Rebecca Viagran pins hopes on San Antonio voters in congressional race

Former San Antonio City Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran is looking to fill the congressional seat being vacated by Democrat Lloyd Doggett. She faces three other Democrats in the March 1 primary. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

In Texas’ 35th Congressional District, the only candidate from San Antonio in the Democratic primary is banking on San Antonio voters to show up for her.

But Rebecca Viagran, a former four-term City Council member, faces competition from her Austin-based opponents working to make inroads with those same voters. Political observers warn she faces an uphill fight in the March 1 primary, and recent campaign finance reports reinforce that notion.

Viagran’s campaign issues overlap with those of her competitors, which include former Austin City Councilman Greg Casar, a Democratic socialist, and Texas House Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, ranked by the Texas Tribune as among the more liberal members of the state House. Broadly, all three bill themselves as progressives and say they would fight for abortion access, expanded voting options and more affordable housing.

Viagran said she hopes to draw from voters who are progressive “but also want to see results.”

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will likely fill the seat being left behind by Democrat Lloyd Doggett, the only representative the decade-old district has ever had. Doggett is running for a newly created district in the Austin area. The newly redrawn 35th Congressional District encompasses most of east Austin and Travis County east of Interstate 35, but it also snakes down the interstate to the eastern and southern parts of San Antonio.

The district is majority Hispanic and leans strongly Democratic, FiveThirtyEight reports. The Republican primary ballot features 10 candidates.

‘Representation matters’

Viagran’s tenure as a councilwoman was marked by significant economic activity on the South Side, including growth at the Brooks campus and groundbreaking for Navistar’s truck manufacturing plant. She helped secure a UNESCO World Heritage designation for San Antonio’s Spanish colonial missions.

Her campaign emphasizes that career and her upbringing in San Antonio. She said she considers her base to be voters in Bexar County, as well as those in more suburban and rural parts of Travis County and the rest of the district. And as the only prominent female candidate, she also hopes to win over women from all over the district.

“Too many in Congress don’t understand what it means to be a woman and what it means to live paycheck to paycheck,” she said. Her website’s campaign pitch, a short paragraph under her photo, starts with “I believe representation matters.”

She’s received endorsements from prominent local officials, including Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, former Mayor Henry Cisneros, VIA Metropolitan Transit board Chair Fernando Reyes, and council members Adriana Rocha Garcia and Melissa Cabello Havrda, among others.

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But Viagran’s hopes of racking up votes in San Antonio could be a difficult play to win, said Walter Wilson, a UTSA political science professor. Not only has San Antonio’s portion of the district shrunk under the recent redrawing — including much of Viagran’s former district — but San Antonio’s turnout is typically lower than Austin’s, he said.

Her best bet is in a runoff, Wilson said.

Daron Shaw, the chair of state politics at the University of Texas at Austin, had a similar assessment. He wrote in an email that “city council seats can be the basis for a successful primary run, but I haven’t seen evidence yet that she has a San Antonio base that will show up and make her a threat in this race.”

Deanna Rodriguez listens to her brother State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) as he shares information about his campaign for Texas’ 35th Congressional District on Sunday while stumping door-to-door. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Viagran faces a significant fundraising deficit compared to Casar and Rodriguez. She has raised a little more than $47,000, from which she has spent just $2,200, according to campaign finance reports ending Jan. 31. Casar has raised nearly $468,000 and reported almost $356,000 in cash on hand, and Rodriguez has raised more than $251,000 with about $220,000 remaining in cash. No fundraising information was available for the fourth Democratic candidate, Carla-Joy Sisco, an Austin-based business process consultant.

Only two Republicans have raised money for their primary, led by Marilyn Jackson, an Austin business owner who has raised less than $5,000.

Casar’s progressive endorsements

Viagran isn’t the only candidate courting support in San Antonio.

Casar, who spearheaded Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance that preceded a similar measure in San Antonio, has received endorsements from San Antonio council members Teri Castillo (D5), Ana Sandoval (D7), and Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2). He’s also received an endorsement from local labor groups, such as the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, as well as a recommendation from the San Antonio Central Labor Council.

In addition to these local endorsements, Casar has also been endorsed by national figures such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

The New York congresswoman is set to make an appearance with Casar at a campaign event at the Paper Tiger nightclub Feb. 12. Jessica Cisneros, a candidate challenging U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar in the Democratic primary for the 28th Congressional District, also is scheduled to attend.

Casar said he has volunteers and field organizers knocking on doors in Bexar County. His campaign has also hosted meet-and-greets, such as one held in the backyard of a supporter in Tobin Hill last weekend, and he is filling local mailboxes with a steady stream of campaign mailers.

Former Austin City Councilman Greg Casar, center, attends a rally for the LGBTQ community at the Texas State Capitol. Credit: Stephen Spillman / Freelance

Casar said he’s running to be a “champion of working people across both cities.” While the cities have differences, he said, its working families share many of the same concerns about gentrification and paying bills, while “major corporations make windfall profits.” Though gentrification is more advanced in Austin, he said San Antonio has its own issues with demolitions in lower-income neighborhoods.

“There is power in having these working-class and largely black and brown communities connected in one district,” he said.

Casar sat on the Austin City Council until Friday.

Rodriguez’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment. In campaign mailers, he has touted his accomplishments in the Texas Legislature, including passage of a bill that provides property tax exemptions for housing owned by a charitable organization and used to address homelessness. At the same time, he has taken aim at Casar by tying him to Austin’s problems with homelessness.

Rodriguez is supported by the New Democrat Coalition, a caucus of centrist congressional Democrats.

And he, too, is looking to gain the attention of San Antonio voters. His campaign posted on Facebook plans to assemble volunteers to knock on doors in the city on Sunday.

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Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org. More by Waylon Cunningham