In order to get a sense of just how major a role gerrymandering plays in the composition of the U.S. Congress, it's worthwhile to take a long look at Texas GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold's short career — which long-shot Democratic candidate Wesley Reed is hoping to bring to a swift conclusion.
Since 2011, Farenthold has represented Texas's 27th Congressional District. Prior to Farenthold's ascension, the seat was held — for nearly three decades — by Solomon Ortiz, a Democrat. The fact that the 27th switched hands, and the fact that it did so after Farenthold won by an incredibly small margin of 799 votes, might lead you to reasonably presume that Farenthold would be forced to vote as a moderate during his time in the House. But here's where gerrymandering comes in.
Because 2010 was a census year, Farenthold's success in riding a wave of outside, dark money took on outsize importance. State-level Republican politicians in Texas took full advantage of the opportunity afforded them with census-mandated redistricting, dramatically redesigning Farenthold's 27th and transforming it from a toss-up into a safe Republican seat. Farenthold would never have to face the same electorate he did in 2010, in other words; and when he ran for reelection in 2012, he secured nearly 57 percent of the vote.
Yet despite the game being seemingly rigged (albeit legally) in the Republicans' favor, Marine, FedEx pilot and Democratic candidate Wesley Reed has still decided to challenge Farenthold. Reed is running a campaign focused on local issues, hoping to use his military background and roots in the district as a way to get his foot in the door with voters who would otherwise traditionally support the GOP. Salon recently spoke with Reed over the phone to discuss his campaign, Farenthold's weaknesses and the difference between a "Texas Democrat" and a "conservative Democrat." Our conversation is below, and has been edited for clarity and length.
Even in a really hospitable environment, running for Congress is a massive undertaking and you’re running in a district where, after some recent gerrymandering, voters are now overwhelmingly Republican. Knowing that you were going up against some pretty significant odds, what made you want to do this?
Looking at the race this year, and the way that my opponent has failed to do anything for the constituents in his two terms now, I felt that I had to step up and get involved in the game, because I’ve lived the American dream and I want to make sure everyone in the district has access to that dream.
Both my grandparents are farmers and I spent a lot of time as a young kid on that farm working, helping them out, doing chores on the farm. I grew up in a working-class family. Did a lot of different jobs as a kid growing up. Delivered papers for a long time. Stocked shelves in a grocery store. Did landscaping. Worked in a factory. Picked tobacco before I joined the military — and that’s the story a lot of the people in our district have lived.
We have a bunch of farmers in the district. We have a bunch of middle-class, working-class families that struggle each day to put food on the table and make sure that their kids have a good, solid future ahead of them. I felt [from] the background that I had that it was time for me to get involved and try to help people out.
Did your friends or family try to persuade you not to run?
No, no one really tried to dissuade me from running. As a matter of fact, most people were very confident that, with the story that I had and the way that I look at issues and the way I react to them and talk to people, I was actually a very good candidate to run in this district.
My district has almost 57,000 veterans in it ... It was gerrymandered to be a Republican district on-paper [and] wasn’t built for a traditional Democratic candidate [but] ... you don’t find many Marine Corps fighter pilots running for Congress on a Democratic ticket these days, so I have ... background and life experiences that match up with a very large portion of the district, with all the veterans.
It’s a tough race but ... there’s a legitimate path to victory here. We just have to do the hard work necessary to get the voters to the polls in November.
Do you and your team think of yourselves as underdogs?
We really take it on a day-by-day basis in our campaign. We know the measures we want to put out. We know where my opponent has made mistakes in the district here. He spent basically his entire time in office dealing with national-level Tea Party-type issues and ignoring the local issues here at home that matter to south Texas — whether it’s on education, on infrastructure, on our communities [or] veterans issue.
You mentioned a bit ago that you're not a typical Democrat, in terms of your background. So why are you a Democrat, despite the fact that a lot of people with similar life experiences become conservatives or Republicans?
There’re a couple reasons. I grew up a lot of my young adult life as a Republican. My dad is very conservative. My mom is very independent. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when I started working at FedEx as an airline pilot and became involved with the labor union there ... After 9/11, I saw a concerted effort by company interests and potentially government interests to not really recognize the seriousness of the threat we [pilots] faced ... [We] were very vocal about trying to make sure we all had secure cockpit doors on our planes, and I saw a big pushback from [the company] because they were worried about the costs ... That’s when I realized corporate America didn't always have the best interest of everybody in America at heart.
Then, a couple years after that, my dad came down with cancer. The insurance company he had been paying for a long, long, long, long time basically canceled his insurance, and he was forced to go into his life savings to pay for his healthcare, and I realized that wasn’t right. I saw the tremendous increase in healthcare costs spiraling out of control in the late 2000s for our healthcare plans. Just a combination of events happened in the early 2000s that basically turned me from being a Republican into being a Democrat.
When I was doing some research in preparation for this interview, I saw at least one left-wing site refer to you as a "conservative Democrat." Do you self-identify as a conservative Democrat?
It’s so hard to put labels on people these days, because there are so many different issues ... I was labeled a conservative Democrat because I understand the need for us to spend our money wisely. I would not say I am conservative in other areas. I believe in equal rights for everybody. I believe in everyone having access to the American dream. I believe in a strong Social Security and Medicare system. I believe in equal pay for equal work. I believe in women’s choice issues. I believe in labor unions.
I portray myself more as a Texas Democrat than a conservative Democrat. I believe strongly in individual liberties and that the government can sometimes be too intrusive in what Americans and Texans are trying to do. There are ways we can spend our money better on the national level. There are programs I’m not sure need to be funded the way they are now. And others that need to be funded better with different mechanisms. That’s why some people were trying to say I’d be considered a conservative Democrat, because of fiscal issues in some areas.
About your opponent, Rep. Farenthold: He's made a name for himself by being associated with the Tea Party movement, and has gotten even more national from Bill Maher's designating him as a target in the upcoming elections. Do people in your district express any frustration or concerns to you about how much their congressman is a national rather than local figure?
They certainly do. And you hear that ... from Democrats and Independents and moderate Republicans — especially small-business owners.
My opponent is on Bill Maher’s radar because the people in the district let Bill Maher know what he was doing down here ... Every time my opponent goes on national TV and talks about whether the president is legitimately elected or withholding the attorney general’s pay or issues like that, [voters in his district] just cringe.
There are so many things that could be done down here in south Texas for the community with a congressman that is focused on these issues — making sure that the Army people have the funding in place to modernize and continue to be able to be as successful as possible; making sure that the ports down here have the money they need to expand and accept the next generation of super tankers, etc. — [and voters] just don’t see somebody up there representing them.
Why do you think it is that Rep. Farenthold seems to focus more on the broader, national conservative movement than his district? Is it because he believes his district is so gerrymandered that he doesn't need to worry too much about securing reelection?
That certainly might be a good way to describe it. If you’re not in this job for the right reason ... you’re really there to maximize your name among people who might possibly help you out down the road. To that end, if you can make yourself more appealing to national figureheads that have nothing to do with your district that may reward you with more funding for your races, or give you an office because you’re willing to say anything or do anything that they push forward for you to speak about. I think that’s how he looks at things, possibly.
Since you're a Marine, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you to weigh in on the campaign against ISIS. Are you comfortable with the president's policy thus far, or do you worry that it's either not enough or risks mission creep?
I’m very comfortable with where we are now. ... When we got involved over there to protect the Yazidis, we were doing it to prevent genocide, and that’s something we should do. We are the greatest country on the face of the Earth, we have the tools necessary to stop genocide if we so choose to do so ... Our going back in there now, after seeing the atrocities that ISIL was looking to perpetrate on the local people there in Iraq, it was the right decision to do.
I think ISIS/ISIL has made a huge mistake in beheading one of our citizens and broadcasting it on TV. There is a newfound vigor among other countries in the world to address them and their violence and I think there’s talk now of Great Britain and Australia, France, other countries getting involved, too. You have states in the Middle East that are unhappy with ISIS/ISIL, that want to get involved, too, and try to stop them in their tracks. I’m comfortable with where we are now.