- Jade Esteban Estrada
I’m sitting at a table across from Rick Treviño at Don Pedro Mexican Restaurant on the city’s South Side, and I’m having this sort of out of body experience.
Maybe it’s just me, but having a conversation with the left-leaning Treviño, who's competing for the Democratic nomination in Texas’ 23rd Congressional District, feels a little like being on a field trip with a tireless teacher who’s preparing me for a statewide politics and American history competition. He actually is a former high school history teacher, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever heard him riff in the spotlight.
If his hard work and sweat win the day in the May 22 runoff, he’ll have the opportunity to challenge two-term Republican incumbent Will Hurd in the November midterm election, and potentially contribute to the much talked about “blue wave.” However, his runoff opponent, Gina Ortiz Jones’ well-funded campaign stands in his way.
As voters from San Antonio to El Paso revisit Treviño’s purely progressive platform, the larger narrative of a Democratic divide is unfolding. In the first major election since the ascension of Donald J. Trump, hard-core progressives are battling more mainstream candidates for primacy. Whether Treviño has an advantage in this contest is anyone’s guess.
Sporting a fresh Rick Treviño for Congress t-shirt and his boy-next-door vibe, Treviño brings to mind the Charlie Bucket character in the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. If endorsements did what they’re supposed to do (fellow Democratic candidate Jay Hulings had the backing of the almighty Castro brothers, for heaven’s sake) and political prognosticators had been right, Treviño probably wouldn’t be holding this golden ticket.
“I think it’s just a really exciting, powerful, political moment in American history,” he says as he enthusiastically maps out, in colorful detail, the district that sprawls across a ridiculously large section of the state.
Treviño, 33, got his first hit of political adrenaline at a very young age. In 1992, his mother brought him along while she volunteered on Richard Raymond’s first campaign for state representative in Laredo. Years later, after Treviño graduated from college and found it difficult to find a teaching job, his parents encouraged him to get political. They suggested he look into LULAC. “My parents are just like me,” he says proudly. “To the left.”
His later introduction to the political ideology of Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2012 was a turning point in his life, and during the 2016 Democratic primaries, Treviño served as a San Antonio delegate to the Sanders’ presidential campaign. Last year, he ran for the District 6 seat on city council but was 28 votes shy of making the runoff.
As I’m listening to him discuss topics as varied as cybersecurity and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution during the Vietnam War, I come to an early conclusion that Treviño is what young people would easily describe as “woke,” meaning socially aware for those who know who Florence Henderson is. This comes across in his sometimes urgently-stated answers and in the bear-poking sideshow he performed on his April 2 debate with Jones on Texas Public Radio.
Arguably, his rapid-fire comparisons of recent events to the history of the U.S. is his bright green mutant power. “I know how we got here,” he says. “I think that’s why I’m a strong candidate – because I have the strength of context.”
Between conversation-framing quotes by Noam Chomsky and Dwight D. Eisenhower, he explains how he feels we’re living through a second Gilded Age, where working-class Americans are again controlled by the oligarchs of big business. He offers the Pullman Strike of 1894 to illustrate what he feels is needed now to take back the government from the donor class – that small but powerful group of individuals who donate to campaigns with silver strings attached. Like his hero Sanders, Treviño says he refuses corporate super PAC money, which he feels leaves him free to represent the working people of his district if elected. “I’m not gonna sell out,” he says. “I’ll win this way or I’ll lose this way.”
Certainly, his electability would be questionable at best if the old rules decide to circle back and apply, but neither candidate can assume a victory. Treviño puts tremendous trust in his block-walking efforts, which he says allows him to stay close to voters while his rival – who is likely doing the same – is tagged in Twitter photos with celebrities like Chelsea Handler. “When I’m knocking on the door in the colonias, I know, 100 percent, that they didn’t read Gina’s Teen Vogue article.”
Treviño knows he’s up against the revved-up Year of the Woman machine. But he argues that his chances of winning has, in part, been made possible by the mostly female chorus of marchers, meme creators and their allies, in conjunction with this Democratic civil war. He feels his platform of “Healthcare for All” and an increase in the minimum wage would benefit women the most. “That’s just the reality,” he says of running a campaign in the aftermath of the #metoo movement. “Our society is sexist. The patriarchy does exist, and we have to come to terms with the legacy of that.” He says that poverty and welfare, which is often viewed as a racialized issue, is actually one of gender. “Most people who are poor are single women with children.”
Treviño doesn’t believe Jones’ developing national presence will move the needle very much with district voters.
“[National press] is a song and dance for the donor class,” he says. He explains that the way consultants win elections is by creating a “pseudo-celebrity. You create celebrity by going on MSNBC. You don’t get on the cover of Time Magazine ’cause those journalists are good sleuths! You have connections.” Treviño’s own connections earned him an interview with the anti-establishment web series The Young Turks, which is to progressives what Madonna was to MTV throughout the 1980s.
“I really wanna win. I’m trying really hard. I’m trying my best. I’m willing to strike out on these issues.”
He takes a drink of his water, then, puts the glass down confidently.
“But don’t worry. I’m gonna hit a home run.”
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