Tony Martinez, who works in marketing for a produce company in a small town in the Rio Grande Valley called Edinburg, Texas, understands the significance of a powerful message. That's why it's unsurprising that he remembers what party-switcher Aaron Peña's yard signs used to say -- and the promise they never fulfilled.
"He had these signs that said 'Fighting for the People,'" Martinez told me over the phone Sunday afternoon. Martinez, a Marine Corps veteran who returned from combat duty in Iraq in 2005, appreciated Peña's interest in veteran's issues, like when Peña walked in a rally with Martinez to support a veteran's hospital being built in South Texas. "People like me were loyal to him because he was loyal to our needs. He would listen, y'know?"
But despite support from his mostly Democratic district, Peña's message -- and his politics -- took a strong right turn.
"I know legislation takes time but he's just been playing the fence for years," Martinez said, who's still waiting on a veteran's hopsital to come to the Rio Grande Valley. "He's been in every photo op but can someone to actually point at something and say 'Aaron Peña did this?' No."
Peña appeared on FOX News on Sunday morning, talking about his reasons for switching parties. When asked by the reporter about Call Out Aaron Peña Day, an online initiative to publicly denounce Peña's party switch, Peña chuckled and said "There's been absolutely no backlash where I live. I've been embraced by the community."
It doesn't seem that way to Martinez, an Edinburg native who said Peña has become the "laughing stock" of Hidalgo County since the switch. "He comes from a big family," Martinez said. "Aaron's dad was a respected attorney who's been down here for years, and people trusted the name. He's tarnished that name."
Peña's rationale behind his party switch stems from a Eeyore-like refrain that complains that not enough is being done in South Texas by the Democratic Party, and yet ignores the fact that the Republican Party's platform seeks to disenfranchise minorities and suck state funding out of already low-income areas. University of Texas-Pan American political science professor Dr. Samuel Freeman finds Peña's reasons for leaving the Democratic Party counter-productive. "One place where he and I are in complete agreement is that the Democratic Party has not paid sufficient attention to South Texas," said Freeman. "But while Peña's criticisms [of the Democratic Party] are correct, his solution is absolutely wrong."
Dr. Freeman has lived in Edinburg for over thirty years and, as both a constituent of the district and professor of political science, found Peña's party switch to be "duplicitous." Freeman's semester wrapped up yesterday, but when I asked if the campus had reacted at all to Peña's decision to leave the Democratic Party, Freeman was quick to answer. "Everywhere I have gone, everyone I have talked to, they are all upset, angry, hurt [and] betrayed at what Aaron Peña has done. The opposition is almost visceral," Freeman said. "For Peña to say there hasn't been backlash... he's either delusional or a liar."
Another one of Peña's constituents, Amber Arriaga, lives in Donna, Texas and is a UTPA graduate who helped spread the word in South Texas about Call Out Aaron Peña Day. She questions Peña's insistence that the Democratic Party's "professional left" in Texas has ignored her community. "I don't feel ignored by the left, more like attacked by the right," Arriaga said, adding "I never see people like [John] Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison here."
Cornyn and Hutchison, two long-time Texas Republican Senators, voted Saturday against the DREAM Act, which seeks to provide pathways to US citizenship through military service and higher education for minors who arrive illegally in the States and graduate from US high schools. It's because of the Republican Party's stance on this issue and others that directly affect the Hispanic majority of Peña's district -- like Arizona-style immigration legislation -- that make many of Peña's constituents feel jilted by Peña's sudden change of loyalty.
"Aaron Peña has gone over to the side of people who are unalterably opposed to anything and everything of any benefit to the people of the [Rio Grande] Valley," Freeman said. "He has in a very real sense become an enemy of the people of the Valley."
Freeman, Arriaga and Martinez all agreed that the best way forward for Aaron Peña would be to resign, but are doubtful he will due to the fact that that he is unlikely to win in a Democratic stronghold like Hidalgo County. Martinez, meanwhile, is strengthening his resolve. "He can do anything he wants. I'm going to support any Democrat who runs against him. It's just a damn shame it's going to be in 2 years."