Latino vote could determine who controls Congress

Latinos are in the vortex of two congressional races this November that could decide whether the Democratic Party captures control of either or both legislative chambers.

To do so, Democrats need to gain a net of six seats in the Senate and 18 seats in the House.

The challenge for incumbent Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey will be to retain the seat he was appointed to in January by fellow Democrat Jon Corzine when Corzine took office as that state’s newly elected governor.

The first Cuban American ever to serve in the Senate, Menendez, 52, is running dead even against Tom Kean Jr., the 37-year-old namesake son of a popular former Garden State governor.

Menendez spent seven years as mayor of Jersey City before serving 13 more representing New Jersey’s 13th district in the House of Representatives. In 2003 he was elected chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

The junior Kean served three terms in the New Jersey Senate. His father remained in the spotlight as chair the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, following Sept. 11, 2001.

Hispanic political interests will likely be aimed even more sharply at a House race pitting Democrat Ciro Rodriguez against fellow Mexican American Henry Bonilla, a conservative Republican, in Texas’s redrawn District 23.

Both Bonilla and Rodriguez are San Antonio-based congressional veterans, Bonilla, 52, is a former television news anchor there and a seven-term House member.

Rodriguez, 60, served from 1997 to 2004 before suffering wrenching narrow defeats to Texas’s former Secretary of State Henry Cuellar in the 2004 and 2006 Democratic primaries. Rodriguez chaired the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in 2003. Before his election to Congress, he served in the Texas House of Representatives for 11 years.

District 23’s lines were reconfigured Aug. 4 by a three-judge panel after the U.S Supreme Court ruled in June that by removing 100,000 Latino voters, the 2003 GOP remap violated the Voting Rights Act. According to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 opinion, Bonilla captured only 8 percent of the Latino vote in 2002 while barely retaining his seat against Cuellar, 51.5 percent to 49.5 percent.

League of United Latin American Citizens general counsel Luis Vera explains his vulnerability: “Bonilla has never voted with Latinos on any issue.”

District 23 stretches northwest from San Antonio to El Paso, and runs along the Texas/Mexico border to Laredo.

No party primaries will be held. Multiple candidates from either party can enter the special Nov. 7 open election. Already another Democrat, El Paso educator/football coach Rick Bolanos has announced his candidacy.

Deadline to enter the race is Aug. 25. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff.

The now-defunct 2003 plan was designed by ex-Rep. Tom DeLay, who was indicted for funneling illegal corporate donations for Republican candidates, to gain GOP seats and particularly to strengthen re-election chances for Bonilla, who was becoming increasingly unpopular with the growing Latino population.

Under the 2003 configurations, District 23’s Latino voting-age population was reduced from 58 percent to 46 percent. The judges’ map increases Latino voting-age population to 61 percent.

Contacted by Hispanic Link News Service, San Antonio area political analysts Andy Hernandez and Henry Florez, both affiliated with St. Mary’s University there, still give Bonilla the immediate advantage.

Hernandez assesses: “Bonilla has a party apparatus that has raised $2 million because the Republicans cannot afford to lose that seat. He has an aqueduct of funding versus Rodriguez’s well.”

He adds that Rodriguez has a long reputation as a sincere and principled public servant working on his behalf.

According to Flores, “Rodriguez has deep community roots in District 23, but Democrats have a better chance to win in 2008. Then they can give Bonilla a run for his money.”

Democrats in the district, while bolstered from 38.1 percent to 46.3 percent under the court plan, are still in the minority.

The judge’s remedial plan also affects, to a lesser degree, five other districts, including those of Cuellar and Ruben Hinojosa.

None of the 19 incumbent Latino Democrats in the House or its other three Latino Republicans appear to have significant re-election challenges. Neither of the other two Latino senators _ the GOP’s Mel Martinez of Florida and Democrat Ken Salazar of Colorado _ are up for reelection this year.

(Veronica Macias is a reporter with Hispanic Link News Service in Washington, D.C. E-mail editor(at)