09/11/2012 12:43 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2012

Spanish-Language Congressional Debate In Texas Race Highlights Politics Of Population Change

In the race to represent Texas’s 23rd Congressional District, an area that stretches about 550 miles from San Antonio to El Paso, Republican incumbent Rep. Francisco “Quico" Canseco will face his opponent, Democratic state Rep. Pete P. Gallego, in a debate late this month -- in Spanish.

The event, slated for Sept. 25 at a San Antonio college and set to air Sept. 29 on Univision Spanish-language station KWEX-TV, is believed to be the nation's first-ever Spanish language Congressional debate, co-sponsor AARP announced Monday.

The debate points to the significant shifts and power struggles taking shape in the American electorate. Latino residents make up nearly 70 percent of the 23rd District's constituents, up from about 55 percent just a decade ago. Across the country, Latinos are not only the nation’s largest minority group, but they also make up the fastest growing segment of voters. As both political parties grapple to control as many Congressional seats as possible, party officials and candidates will have to decide whether to try and appeal to Latino voters, or limit their political power. In Texas’ 23rd, there is evidence of both.

Canseco and Gallego are both Mexican-Americans and experienced politicians competing with the full force and resources of their national parties behind them. In the September debate, the candidates will field questions from the moderator and a panel of three reporters -- including one for San Antonio’s major English-language daily newspaper -- on Medicare, Social Security and issues related to long-term individual financial security, all en Español.

In 2010, Census workers gathering data on Congressional District 23 found an area populated by 847,651 residents, of which just over 66 percent described themselves as Latino. About 53 percent reported speaking a language other than English at home and 33 percent said that they did not speak English well.

A decade earlier, the district was home to 652,782 people, about 55 percent of whom were Latino, according to Census data. About 47 percent of residents reported speaking a language other than English at home and just over 9 percent described themselves as not fluent in English.

“At this point, it really seems only natural that you would have two Latino candidates coming out of this particular district,” said Bob Jackson, AARP’s state director in Texas. “And in Texas you have a lot of people who get their news in Spanish but work and operate in English all day long. That’s just the way it is down here. This debate reflects that.”

About 2.3 million AARP members live in Texas. Across the country, the nonpartisan senior citizen's advocacy group boasts about 37 million members, Jackson said. The national organization will cover the roughly $25,000 cost of the debate.

In the U.S., where Congressional seats and even voting districts are assigned and shaped by population growth and demographic trends, District 23 has become the subject of national attention and part of a series of court cases.

In the 10 years between 2000 to 2010, Texas added about 529,000 new people overall, with roughly 65 percent of them being Latino. All that new population growth helped Texas gain four new congressional seats in 2011 -- more than any other state.

That bonanza created a new round of competition in the state legislature over how to divide the spoils. In June a federal court found that Texas lawmakers conspired to distribute all of the state's political gains in ways that would likely elect more white Republicans or effectively give white voters control of special districts that were instead designed to better enable minorities to elect their candidate of choice.

That conspiracy included redrawing some district lines to include just enough voters with Spanish surnames to make them appear to be zones in which minority voters represented the majority, The Huffington Post reported. Latino voters with long and regular voting track records were drawn out of the district and Latino voters with spotty, limited or nonexistent voting records were put in. Among the goals: make the district look like a zone that minority voters control on paper, and help Canseco, a Latino Republican, hold onto his seat in a district where Canseco only very narrowly defeated his Democratic Party opponent in 2010.

Now, Canseco is one of several Tea Party Republican freshman members of Congress that Democrats believe to be vulnerable due to public dissatisfaction with Congress. Given the situation, special interest groups, Democratic and Republican Congressional campaign committees, and both parties have poured substantial resources into the 23rd District race.

Canseco has pulled in $1.73 million in individual donations and contributions from PACs, according to federal elections data. In June, the most recent period for which his campaign has submitted information to federal authorities, Canseco had just over $1 million in cash on hand. The vast majority of Canseco’s war chest came from large individual donors and PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ online tool

Gallego has raised just $845,000, according to federal elections data. But, he had just over $7,000 cash on hand in July. Like Canseco, Gallego raised most of his campaign war chest from large individual donors and PACs, according to

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also financed robocalls in District 23. The automated calls connect Canseco and other Republicans, and their votes in support of GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s budget, to an effort to effectively “end” Medicare, the Houston Chronicle reported this month. The Republican Congressional Committee also released information claiming that Obama’s health overhaul will be financed with cuts to Medicare, a public health insurance program for senior citizens.

The debate at the end of September will give people living in the district an opportunity to evaluate the candidates' positions on Medicare and Social Security, said Jackson, the AARP's Texas director. Both candidates “jumped,” at the chance to participate, he said.

When the District 23 Congressional debate takes place later this month, it will actually mark the second Spanish-language rhetorical contest in Texas.

In 2002, two Latino Democrats, vying to become the party’s gubernatorial nominee, faced off in a Spanish language debate, the Amarillo Globe News reported.

Though the gubernatorial debate took place a decade ago, for increasingly-important Spanish-speaking voters, valuable information is still lost in translation.

“I think for every voter there is a constant struggle to get information that hasn’t been soundbited and spun,” Jackson said. “I think pretty often in the past, Spanish-speaking voters had to rely on a sort of trickle down of information from English language press. I think this is an opportunity for that voter to hear directly from these candidates.”



Leading Latino Politicians