For the first time in a decade, Democrats in the 35th Congressional District will not see the name Lloyd Doggett on their primary election ballot.
Instead, they will choose from among four Democrats, including former Austin City Council Member Greg Casar and state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin.
Both Casar and Rodriguez argue that they’re the more progressive choice for the district — one of the most liberal congressional seats in the state based on voting history — and have records in office to back it up. They both champion affordable housing, expanding Medicaid coverage and expanding voting rights.
With little daylight between the candidates’ policy proposals, their past actions in office have taken center stage in the race.
Casar is among the most liberal members to ever serve on Austin’s City Council and is credited as being a driving force behind the council’s push to redirect funding away from the Police Department and other significant local policy shifts in recent years, including on homelessness, worker protections and immigration. While those actions are lauded by some, they also prompted legal challenges and retaliation by Republican state leaders — and earned Casar his fair share of detractors among Democrats in Austin.
More: Two Austin Democrats, one San Antonio Democrat eying runs for 35th Congressional District
Rodriguez is ranked among the most liberal members of the Texas House, where he has been a fixture for nearly two decades. He has been a leader in the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and helped coordinate Democratic resistance to a number of Republican priority measures, including legislation banning so-called sanctuary cities and the sweeping elections bill signed into law last year.
The 35th District encompasses much of East Austin and stretches south along Interstate 35. It includes eastern portions of Hays and Comal counties and a large portion of San Antonio. Doggett has represented the district since it was created in 2011, but this year decided to run in the 37th Congressional District, a newly formed seat that includes most of Austin.
Also running: former San Antonio City Council Member Rebecca Viagran and Austin consultant Carla-Joy Sisco in the primary. Considering the district’s voting history (Biden would have won by 71.5%), the winner of the Democratic primary is also likely to win the November general election.
The latest fundraising figures show that Casar has raised more than $467,000 and had more than $355,000 on hand going into early voting, which began Monday. Rodriguez has raised more than $251,000 and had $220,000 on hand.
Viagran has raised more than $47,000, and Sisco has not reported any fundraising figures.
More: U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett to run in new proposed congressional district based in Austin
‘A bold vision’
Casar said voters in the district are looking for a representative who will spur bold change, and he’s the candidate for the job.
He joined the City Council in 2015 after advocating for workers rights in the community. During his tenure, he fought to slow evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic by opening up funds for renters, tightened a tax loophole on wealthy homeowners along Lake Austin and pushed city staff to address a backlog of DNA samples in rape investigations.
He also worked to require private companies to offer paid sick leave to employees (an ordinance that was later struck down by the courts) and successfully raised the minimum wage for city employees to $15 an hour.
“What our campaign is doing is trying to build a positive vision from East Austin down to downtown San Antonio with voters who want a bold agenda to expand Medicaid to all Texans and to address climate change and to fix our power grid and to hold corporations accountable,” Casar told the American-Statesman. “That bold vision is resonating with voters because we want to see things change and see things get better in a big way.”
More: Greg Casar’s legacy: A more progressive Austin City Council, but not without detractors
His campaign has picked up several high-profile endorsements, including from U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., and Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston. Mayor Steve Adler, Travis County District Attorney José Garza and other municipal officials from Austin and San Antonio have endorsed Casar.
He also has the support of many of the state and local unions, plus such national groups as the Latino Victory Fund and the Progressive Democrats of America.
“I don’t think there’s any other candidate in the race that can show a record of standing up to powerful interests, even when it gets tough, and winning time and time again,” Casar said. “That’s why I have the endorsement of the Progressive Caucus in D.C., which is the group of the 100 most progressive members of Congress.”
‘Progressive who makes progress’
Rodriguez is calling himself “the progressive who makes progress.”
A native of the Rio Grande Valley, Rodriguez was first elected to the statehouse in 2002 and has spent 19 years serving under Republican leadership. He currently serves on the House Corrections and the House Ways and Means committees.
Rodriguez also is vice president of commercial development for Capstone Title in Austin.
“Experience is important, but it’s also the type of experience that matters,” Rodriguez told the Statesman, noting that as a member of the Legislature he worked with both Republicans and Democrats. “City Council is different. They don’t run on party affiliation, and everyone is pretty much on some spectrum of progressive, except for maybe one exception.”
Rodriguez argues his experience is more representative of serving in Congress, as he has learned how to pursue legislation despite being a member of the minority party.
“Do I get 100% of what I want done? Absolutely not,” Rodriguez said. “Any of the bills I have passed are a piece of what I really wanted to accomplish, but I know I have to get whatever I can for my constituents.”
More: State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez throws hat in race for Texas’ 35th Congressional District
Rodriguez was among the nearly 60 Democrats who left the state for Washington last year to break quorum and block passage of a GOP-backed voting bill. Democrats stayed in the city for weeks, meeting with congressional leaders to call for federal action on voting rights and stalling progress on the bill in Austin.
“The 40 days I spent in Washington, D.C., trying to fight for the freedom to vote for my constituents and the people of Texas was very impactful for me,” he said. “It became very apparent to me that a lot of the things I’ve been fighting for or fighting against for the last 20 years are really won and lost on the national level.”
Rodriguez has been endorsed by many of his colleagues at the statehouse, including Democrats who represent areas included in the 35th District: Reps. Sheryl Cole, D-Austin; Philip Cortez, D-San Antonio; Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, D-San Antonio; Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin; Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin; Donna Howard, D-Austin; Celia Israel, D-Austin; Ray Lopez, D-San Antonio; and Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio.
He’s also secured national endorsements from U.S. Reps. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville; Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth; and Al Green, D-Houston, and the New Democrat Coalition in Congress and the local Black Austin Democrats and Capital Area Progressive Democrats.
‘A proven record’
While Casar and Rodriguez are the best-known candidates in the northern reaches of the 35th District, Viagran is best known in San Antonio, where she was a City Council member for four two-year terms and was born and raised in the city.
“When I saw this opportunity come up, I thought that San Antonio and Bexar County need a voice in this,” she told the Statesman. “I’ve worked most of my life in this area, and I have the qualifications, experience and passion to serve.”
During her time on the San Antonio City Council, Viagran worked to get the San Antonio missions declared World Heritage sites by UNESCO and helped drive up civic engagement in her district.
“Texans and voters, they want elected representatives to solve problems, not compound them,” she said. “They want their elected representatives to deliver results that will last. I have a proven record of making sure results last.”
Sisco did not return requests for comment from the Statesman.
Early voting is underway and ends Feb. 25. March 1 is Election Day.