under the Republican plan.

When redistricting came up for a vote in the legislature, 11 Democratic state senators, including five Hispanics, fled to neighboring New Mexico.

The “Texas Eleven” were on the lam, with Texas Rangers in pursuit for more than 30 days until one senator caved and returned to create the necessary quorum to get the GOP redistricting bill passed.

After the Republican plan was approved, a court challenge followed, which now awaits a Supreme Court decision.

In the first party primaries of 2004 under redistricting, Henry Cuellar _ beloved by the GOP for his maverick, often conservative positions _ defeated the liberal Rodriguez in the Democratic primary. He won by only 58 votes after two recounts.

This January, when Bush moved past well-wishers as he headed to the speaker’s rostrum to deliver the State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol, he approached Cuellar and affectionately cupped the Democratic congressman’s face with both hands.

The moment was captured by Associated Press photographer Rick Lipski, whose shot quickly traveled the Internet.

Rodriguez — trying for a comeback and having fund-raising problems _ seized on the photo. He produced a leaflet saying, “Bush thinks Henry Cuellar is ‘chulo.’ ”

The word, widely interpreted as “pretty boy,” also may infer “sly” and “deceitful.” “Chulo” leaves a lot to the imagination and may explain why it caused such a stir.

In one week, another $80,000 in contributions rolled in for Rodriguez. Running against first-term incumbent Cuellar, who was regularly being wooed by Republicans to switch his party allegiance, Rodriguez had gained endorsements by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Democratic Reps. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, Lloyd Doggett of Texas and Loretta Sanchez of California. He received donations from 15 House Democrats — a rare practice for members of the same party to defeat one of their own.

Democrats have had it in for Cuellar, especially after he voted with Republicans in favor of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which passed 217 to 215. Cuellar was also the first Democrat endorsed by the conservative Club for Growth.

Rumors persisted that Cuellar would turn Republican after the general election. Cuellar won the March 7 Democratic primary, 53 percent to Rodriguez’s 41 percent of the vote. Even the name of schoolteacher Victor Morales _ who made an impressive challenge to then-U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, a Republican, in 1996 _ on the ballot didn’t siphon away enough votes to deny Cuellar a majority.

Andrew Hernandez, a professor at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, attributes Cuellar’s victory mainly to a strong voter turnout in Cuellar’s home base in Laredo and his having cut into Rodriguez’s territory with effective constituent services.

The progressive-politics blog Daily Kos excused the loss this way: “So we didn’t kill off Cuellar, but we gave him a whopping where none was expected and made him sweat.”

Cuellar has been given plenty of reasons to bolt the Democrats, although he continues to deny an intention to do so even after being publicly castigated and repudiated by fellow Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York.

Texas isn’t about to become more Republican by way of his defection, certainly not while the GOP gerrymander is up before the U.S. Supreme Court and DeLay is facing trial.

If Democrats gain control of the House by a hair after November, Cuellar’s dilemma may become theirs: how to keep a chulo colleague content.

(Jose de la Isla, of Houston, is a contributing columnist with Hispanic Link News Service. He may be contacted by e-mail at jdelaisla(at)houston.rr.com.)