Rodriguez upsets incumbent Bonilla

Staff Writers Tracy Idell Hamilton and Laura E. Jesse and News Researcher Michael Knoop contributed to this report.

My San Antionio News

Jan 9, 2007

Former Congressman Ciro Rodriguez completed a stunning political turnaround Tuesday with an upset win over incumbent Republican Henry Bonilla that topped off the Democratic takeover of Congress.

Rodriguez overcame a huge financial disadvantage with the help of national party officials, who overhauled his campaign and spent aggressively on his behalf.

Bonilla, a 14-year incumbent, phoned Rodriguez to concede at about 9 p.m.

Rodriguez arrived shortly after that at the Harlandale Civic Center, which was packed with more than 300 screaming supporters.

After slowly working his way through the crowd to the stage, he declared victory — which came on the heels of two Democratic primary defeats in 2004 and earlier this year in the neighboring District 28.

"I think we have a real mandate," he said. "We needed to make sure we worked on raising the minimum wage. We're also going to take care of prescription drug costs. And, by God, we're going to do the right thing by our veterans."

The election sends Rodriguez back to Congress after a two-year hiatus prompted by the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature redrawing of the state's congressional districts in 2003.

His victory leaves Democrats with 234 seats in the U.S. House, Republicans with 200. A seat in Florida remains contested with the Republican candidate ahead and expected to win.

Tuesday's runoff stemmed from the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last June that Texas Republican leaders breached the Voting Rights Act by slicing 100,000 Hispanics from the district in their 2003 remap. A three-judge panel answered by removing several largely Anglo Hill Country counties and pulling heavily Hispanic South Bexar County into the district.

The move put Democrats on equal footing with Republicans and increased the Hispanic population to 61 percent.

Bonilla blamed his defeat partly on the court-ordered changes in a speech Tuesday night to about 75 supporters in the lobby of the building housing his North Side campaign headquarters.

"They moved the goal post on us further down the field, and we couldn't score again and again," he said.

After his concession speech at 9:30 p.m., he mingled with supporters and thanked them for their efforts.

Early Tuesday night, it became clear that the San Antonio Republican lost Bexar County for the first time in his political career, and the news didn't get much better.

Bonilla also lost ground in what had been his West Texas stronghold. Only five weeks ago, he carried Dimmit, Culberson, Presidio and Brewster counties in the seven-way special election, but he lost all four to Rodriguez on Tuesday.

Phil Ricks, Bonilla's spokesman, conceded early in the evening that the campaign had lost the ground war, at least as far as early voting.

"I think the other side was much more organized in getting the early vote out, and that's why they sought extra days of early voting," he said.

Soon after Gov. Rick Perry set the runoff date, the League of United Latin American Citizens and Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued and eventually wrangled three extra days of early voting before dropping the complaint.

Vanessa Gonzalez, spokeswoman for Rodriguez, said the former four-term congressman's campaign had placed heavy emphasis on coaxing voters to the polls early.

She also said the early results Tuesday indicated District 23 would join the Democratic trend that hit Nov. 7.

"People realized the only way to change things was to go out and vote," Gonzalez said.

Andy Hernandez, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a former Democratic National Committee staffer, said Rodriguez's victory was in step with last month's Democratic upheaval.

"You have to see this as part of the national trend where Republicans lost in swing districts," he said. "This anti-Republican trend, which Hispanics had a big part in, played out here."

But Democrats almost didn't have a shot at the seat. On Nov. 7, Bonilla came within a single percentage point of an outright majority, which would've allowed him to avoid a runoff.

Bonilla came into the runoff with $1.6 million in the bank and the advantages of incumbency — a familiar name across the sprawling district and list of projects for which he'd secured federal funding.

Rodriguez hobbled out of the special election nearly broke and with a reputation as a less than savvy campaigner.

But he had a name that registered in Bexar County and South Texas, and soon he had the interest of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. After testing the water with polls, the organization wound up spending more than $900,000 on mail-outs and television ads.

When national Democrats came on the scene, Rodriguez's campaign was transformed from a largely all-volunteer effort to a more professionalized operation.

The race quickly turned bitter.

Rodriguez accused Bonilla of slashing veterans' health benefits and voting against a $1,500 bonus for troops active in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For his part, Bonilla questioned Rodriguez's judgment over his support for repealing a law allowing the use of secret evidence in deportation cases, saying it would have led to the freeing of suspected terrorists, and for accepting a $250 contribution in 1998 from a man later convicted of illegal business transactions with Libya.

Andy Hernandez said Bonilla's accusation and the TV ad that followed might have hurt Bonilla, not Rodriguez. "It just wasn't credible."

Richard Langlois, chairman of the Bexar County Republican Party, blamed Bonilla's fall in Bexar County on his supporters staying home Tuesday.

"Obviously, it was voter apathy," Langlois said. "Obviously, something happened."

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