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Originally published Monday, May 28, 2012 at 9:28 AM

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Hispanic boom may not shift Texas face in Congress

One is a black real estate agent and the other a white millionaire. For two new districts created to reflect Texas' soaring Hispanic population, they might be the representatives elected to Congress.

Associated Press

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SAN ANTONIO —

One is a black real estate agent and the other a white millionaire. For two new districts created to reflect Texas' soaring Hispanic population, they might be the representatives elected to Congress.

That's not exactly what Hispanic leaders pictured, and some are disheartened.

The number of Hispanics in Texas grew by 2.8 million in the last decade - second only to California - and drove a population boom that rewarded the state with a total of four new U.S. House seats. Yet in Tuesday's primaries, Texas voters may put no more Hispanics on the path to Congress than the six the state has sent since 1997.

The reasons illustrate why more population doesn't necessarily mean more political power in an ethnically diverse state. In this case, the way the new districts were mapped by a Republican-controlled legislature, combined with the natural advantages enjoyed by political veterans who already are well established, has left a group of eager Hispanic candidates facing formidable opponents from other races.

"Cheated. We're cheated. Are we going to wait another 10 years?" said Sylvia Romo, a Hispanic former state lawmaker running against wealthy Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett.

Some Hispanic leaders already are beginning to look toward the next election cycle, when they hope pending legal challenges will bring about helpful changes in the district maps.

Between 2000 and 2010, Hispanics accounted for three out of every five new Texas residents. Nearly 38 percent of the state's population is now Hispanic. Population gains have been reflected in the number of Hispanic officeholders elected in down-ballot races from the legislature to school boards - up 46 percent to about 2,500 between 1996 and 2010.

Yet gains on Capitol Hill have not kept pace. The six Hispanic members represent about a fifth of the state's 32 congressional seats.

Low voter registration and turnout among Hispanic residents has long played a part in sapping Hispanic representation.

But Hispanic Democrats had expected the new congressional districts, which were based on the 2010 Census, to help them flex more demographic muscle.

Two of the four new districts were drawn as minority-opportunity seats, touching on four major cities with large Latino populations: Fort Worth, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin. About 60 percent of the voting-age population in both districts is Hispanic.

"These elections are a key test of Latino voting power in 2012," said Democrat Domingo Garcia, who's trying to become the first Hispanic elected to Congress from Dallas. "It would be breaking that glass barrier in terms of what Texas really looks like."

But the boundaries set up races with two strong Democrats - one a well-known incumbent congressman - who were not Hispanic. The political wrangling and legal challenges over the districts also lasted months and gave newcomers less time to prepare.

Among the front-runners for the two seats are Doggett, 65, who has served in Congress since 1995, and Mark Veasey, a black state lawmaker and real estate agent, who has a solid political base and the endorsement of both major newspapers in the district, The Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. His state House district overlaps about a third of the new congressional district where his biggest challenger is Garcia. The candidates who win the Democratic nomination will be heavy favorites to win the general election.

Doggett has a campaign treasury of $2.8 million. Romo didn't announce her candidacy until February and started with only $20,000.

Doggett has been advertising and campaigning actively in the district, arguing he must be doing something right for Republicans to try to remap him out of office. He is touting his liberal voting record, which even his Hispanic opponents concede they would imitate.

The Hispanic candidates are not openly wooing voters with their ethnicity. And some voters say they wouldn't vote on that basis anyway.

"To me, what difference does it make?" said teacher Diana Ramirez, 32, who met Doggett this month in San Antonio's downtown La Villita district, where he was campaigning at an art fair.

Doggett said he isn't costing Texas another Hispanic face in Congress by competing in the predominantly Hispanic district rather than in a neighboring GOP-friendly one drawn by the Legislature. Both contain fragments of his old district before it was remapped.

"Other than, `He's not a Latina,'" Doggett said, "I haven't heard much of anything of a rationale of the candidacy of my Latina opponents."

Veasey said he has a lot to offer Hispanic residents who would be his constituents. That district is about 17 percent black, and the issues - quality of schools, health care, economic development - are the same for both Hispanics and blacks in the community, he said.

"It's a very dangerous assumption to make that just because a district is made a certain way, the race will reflect that," Veasey said.

The best chance for Hispanics to gain representation this year is in a race outside the new Hispanic opportunity districts. Several strong Hispanic candidates are running for a seat representing the Rio Grande Valley.

Luis Vera, an attorney for the League of United Latin American Citizens, which was among the groups that sued the state over the redistricting maps, said Hispanics were "stabbed in the back" by how blacks and Latinos wound up with a single district in North Texas instead of having one for each. The federal courts could order changes before the next election cycle.

But Vera also said Hispanics must improve their low voter turnout to shape elections. Hispanics account for only 20 percent of registered voters. And the Democratic losses in the 2010 elections weakened Democrats' position when it came time to draw new district maps and fight the GOP-designed ones.

"It's our own fault that we've been totally screwed," he said.

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Paul J. Weber can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pauljweber

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