HOUSTON — Gene Green gets the question at many of the town hall meetings he holds in his overwhelmingly Latino congressional district. Essentially, “What is someone like YOU doing in a place like this?”
After a quarter century in office, the 69-year-old Democrat is used to it.
“As an Anglo running in a predominantly Mexican-American district it’s not my first term,” Green, who initially won his Houston-based congressional seat the same year Bill Clinton was elected president, said at one recent event. “Even in 1992 it was, ‘How do you think you can get elected?'”
Home to 2.3 million people, around 44 percent of whom are Latino, Houston is America’s largest Hispanic city without a Hispanic member of the U.S. House.
Traditionally low voter turnout among Hispanics helps account for that anomaly, but another key reason is Green, who is white. He has never lost a district drawn specifically to empower Hispanic voters and today is nearly 80 percent Latino.
Green has endured by winning over Houston’s top Hispanic activists, and obsessing about small details that keep constituents happy. As Hurricane Harvey menaced Texas, Green’s office partnered with five churches in his district to offer evacuees food, water and basics like diapers. During non-emergencies, Green comes home every weekend from Washington for events like chili cook-offs, organizes citizenship and immunization drives, and personally returns calls to his office from anyone asking simply to “speak to Gene.”
He’s the kind of congressman who probably should not exist but has proven that candidate loyalty can outweigh demographics. That’s a mixed blessing, though, as Texas Democrats continue to struggle to mobilize Hispanic voters statewide and are desperate to promote attractive new Latino political talent. The nation’s largest red state has kept moving farther right even as its Democratic-leaning Latino population booms.
Nationally, Hispanics represent 17 percent of the population but only hold 7 percent of House seats. In Texas alone, they make up the majority of registered voters in nine congressional districts, but only four are represented by Hispanics.
Texas isn’t unique. Now running for governor, New Mexico Republican Rep. Steve Pearce is white and conservative but represented his majority Hispanic district for two lengthy stints, most recently beginning in 2011. Republican Rep. David Valadao, of Portuguese descent, represents a Hispanic district in California’s Central Valley.
A lawyer and longtime state lawmaker before going to Congress, Green loves breaking down complex policy issues in folksy ways. During an event for seniors, he joked about cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security recipients increasing only 0.3 percent last year.
“At 0.3 percent you can probably go buy you a Whataburger,” he said, referencing the beloved Texas burger chain.
“No, no, no,” cried one man in the crowd shaking his head with all his might. “Burger King. On sale.”
He emphasizes the personal touch. After Harvey, which left parts of his district flooded with about 50 inches (127 centimeters) of rain, Green organized an event at a church that paired residents who lost their homes with federal officials managing recovery efforts “so people can actually see a person, instead of just using a toll-free number or email.”
The late Texas senator and onetime Democratic vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen was Green’s mentor, and hanging in his district office is a picture of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing Medicare into law. But Green also swings conservative, backing gun rights and serving as an advocate for powerful energy concerns including Halliburton because, “Bottom line, if you hire my constituents, I’m going to help you.”
His territory snakes through mostly working-class areas of north and east Houston, where modest or handsome homes bump up against strip malls in some areas and scruffy taco stands and convenience stores with barred windows in others.
The district was drawn thanks to the Voting Rights Act, which required Texas to get its election laws cleared by the federal government because of a history of racial discrimination. The aim was sending a Hispanic to Congress, but Green won the 1992 Democratic congressional primary by 180 votes.
Green made his case to voters even though his Spanish doesn’t extend much beyond saying he speaks the language “un poquito,” a little.
“The fact that he himself is not Latino doesn’t mean he’s not advancing the interests of his Latino constituents and advocating for Latino causes,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Last year, Green faced a primary challenge from county sheriff and former Houston City Council member Adrian Garcia. Top Hispanic leaders endorsed Green, as did BOLD PAC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ financial arm, which had never before supported a non-Hispanic over a Hispanic elected official.
Green beat Garcia by almost 20 percentage points, and has yet to draw a major primary challenger this year.
Green’s retail politics prowess aside, though, some say the absence of emerging Latino talent could hurt his party’s appeal beyond his district — especially with younger Hispanics. Republicans hold 25 of Texas’ 36 congressional seats.
Sylvia Garcia, now a state senator from Houston, finished third in the 1992 Democratic primary and remains friends with Green. But she recalled a party strategist recently saying of Green, “I don’t know that the millennials can get beyond just looking at an old white guy.”
Maria Cadengo, a 32-year-old hotel event manager who attended one of Green’s recent town halls, said afterward that it’s not important that Houston send a Hispanic to Congress.
“I don’t care who you are, where you’re from,” Cadengo said. “If you’re actually doing something for the community, that matters more.”
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