In our pre-Thanksgiving political climate, you could feel bad blood simmering between longtime Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett and state Rep. Joaquin Castro, both entering what appeared to be a season of hard slogging in the newly created Congressional District 35. But in a heartbeat, all those “Loyd Doggett for Congress” signs around town are irrelevant. He’s got his Austin-based district back. Water under bridge, QueQue’s told.
As anticipated, the day before Thanksgiving a trio of San Antonio federal judges redrew the original Republican-driven Statehouse and congressional maps approved in the Lege this year. The decision comes after a panel of federal judges in D.C. denied Texas’ efforts to pass the maps without a trial, saying Texas used an improper standard to determine if minority representation was harmed by the GOP-drawn map (Justice Department lawyers had previously insisted the maps would disenfranchise minority voters). The new judge-drawn maps sparked a holiday weekend of political shifts.
Longtime Democratic Congressman Charlie Gonzalez’s announced retirement on Friday (a decision hinged on family obligations, he said) shook the landscape even more, inspiring Castro to jump at the opening D20 territory, held by Gonzalez and his late-father before him for the past half-century. Castro made his announcement Saturday to a small crowd of supporters on the Westside, lauding the Gonzalez legacy. “There is no more remarkable family in public service, in San Antonio and in South Texas, than the Gonzalez family.”
It’s an odd twist, considering Gonzalez sued the state to challenge GOP-drawn congressional lines that trimmed away much of downtown San Antonio from his district, including the convention center that bears the elder Gonzalez’s name. And even more ironic considering that in trial testimony, a GOP lawyer that helped guide the state through redistricting claimed Castro, along with state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, helped move downtown and Hispanic neighborhoods out of Gonzalez’s D20 and into the newly-created D35, Castro’s battleground until his Saturday switch.
He told the crowd Saturday: “This has probably been the strangest week of my life.”
In the crowd QueQue sensed a collective sigh of relief. Doggett, Austin’s liberal lion, keeps his seat, while a rising Democratic star, Castro, gets his chance at the big leagues — all with minimal infighting. “Of course we’re relieved,” said Chair of the Bexar County Democratic Party Choco Meza. “We’re happy today that Doggett gets to keep his district, that the Southside is intact, and that Joaquin can run in his home district.” Castro currently lives in D20, the district where his grandmother settled after moving from Mexico nearly a century ago, he said.
It’s relief mixed with a mild dose of uncertainty. State Attorney General Gregg Abbott asked the U.S. Supreme Court Monday to stop the implementation of the new court-drawn maps. “It is judicial activism at its worst for judges to draw redistricting maps of their own choosing despite no finding of wrongdoing by the state of Texas,” Abbott said in a prepared release. Groups involved in the redistricting case have until Thursday to respond. Meanwhile, candidates across the state are starting to file. And the Supremes may prove reluctant to grant Abbott his emergency stay with primary battles already forming, Michael Li, an elections lawyer and close redistricting watcher, told the Express-News this week. “It’s harder to put the genie back in the bottle.”
More than 1.1 million Americans are living with AIDS today, and with all we understand about transmission, it’s hard to fathom that the number of new HIV infections in San Antonio continue along an ugly plateau virtually unabated with hundreds of new cases each year. Within Latino and African-American communities the current transmission rates is as much as three times higher than among the white population. Vanessa Gonzales, director of prevention for the San Antonio AIDS Foundation, says that increase among Latinos is partly linked to a lingering stigma about the disease (“This has always been known as a gay man’s disease,” she said), language barriers (“They don’t get access to the info and don’t get access to testing”) and patterns of “dating closer to home” among both blacks and Latinos. Yet it can be difficult to track the rates of new infections to gauge whether or not outreach efforts are being successful. The most recent data available through the city’s Metro Health department, for instance, dates to 2009.
While new AIDS diagnoses peaked in the 1990s (in the 300-400 per year range) they’ve since declined to about 200 per year, according to Metro Health statistics. Meanwhile, new HIV infections continue at a pace well above what was seen in the 1990s. There were 312 new HIV infections diagnosed in 2009. It’s a number that’s stayed elevated well over 1990 figures since 2000.
Also troubling is the continued rise in syphilis cases diagnosed in SA: 705 in 2009, compared to under 400 in 2007, and just above 200 in 2003. Considering these are mostly 20-somethings being diagnosed, it’s not a stretch to suggest that public-school educations play a factor. According to the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, only 3.6 percent of Texas schools taught any form of sex ed (outside the “don’t do it” abstinence-only variety that doesn’t qualify as education) during the 2008-2009 school year. “What we found was that most abstinence-only programs don’t provide accurate information about [contraceptive] effectiveness. If they mention them at all, they say there’s no evidence to suggest they work,” said Dan Quinn, TFN’s communications director. “They suggest things like boys are microwaves and girls are like crock-pots, they heat up more slowly so it’s up to them to shut [the boys] down.” Fortunately, the number of districts offering sex ed has grown to 25 percent last school year, according to data collected by the Texas Education Agency and released by TFN. In San Antonio, for instance, San Antonio Independent School District made the switch to abstinence-“plus” education from abstinence-only. NEISD continues offering ab-plus, according to TFN. Back in the stone ages? Northside ISD. (A call to confirm was still unreturned by press deadline.)
Back at Metro Health, spokesperson Carol Schliesinger said the high HIV rates aren’t about people not caring, it’s about not knowing. “The interesting thing that I’ve learned is that people have no idea what their status is,” she said. No more excuses. During this San Antonio AIDS Awareness Week, take advantage of SAAF’s free testing day on Thursday, December 1 (8am-7pm, 818 E Grayson). Metro Health will offer free HIV screenings the same day at Monterrey Park (10am-4pm, Sonny Melendez Community Center, 5909 W Commerce). •
Gonzalez fades back and Castro weaves for his opening D20 spot (with tuba aficionado attorney Ezra Johnson and fellow state Rep. José Menéndez threatening his tail). Dancing on the side is Bexar's Tax Assessor Sylvia Romo and former U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez going at it in D35 (possibly). Doggett? That's Austin's game again.
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