In 1964, Congressman Joe Kilgore of the 15th district sought to run a primary challenge against Senator Ralph Yarborough. Yarborough was the leader of the liberal wing of the Texas Democrats, and Kilgore was one of the more conservative Democrats. However, President Johnson put the kibosh on it, and he then decided to retire. Kilgore’s district was strongly Latino and a change was rather overdue in the district that elected “Cactus Jack” Garner and Lloyd Bentsen. This change came with Eligio “Kika” de la Garza (1927-2017).
Although liberals had hoped that de la Garza as a Mexican-American would be a change from the district’s business-as-usual politics and side with them, he proved to be something of a disappointment for them. While less conservative and more supportive of civil rights than his predecessor, de la Garza still cast numerous votes that met the disapproval of liberals and proved highly favorable to business interests in the district. Americans for Democratic Action’s ratings would sure suggest this was the case. In 1965, he scored a 21%, while in 1975, he scored an 11%. Conservative organizations didn’t think him that conservative, but liberals thought him conservative beyond justification for his district. As Burka & Smith (1976) put it, “Liberals and radical Chicano groups detest him with an antipathy bordering on the irrational. His record is far more balanced than they would have you believe – he supported the Voting Rights Act, for example – but it does reflect a dismal opposition to social programs which would ease the poverty of his constituents: against a child nutrition program, against an agency for consumer protection, against supplying food stamps to households of striking workers, and for crippling amendments to a bill providing legal services to the poor”. The voters didn’t agree, continually reelecting him by wide margins. Indeed, de la Garza did back some key anti-poverty programs and was more supportive of the Great Society than he got credit for. As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, agriculture became his specialty.
Texas Monthly considered him to be one of the worst of the Texas delegation, crediting whatever success he has had to the district’s longtime administrative assistant, Cecelia Hare Martin, who worked previously for predecessors Lloyd Bentsen and Joe Kilgore. It also identified him as a conservative Democrat, although his lifetime record was moderate, scoring a 41% on the MC-Index. In 1978, de la Garza was invited by Representative Leo J. Ryan to accompany him on his visit to Jonestown, which he fortunately declined. Although the chairmanship of the House Agriculture Committee had been taken from Texas in the ouster of Bob Poage, it would be back to Texas with de la Garza in 1981. He would serve in this capacity for fourteen years, making him the longest serving chairman of the House Agriculture Committee in American history. De la Garza would be crucial in the passage of omnibus farm bills in 1981, 1985, and 1990. As with many Southern Democrats, his record grew more liberal in the 1980s as more party loyalty was expected when facing off against conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan. From 1989 to 1991, he chaired the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a group he had helped found in 1976. In 1993, de la Garza was a key player in getting NAFTA passed in Congress, and condemned colleagues who wanted to use the law to impose numerous conditions on Mexico as well as certain unnamed members for making “anti-Mexican slurs” (Cooper).
In 1994, the Democrats lost control of Congress, thus de la Garza was out as chairman. He saw no reason to run for another term given the end of his role and retired in 1997. De la Garza is another example of the sort of Democrat who was quite electable in old Texas, and indeed, the sort which is in very short supply today. The historically Democratic district he represented remains a Democratic district to this day, but only leans so now as in 2020 it went for Biden by only two points. If serving in Congress today, de la Garza would probably be the House’s most conservative Democrat despite being a moderate in his day.
Burka, P. & Smith, G. (1976, May). The Best, the Worst, and the Fair-To-Middlin’. Texas Monthly.
Cooper, K.J. (1993, November 18). House Approves U.S.-Canada-Mexico Trade Pact on 234 to 200 Vote, Giving Clinton Big Victory. The Washington Post.
Eligio “Kika” de la Garza II. Library of Congress.
Garcia, E. (2017, March 14). Former Rep. Eligio ‘Kika’ de la Garza Dies at 89. Roll Call.