Settled Into GOP, Lozano Hopes to Hold District 43

by Julián Aguilar, Texas Tribune

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Rep. Jose Manuel Lozano

Known as “Pepe” to people in House District 43, state Rep. Jose Manuel Lozano figures voters pretty well know what he’s about.

Familiarity and the passage of time have made the campaign trail less hostile than it was in 2012, he said, when Lozano switched parties and ran as a Republican after being elected as a Democrat in 2010.

“I feel like there is less divisiveness in my race,” Lozano, 34, said. “Two years ago the party switch was still too fresh.”

But while Lozano is talking with voters about the state’s energy boom and job creation, his Democratic opponent is happy to revisit recent history.

“I can understand growing up and changing as a person,” said Kim Gonzalez, 34, an assistant district attorney in Nueces County. But Lozano changed parties “when the lines were redrawn. My issue with him switching is that he’s basically coasted along the way.”

HD-43 sits west of Corpus Christi, abutting border districts that are traditionally Democratic strongholds. After redistricting in 2011, it became a toss-up after taking in all or parts of Bee, Jim Wells, San Patricio and Kleberg counties.

His district is growing more conservative, Lozano said, largely because his constituents are frustrated with the federal government on environmental issues and regulation of the oil and gas industry.

Agriculture, forestry, hunting and mining employ about 10 percent of the district’s workforce, compared with about 3 percent statewide, according to a 2013 analysis by the Texas Legislative Council.

On the campaign trail, Lozano said, he tells people he “chose jobs over lizards,” referring to his support for Texas’ oil and gas industry when environmentalists wanted to limit drilling to protect a rare reptile.

“When we started getting more oil and gas jobs, [the district] became more conservative,” he said. “People appreciated that I stood by their side on those issues.”

Aaron Peña, a former state representative from Edinburg who switched to the GOP in 2010 after serving four terms as a Democrat, said demographic and political shifts in Lozano’s district bode well for him.

“It’s different from the border and actually, from the rest of the state,” Peña said. “[Nearby] Corpus Christi is going in the other direction. [The district] is a mixture of rural and conservative values that are shared in Anglo and Hispanic communities.”

But the district also has more workers in education and health care than the state as a whole — about 25 percent of the workforce versus 21 percent statewide — according to a 2013 analysis by the Texas Legislative Council.

Gonzalez sees those voters as a chance to hit back against Lozano.

“I just feel like we need some change, and I have been angry at the change we’ve seen,” she said. The Legislature’s gutting of $5.4 billion from education funding in 2011 hurt an already low-performing area, she said. And a restrictive abortion bill passed in 2013 shut down two clinics in the district that did not perform abortions, she said.

“First we shortchange [the community] on education. Now we want to short change them on health care,” she said. “To them it’s abortion services and that’s it. That’s an attack on women. I’m very angry and insulted.”

Lozano voted to restore some of the education funding cuts the following session, which he touts as proof that he votes his district and doesn’t always toe the party line.

Gonzalez said that was an easy vote, since all sides were taking the heat for the cuts.

Gonzalez said she’s more worried about low turnout than the growing national backlash toward Democrats.

“It’s not an anti-Democratic feeling. It’s voter apathy,” she said. “But they see what happens when you don’t go out to vote. They are excited about this election.”

Michael Guerra, the Jim Wells County Democratic chairman, said he expects a close race. He’s keeping his eye on San Patricio County. In 2012, Lozano beat his opponent there by 3,200 votes, but Guerra said the Democratic ground game there is hoping to change the tide. Lozano won the race by about 1,450 votes after losing in Bee and Jim Wells counties but winning in Kleberg County.

“San Patricio is what makes this a toss-up district,” Guerra said.

Lozano remains unfazed.

“She hasn’t done her research. She doesn’t know the issues,” he said. “She thinks she’s running against someone else.”

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